For Nicklaus, a probable farewell

Teary legend misses cut, says he's unlikely to play another round at Masters

The Masters

April 10, 2005|By Don Markus | Don Markus,SUN STAFF

AUGUSTA, Ga. - Whether or not it was the last time Jack Nicklaus played at Augusta National in the Masters, those who watched the tournament's six-time champion play yesterday will remember what happened on the ninth hole.

It was the final hole for the 65-year old legend, having started the weather-delayed second round of the 69th Masters on the 10th tee the previous day. As Nicklaus walked up after hitting a 6-iron close to the flagstick, he cried.

"I sort of lost it coming up to the green," Nicklaus said later. "I could never get it back to hit my putt. I would have liked to have finished with a birdie."

Instead, Nicklaus missed a 4-footer and made par, completing his 45th - and possibly last - Masters with scores of 5-over-par 77 and 4-over 76 to miss the cut for the fourth straight time.

Though his performance was better than he imagined given how little he has played since undergoing back surgery in November, and given what he and his family have gone through since the death of his 18-month old grandson last month, it was probably not enough to keep perhaps the game's greatest player coming back to compete.

"I'll come back to come to the Masters dinner. I'll come back to play the par-3 [tournament]. I think I can reach most of those greens. But I don't think I'll venture on the golf course again for a tournament round," he said. "Unless I can gain 10 mile-an-hour club-head speed, then I'm not coming back. How is that?"

Finishing on the ninth hole rather than the 18th was a little strange - it occurred after tournament officials moved to a two-tee start following Thursday's 5 1/2 -hour rain delay and prompting Nicklaus to joke, "I wanted to walk over to the 18th green, but they wouldn't let me."

It didn't matter to the fans, many of whom showed a deep appreciation for the memories Nicklaus provided them with at the Masters and throughout his career.

"Thanks, Jack," could be heard over and over as he was driven away from the scorer's tent to the press building, where he received a standing ovation from the media after his post-round news conference.

Asked if he soaked up the atmosphere of a place that had been such a huge part of his life, starting as a 19-year-old amateur, Nicklaus said, "I don't really do that. That's not me. I was trying to shoot a good score and trying to make the cut is what I was trying to do out there today."

He admittedly didn't give much thought to the fans who looked at yesterday's round as a historic farewell.

"I don't know how you phrase that, but I'm not really too worried about that," he said. "This is not a celebrity walk-around. This is a golf tournament. It's a major golf tournament, and if you're going to play in this championship, you should be competitive and you should be able to compete with who is out there. If they want to say goodbye, they had to hurry up today. ... I don't consider myself a tournament golfer anymore."

Nicklaus plans on playing his final British Open in July at St. Andrews.

"I think you know my two favorite places in the game of golf are Augusta National and St. Andrews, and I'm going to hit both of them this year," Nicklaus said. "Having a great number of memorable experiences on this golf course and this tournament, you know, it's a treasure for me and I'll miss that greatly."

In discussing how to preserve the history of the tournament without embarrassing its former champions in light of Billy Casper shooting 106 in the opening round Thursday, Nicklaus might have hit on an idea of how to accommodate those who can't compete anymore but still remain popular with the fans.

"What would be nice, you have the Par-3 event [on Wednesday before the tournament], but have an event on Tuesday or Wednesday where the champions play and that gives the fans a chance to see them," said Nicklaus, who was one of two dozen former British Open champions to play in a similar event at St. Andrews in 2000.

Nicklaus made it clear that he doesn't plan on becoming a ceremonial tournament starter as Byron Nelson, Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead used to be. The tradition was scrapped after Snead died in 2002.

"I have no interest in that whatsoever," he said.

Would he ever change his mind and play again in the Masters?

"I'm not positive ever of anything," he said. "Arnold [Palmer] changed his mind about how many times? I mean, didn't he? Yeah, I have the right to change my mind ... When they shorten the holes another 30 yards, and that ain't going to happen, either."

As he finished his round, Nicklaus received a warm hug from playing partner Jay Haas, who also had trouble keeping his emotions in check. Nicklaus then handed his ball and glove to his son, Jackie.

"I said, `Keep the ball, keep the glove,'" Nicklaus said later. "I don't want to see it on eBay tomorrow."

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