Lone Regret

Thirty-two years after the incident, Jack Nicklaus wonders if there's a blemish on his spotless career
October 15, 2006

This is theunderpinning of all tournament golf: We believe the scores. After AnnikaSorenstam plays her opening round at the Samsung World Championship this week,the AP will report that the defending champion shot some two-digit score. Noheadline will say, sorenstam claims to shoot 68. She'll turn in a score, andwe'll trust it.

"That's right," says Jack Nicklaus, about to tell a vintage (1974)story that he has never before told in public. "Without that, it all fallsapart."

Nicklaus understood the rules at a young age. In 1953, pudgy 13-year-old JackieNicklaus of Columbus, Ohio, was playing in his first national championship, theU.S. Junior at Southern Hills. "I got to the 1st tee maybe 30 secondsbefore my tee time," he says. His opponent was there, ready to go. Joe Dey,the USGA's executive director, was on the tee too. Dey was a man with a rulebook in one blazer pocket and a Bible in the other. Nicklaus remembers himsaying, "Young man, had you arrived here a half-minute later, you'd bewalking to the 2nd tee 1 down." That's the match-play penalty for showingup late--automatic loss of hole. In stroke play the penalty isdisqualification. Sure, it's harsh. Life is harsh. Young Jackie was all earswith Mr. Dey.

Nicklaus went onto play high-level amateur golf through the 1950s and on the Tour through the'60s, '70s, '80s and '90s. He was never late for a tee time. Not once. Everytime out, thousands of times all told, he counted his clubs on the 1st tee andhis strokes in the scorer's tent. His golf manners were famously pensive andlaborious--Angie, find a rules guy, he'd tell his caddie, Angelo Argea--but hewas always sure about what he was doing, and his career was unblemished by asingle rules fracas.

Yet one incidenthas been on his mind for 32 years now. During the fourth round of the 1974British Open at Royal Lytham, Nicklaus was in the hunt, trying to catch hisfriend Gary Player. On the 15th hole, a long par-4, Nicklaus's approachfinished in a pot bunker 80 yards short of the green. Nicklaus tried to blastout, but the ball caught the wall of the bunker, ricocheted off it, went overNicklaus's head and back into the trap. During his follow-through, his clubheadsmashed into the wall of the bunker "and a whole lot of crap wentflying," Nicklaus says--pieces of turf, sand, small rocks. Nicklaus loweredhis head to keep the debris out of his eyes and something hit him on the backof his shoulder.

There was a rulesofficial walking with the group--Dey, on the scene again, less than 10 feetfrom Nicklaus.

"Did the ballhit me?" Nicklaus asked. Dey, the first commissioner of the modern PGATour, was one of Nicklaus's mentors.

"No," Deysaid, "the ball went over you. It never touched you."

"O.K.then."

Nicklausbutchered the hole. In the scorer's tent, before signing his card, he turned toDey and asked again, "Are you sure?"

"Absolutely," Dey replied.

Nicklaus signedfor a 71 and finished third, five shots behind Player's winning score.

But the problemfor Nicklaus is that even though Dey was certain, Nicklaus was not, and that'sa big difference. Had the ball touched him, he would've been required to addtwo shots to his score. He knows it's possible--possible--that he signed forthe wrong score that day. "It still bothers me," he says.

PHOTOPhotograph by Walter Iooss Jr. OLDWOUND
Although an official said no, Nicklaus says he may have been nicked by his ownball at the 1974 British Open.

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)