Rough Start Despite a bad back, distressing news from Augusta and his worst finish as a Senior, Jack Nicklaus found an upside to his return to competition, at the Tradition

May 05, 2002

Outlined against hulking Superstition Mountain in the pale
morning light, a familiar swing sent another ball soaring
through the desert air. A gathering of fans murmured approval,
but the golfer was displeased. "One-eighty," Jack Nicklaus
derisively muttered, mocking how far he had hit the
practice-range drive. Perspiration formed on his weathered face
as he leaned on his driver and gingerly bent over to tee up
another ball. Nicklaus took a deep breath and straightened to
stretch his back. As he grimaced, he spied a cameraman from PGA
Tour Productions nosing between the men around him--his coach,
Jim Flick; his caddie, Scott Lubin; and television commentator
Ian Baker-Finch, who had stopped by before Sunday's telecast of
the final round of the Countrywide Tradition. The cameraman
asked Nicklaus if he could film a few swings. Nicklaus chuckled,
pretending to be perplexed. "Why would anybody want a shot of
this?" he asked. "I wouldn't."

Jack is back, sort of, although he's playing a game with which he
is not familiar. There are no more towering iron shots and
intimidating drives. Because of his tender back, the 62-year-old
Nicklaus is unable to create power by driving through a shot with
his legs. There aren't enough putts dropping either. What's left
is the heart and the mind of the greatest golfer of the 20th
century, and last week, playing in his first real tournament
since last July, that was enough to produce 16 birdies as well as
a wind-whipped one-under-par 71 on Friday that easily could've
been a 66 had his short game been sharper.

Nicklaus's return put a much-needed skip in the step of the
Tradition, the Senior tour's first so-called major championship
of the season. This year the tournament was moved from the Golf
Club at Desert Mountain's Cochise course to the Prospector course
at Superstition Mountain, east of Mesa, Ariz. There has also been
talk, unconfirmed, that the tournament could be downsized as soon
as next year, its status as a major transferred to the Senior
British Open.

Jim Thorpe and John Jacobs enlivened the finish. The $300,000
first prize went to Thorpe, who birdied the 72nd hole to catch
Jacobs, then birdied it again to end a playoff. (Jacobs's
four-foot bid to extend overtime beyond a single hole dived
halfway into the cup, but then the hole spat out the ball like a
cat coughing up a hair ball.) Jacobs, who lives in nearby
Scottsdale, salved his disappointment later by popping open a can
of Michelob Light and saying, "I should've had one of these
before the playoff."

The dramatic ending sent everyone home happy, but nobody pleased
the crowds more than Nicklaus, who drew big galleries even on
Sunday as he put the finishing touches on a 12-over-par 300. That
left him in 69th place in the 78-man field, his worst finish ever
on the Senior tour. Nicklaus, though, caused a roar when he
rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole. "I always do
that," he said. "It leaves a better taste."

He needed something to savor. The optimism of the first two
days--Nicklaus opened with a 73 and was in 24th place at the
midway point--turned to discouragement on the weekend. When his
back acted up on the back nine on Saturday, so did his score, and
he wound up with an 81, his worst round as a Senior. The nadir
was a triple-bogey 7 on the 15th hole. Nicklaus pulled his drive
into a hazard, and when his attempt to chop out of the rocks
failed, he was forced to go back and hit another tee shot. Not
wanting to further hold up play, Nicklaus rode to the tee in a
cart. Big mistake. "By the time I got back there to hit, I could
hardly move," Nicklaus said. "I was worn down. That was eight
days of golf in a row. That's more than I played back when I used
to play."

Jim Holtgrieve, whose pairing with Nicklaus on Saturday was a
reprise of their first-round draw in the 1983 Masters, knew
something was wrong. "Jack said he wasn't in pain, but you could
see that he couldn't finish his swing," Holtgrieve said. "He'd
flip his hands through the shot. On 16 he called me over because
his stance was on a sprinkler head and he wanted to take a drop.
He almost couldn't pick up his ball. After the round he came out
to the range and tried to hit a few wedge shots, but he couldn't
do it."

The harsh reality was that after two promising days, Nicklaus
looked and played his age on the weekend. He also learned his
lesson about sitting in a cart. On Sunday morning, when he rode a
cart from the putting green to the 10th tee, he didn't sit on the
seat. He stood on the back bumper of the cart instead, hanging on
to the roof supports as if he were a forecaddie.

Clearly, Nicklaus has reached the final chapter of his
competitive career. The question is, How many pages are left?
Nicklaus says that one of his doctors describes the X-rays of his
spine as a "war zone" and isn't sure if surgery would help.
Nicklaus says he has now sent MRIs of his back to a host of
doctors and has received four different opinions about what's
wrong. "That really put me in a funk," he said. Realistically,
the odds on the heavily damaged back of a 62-year-old improving
markedly are too long even for Phil Mickelson to wager on.
Regardless, history and your heart tell you never to write off
someone like Nicklaus.

