A Legend's Fond Farewell

At the birthplace of golf Jack Nicklaus the competitor finally let go of the game, and in response the fans at St. Andrews embraced him closer than ever
July 24, 2005


I was smiling last Friday afternoon when Jack Nicklaus stood on the little stone bridge and waved to us. And when I say us, I mean the thousands of spectators who packed the grandstands on the Old Course; the hundreds more standing on tiptoe on the narrow street that runs along the 18th fairway or leaning out of windows or peering through binoculars; and the unseen millions watching on televisions around the world. ¶ We were there to see Nicklaus wrap up his tournament career with a nostalgic last visit to St. Andrews, which is not only the birthplace of golf but also the terrain upon which Nicklaus won two of his record 18 major championships. To mark the occasion, the Royal Bank of Scotland had issued £5 banknotes bearing the golfer's image--an honor previously accorded to only two living persons, Queen Elizabeth II and the Queen Mother--while less-well-heeled entrepreneurs hawked ball caps bearing a Golden Bear logo and the words jack's farewell.

The real currency was emotion. Five-time British Open champion Tom Watson, Nicklaus's playing partner for two days, teared up as he walked off the 18th tee alongside the man he beat in the famous Duel in the Sun at Turnberry in 1977. ("What Jack has accomplished has been unsurpassed by anybody who has ever played the game," Watson said afterward.) Luke Donald, the talented young Englishman who rounded out the threesome, was amazed to see people cheering Nicklaus from rooftops and hotel balconies, while a contingent of Tour players lined up in front of the Royal & Ancient clubhouse to, as Donald put it, "clap him in."

But I was smiling. I figured that Nicklaus--even a 65-year-old Nicklaus with surgery scars and a titanium hip--still had something left for his fans. That was apparent early on Thursday morning, when Nicklaus and Watson both birdied their first hole of the tournament. (A spectator yelled, "Another duel in the sun!" To which Jack wryly replied, "So far.") It was confirmed on a later hole when he smacked a nearly full-length version of one of those high, fading tee shots he once employed to power around doglegs and soar over trees. I smiled even though Nicklaus three-putted five times on his way to a first-round 75, a score that made it unlikely he could achieve his declared goal of surviving the 36-hole cut and playing on the weekend.

Granted, my chin quivered a bit when Nicklaus showed up hatless for his second round. I'm old enough to remember his crew cut, the brutal 'do he wore when he was a beefy 22-year-old getting his first professional win at the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont, beating Arnold Palmer in an 18-hole playoff. (We didn't love Nicklaus then. We called him Fat Jack and prayed he would give up golf to pursue his original career choice: insurance salesman.) Sans chapeau he looked like the Nicklaus of the '60s and '70s, the dressed-by-his-wife styler with blond bangs, loud trousers and a signature gesture (raising his putter to the sky as a putt toppled) that camouflaged his essential nature as a plodding tactician.

Nicklaus had worried last week that his game might disappoint, that he might go out sloppily. "I didn't want to finish shooting a pair of 80-somethings," he said, and I smiled when I heard that. After parring number 17, the famous Road Hole, Nicklaus was only one over par for Friday's round, and all he had left was the quirky 18th hole, a short, flat par-4 as homely as a car park. The only ornament on this hole is the Swilcan Bridge, a little stone arch that players use to cross a ditch--sorry, a burn--100 yards or so off the tee. We all knew that Nicklaus would pause on the bridge to acknowledge cheers and be photographed, and we knew that the image would be iconic, something to be viewed by golfers until the end of time.

When Nicklaus stepped onto the bridge I was standing far away--maybe 250 yards off--looking back across the double fairway from the 1st tee, so I felt no compulsion to weep. It was different down by the burn, where history and sentiment had people snuffling in hankies and rubbing their eyes. (Watson, asked if Nicklaus's retirement would leave a hole in the game, said, "I don't think you can call it a hole. He leaves a mountain behind. A mountain of championship victories.") The Open Championship, momentarily stalled, resumed when Nicklaus and his entourage moved off the bridge, although the ovation continued until he reached his ball.

But here's what you have to remember: Nicklaus never wanted to be anything but a competitor. Now that he had survived the bridge and the sun-splashed moment had been bounced off a satellite to five continents, he went back to work. Using a putter from the fairway, he rolled his ball through the shadowy hollow known as the Valley of Sin, up the slope, past the pin--"Oooooh!" went the crowd--and 15 feet beyond. (Applause.) Watson and Donald quickly putted out, clearing the stage.

A hush fell over the crowd. As Nicklaus lined up his birdie putt with help from his son Steve, an occasional male voice punctuated the stillness. ("One more time, Jack!" "You can do it, Jack!") The old golfer bent over the ball the way he always has--like a question mark, his right shoulder lower than his left, his left foot turned out. That's when my eyes got blurry and my chin trembled again. Suddenly it was very important to me, to all of us, that Nicklaus make his putt, that he end his career with a birdie and a round of par at St. Andrews. He took his putter back, brought it forward, the ball ambled down the slope ... and dropped into the hole to one last roar from the crowd.

Jack lifted his putter, some startled seagulls wheeled in flight, and a couple of big tears arrived to anoint my smile. ■

A hush fell over the crowd. As Nicklaus LINED UP HIS BIRDIE PUTT with help from his son Steve, an occasional male voice punctured the stillness: "One more time, Jack...."

COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Fred Vuich FINAL FORE Nicklaus salutes the crowd after putting the finishing touch on his Friday--a closing birdie. COLOR PHOTOJOHN BIEVER KISS GOODBYE Two Open wins there only increased Nicklaus's love of St. Andrews. COLOR PHOTOPhotographs by Fred Vuich SUNSET STROLL A 75 in the first round put Nicklaus on course for a missed cut and an early departure.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
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Double Bogey (+2)