Don't tell Jack he still can't Bear it

JOHN EISENBERG

April 09, 1993|By JOHN EISENBERG

AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Jack Nicklaus was making his way through the crowd gathered at the first tee at Augusta National, the sun raining down, a gentle breeze touching the tall pines, when someone said to him: "Did you see what Arnie did?"

Nicklaus, tanned and trim and 53 years old, shook his head. "No," he said, "what'd he do?"

Came the answer: "Birdied the first three holes, he did."

Nicklaus smiled. Shook his head. Should have known, he thought. He had heard those lions' roars out on the course. Who else could it be? Masters galleries still cheer for Palmer as no other, even though he is 63, wears a hearing aid and hasn't made the cut here since 1983.

Competitors at the pinnacle of the game 30 years ago, Palmer and Nicklaus are just old friends now, their rivalry quashed by time. They had played practice rounds together the previous two days, sharing laughs, applause and a side bet or three, together at last in valedictory.

When Nicklaus heard about the birdies, though, the strangest sensation overcame him. Champions in all sports tend to possess an intrinsic competitiveness that never flames out, and it flickered in Nicklaus. He got jealous.

"Well, I couldn't let Arnold be low senior," Nicklaus said later, smiling. "I guess we're kind of still competing after all these years."

Nicklaus moved to the tee, hit his drive down the middle and stuck a wedge shot seven feet from the pin. As he stood over the putt, he thought about Arnie.

"I'm always nervous starting out here," Nicklaus said, "but I was in a more positive frame of mind, thinking about matching Arnold. Maybe it was enough to make me strike the putt with more confidence."

He matched that birdie with another on No. 2, and off he went on a startling 67 that included putts of 25 and 15 feet, and put him in a tie for the first-round lead. Palmer's slip to 74 was predictable, even inevitable, although still among his best Masters rounds of the last decade.

There was reason to believe that Nicklaus finally was heading toward the same state of benign eldership. Last year was his worst as a pro. He missed the cut in three of four majors for the first time, failed to win a Senior Tour event and talked about quitting if his sore hip did not improve. What other conclusion was there to draw except that maybe it was time to shut it down?

But then came yesterday, that spark on the first tee, those four birdies and an eagle and, in the end, another possible conclusion to contemplate.

"Can you honestly sit here at 53," a reporter asked in the interview room, "and tell us you have a realistic chance to win the Masters?"

Said Nicklaus: "If I'm wasting your time in here, I'll leave."

Remember, his career was supposedly over in 1979. He won two majors in 1980. He was written off in 1986. Won the Masters with a final-round 65. Won his first Seniors Tour event after disparaging it in 1990.

Maybe it's a stretch to envision him winning the Masters at 53, but it's what he has done all his life: Put his mind to something tough, and done it. He's a quarter-century older than Bo Jackson, but not much different. Tell him he can't do something, and he exhausts himself trying to do it.

He talked yesterday about renewing his body, exercising every day, rehabbing his bum hip, losing pounds. But, of course, Nicklaus with designs on a Masters at 53 has to be a story of the mind above all else. Another story about perhaps the most strong-willed athlete of our time.

"Why would it be so phenomenal for me to win here at 53?" he asked. "I just don't see where age has a whole lot to do with it."

He pointed out how different he is than the other greats who slipped at the end, Hogan, Snead, Nelson, Palmer, all of whom suddenly couldn't putt.

"They still controlled the ball [on the tees and fairways] as well as ever, just couldn't get it in the hole," Nicklaus said. "I'm the opposite. I'm putting as well as ever. My problem has been controlling the ball. And that's coming back."

You can't say stranger things have happened, for no golfer in his 50s has won a major. But if it's going to happen, it's going to happen here at Augusta National, where the old pros know the rolls and the young stars just get scared.

"But," someone asked, "doesn't it bother you that some people might say you're too old?"

Nicklaus scrunched up his nose. "Why," he said, "would you even ask me that question?"

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