Unless you're the Masters. The new guidelines announced last week
by tournament chairman Hootie Johnson mean that next year's
Masters will most likely be Nicklaus's last. Starting in 2004,
past champions 65 and older won't be allowed to compete, and
other past champions must have played in at least 15 tournaments
the previous year to remain eligible. Nicklaus is unlikely to
enter that many tournaments next year even if his back--and his
game--recover. In addition to Nicklaus, 2003 will also be the swan
song for 66-year-old Gary Player; Tommy Aaron, 65; and Charles
Coody, who'll turn 65 in July. "I'm hurt by it, like everyone
else," says Nicklaus, who became a member of Augusta National
last year. "You're hurt the most by the things you love the most,
and I love the Masters a lot. This is a tough spot."

Nicklaus called Johnson after the new policy was revealed. "We
talked a long time," said Nicklaus, who argued against the
restrictions by saying he probably wouldn't have been eligible to
play in the 1986 Masters, which he won, had the new rules been in
place then. A check of the records, however, shows that Nicklaus
played in exactly 15 tournaments in 1985. Since '86, though, he
would've been eligible only four times. Nicklaus has no problem
with the age limit, only the minimum, which he feels is
arbitrary. "I don't want to spout off, especially since I'm a
member," he said on Sunday as he trudged to the clubhouse
following his round, "but how many Masters do you think Ben Hogan
would've played if they'd had this rule?"

Gary Player said that Clifford Roberts, the first Masters
chairman, promised him that he could play in the tournament as
long as he lived. "They gave Arnold [Palmer] an opportunity to
play until he was 72, then all of a sudden they come out with
65," Player said last week. "I'm sad and surprised. I was trying
to become the oldest player to make the cut."

The biggest surprise of Johnson's announcement was that the new
rules weren't performance-based, especially when you take recent
history into account. Aaron made the cut as recently as 2000,
while Player last made it in '98, the same year Nicklaus was in
contention on Sunday.

Other Seniors, such as Raymond Floyd and Tom Watson, applauded
Johnson's move. (Watson even faxed Johnson a letter of support.)
Floyd, 59, called the changes fair and regretted that they were
necessary. "We're kind of a club, the past champions," he said.
"As a group, we probably abused [the lifetime exemption]
somewhat. Guys teed off and withdrew every year. Playing one or
three holes and withdrawing got to be the norm, not the
exception."

Floyd claimed that Johnson had precedent for the new policy. In
1971, Floyd said, Roberts sent letters to several older past
champions asking them not to play. Gay Brewer, Billy Casper and
Doug Ford received similar letters this year from Johnson. The
new policy means that Ford, 79, has a stranglehold on the record
for most starts in the Masters, with 49. To eclipse that mark, a
player would have to qualify for the tournament when he was 16
and play every year until age 65.

Even though he was disappointed with the news from Augusta and
his play on the weekend, Nicklaus left Arizona feeling better
about the state of his game than he has in a year. "I've been
moping around," he admitted. "I wasn't sure if I'd ever play
again." Finally regaining full strength after having his left hip
replaced in January 1999, Nicklaus began to have problems with
his back after a lengthy practice session at the Liberty Mutual
Legends of Golf in April 2001, "and it hasn't stopped hurting one
day since then," he said. The week before the Tradition, though,
Nicklaus used an electronic stimulator on his abdominal muscles,
and he felt well enough to tee it up in a tournament for the
first time since he pulled out after the first round of last
summer's Ford Senior Players Championship. Now at least he has
hope. Early in the week at Superstition Mountain he said he
didn't care about competitive golf anymore, but by tournament's
end he had hit enough good shots to say that he was looking
forward to playing in his own tournament, the Memorial, on May
23-26, with Tiger Woods. He also predicted that he would contend
in a Senior tour event before the year is out.

After patiently signing autographs on Sunday, Nicklaus took an
ambitious shortcut to the parking lot, up a steep bank covered
with loose stones. "This wasn't such a great idea," he admitted
halfway up as he struggled to keep his footing. With a nudge from
behind by two security guards and a steadying arm from an
acquaintance, he made it safely to the top. "Thanks for the
push," Nicklaus said to the guards.

It wasn't much, but like his week at the Tradition, a little push
was enough to keep Nicklaus going.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPH BY DARREN CARROLL Big trouble Nicklaus fell apart on the back nine on Saturday, making a triple bogey at 15 en route to an 81, his highest score as a Senior. COLOR PHOTO: J.D. CUBAN Small ball Known for his length, Thorpe won with his short game (page G24). COLOR PHOTO: J.D. CUBAN Stretched to the limit Jacobs was caught on the final hole of regulation, and he lost the playoff when he missed a four-footer. COLOR PHOTO: J.D. CUBAN Fan fave As accommodating as ever, Nicklaus brought much-needed star power to a tournament that is a major in name only.

"You're hurt the most by the things you love the most," said
Nicklaus, "and I love the Masters a lot. This is a tough spot."

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)