The 2002 U.S. Senior Open at Caves Valley lost its biggest draw yesterday when Jack Nicklaus was forced to withdraw with a back injury.
The news that Nicklaus had pulled out of the $2.5 million major championship, scheduled to begin Thursday at Caves Valley Golf Club in Owings Mills, didn't come as a surprise to those familiar with the 62-year-old legend's ongoing physical problems.
It marks the second time this year that Nicklaus couldn't play in a major because of his recurring back troubles. Nicklaus also skipped the Masters in April and said at the time that he planned on playing in Baltimore. He had been undergoing therapy and had made some progress.
"I am better, but not good enough to play golf," Nicklaus said yesterday in a statement released by the U.S. Golf Association. "I have had great improvement, but not good enough to play in a four-day tournament."
Said Jim Flick, the general chairman of the Open who is also a member of the board of directors at Caves Valley, "I knew he's been having some back problems. I'm sure Jack would not have withdrawn if it were not in the best interest of the championship."
The decision by the man who holds the record of 18 major professional championships - a figure that doesn't include seven Senior PGA Tour major championships, including two Senior Open titles - was met with great disappointment by fellow players, fans and tournament officials alike.
"I know he's just been hurting so much," said former two-time Masters champion Ben Crenshaw, who played with Nicklaus at the year's first major, The Tradition, in late April and will be competing in his first Senior Open. "I know it must be bothering him a lot for him to pull out. In these conditions, he's always dangerous. That's too bad."
Reigning Senior Open champion Bruce Fleisher, who held off Nicklaus and several other players to win last year at Salem Country Club in Peabody, Mass., said that his wife, Wendy, had recently spoken with Nicklaus' wife, Barbara, and got the feeling that he wouldn't be able to play this week.
"I think it's a big loss," Fleisher said as he worked on his putting yesterday afternoon. "We need Jack Nicklaus, not only because of his greatness. He's been the strength of the PGA Tour and the senior tour for five decades. I sympathize with him. He's got to be hurting a lot not to play."
Tom Watson, whose rivalry with Nicklaus defined the younger player's career and whose famous victory over Nicklaus in the 1982 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach legitimized his ascension to the No. 1 ranking in golf, could see last week how much pain Nicklaus was in when they played together in Watson's charity event in Kansas City, Mo.
"He was unable to swing a golf club," said Watson, who should be among the favorites here this week. "I didn't figure he was going to be able to play."
Nicklaus withdrew after two rounds of the last senior major, the Senior PGA Championship, earlier this month at Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. Nicklaus had shot a 1-over-par 71 in rainy and cold conditions in the opening round but struggled to a 79 the next day.
Nicklaus had twice won the Senior Open, at Oakland Hills outside Detroit in 1991 and at Cherry Hills outside Denver in 1993. Nicklaus wound up tied for fourth in last year's Open. As recently as a month ago at The Memorial Tournament, the event Nicklaus plays host to in Dublin, Ohio, he had played well enough to make the cut.
"I was kidding Tiger [Woods] that I beat him two of the four days," Nicklaus said.
But in preparing for The Memorial, and playing the day after in an outing for members and volunteers, Nicklaus acknowledged that he had overdone it.
"I played about 13 straight days and I was pretty much worn out," he said in Akron.
There was some hope that Nicklaus would come to Caves Valley and attempt to play. But the thought of walking the demanding and hilly 7,005-yard course probably made him realize that he would not have a legitimate chance to win.
Unlike his greatest rival, Arnold Palmer, Nicklaus acknowledges that he plays golf more for his own satisfaction than to give his longtime fans another thrill.
"I think Arnold and I are a little bit of different animals from that standpoint, probably a lot different animals from that standpoint," Nicklaus said before the recent Senior PGA Championship.
"I've never had the ability to be a ceremonial golfer. I tried it on several occasions, and I was never able to do it. If I was going to be out there, I had to give 100 percent to what I was doing. I could not go and just go through the motions."
Tom Meeks, the USGA's director of Rules and Competition, was the person Nicklaus called yesterday with the news.
"We'd love to have Jack Nicklaus," Meeks said. "He did sound optimistic about the most recent diagnosis. He feels that within a few months, he won't have any pain. But we would give anything to have him here."