`Golden Bear' will exit to roar

Jack Nicklaus: At 65, he will play his final round of competitive golf at this week's British Open at St. Andrews.

British Open

Thursday-Sunday * TV: TNT, Chs. 2, 7 * 2004 winner: Todd Hamilton


July 11, 2005|By David Whitley | David Whitley,ORLANDO SENTINEL

Nobody could quite believe what they were seeing that day. Perhaps because almost nobody saw it.

Jack Nicklaus swung at a golf ball, and it seemed to obey him.

Not a bad trick for a 10-year-old.

Jackie, as he was known back then, shot 51 on the first nine holes he ever played. Fifty-five years, 73 professional wins, 18 majors, one wife, five children, three body types, one hip replacement and millions of spectators later, Nicklaus' career is about to end in the perfect spot.

St. Andrews, Scotland. The game was invented there, so it's only fitting that its greatest player should hit his last competitive shot at the Old Course.

"It's just a very special place," Nicklaus said.

He's not sure how competitive he will be when the British Open begins Thursday. And far be it for Nicklaus to proclaim it the end of the greatest golf resume ever compiled.

If you look at the career money list, he's in 108th place. That's barely ahead of Neal Lancaster, who does not have a 24,000- square-foot museum in his name. Nicklaus does, though this week's event probably won't trigger any remodeling.

Old golfers don't retire; their shots just fade away on the Champions Tour. Everybody knew Nicklaus' final round was coming, so the farewell doesn't have the shock value of suddenly facing NBA life without Michael Jordan.

This week will be more of a sentimental journey through the gorse, reminding people why Nicklaus would have the prime spot on golf's Mount Rushmore.

He'd be joined there by Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson and Bobby Jones, Tiger Woods and Michelle Wie - as soon as she makes a cut. And Arnold Palmer, of course. Nicklaus and Palmer always will be joined at the ceramic hip.

People can and will argue who was the greatest. There are dozens of factors and no definitive answer. Though money sure doesn't talk in the debate.

Nicklaus' $5,734,031 in career PGA earnings trails Woods' total so far by about $45 million. But Nicklaus, the Golden Bear, is the only golfer ever to appear on actual money. The Royal Bank of Scotland is putting his picture on 5-pound notes to commemorate his final British Open.

It probably didn't hurt that Nicklaus has an endorsement deal with the bank. But the RBS has been issuing bank notes since 1727. Nicklaus is the only living person to appear on one besides Queen Elizabeth and the late Queen Mother, neither of whom ever had her picture hung on Woods' bedroom wall.

Woods tacked a list of Nicklaus' accomplishments there as a child and plotted his career to exceed them. During his Tiger Slam run five years ago, it seemed he would fly past the Holy Grail of 18 majors. But as Woods began struggling to get halfway there, it put Nicklaus' total back into context.

What's more astounding is the fact Nicklaus finished second in 19 majors. Woods has done that only twice.

Seven of those runner-up finishes came at the British Open. If you didn't know better, you'd think Nicklaus was kidnapped as a child from his native Scotland and was somehow found in some reeds, like Moses, on the banks of the Ohio River.

"For some reason, I went to the British Open, and every year, I felt like I was going to win," he said. "Or if I didn't win, I was going to be right there. And I was."

Always near the top

Something about the old country and throwback golf just clicked with Nicklaus. Only three of his 18 major wins came at the British Open, but he never finished worse than a tie for sixth during one 15-year stretch.

Nicklaus never needed perimeter-weighted clubs, graphite shafts, nuked-up golf balls or a swing guru. He just wailed away, and the little white rock flew farther than anyone ever had seen.

Nicklaus won the Ohio Open when he was 16, beating the best grown-ups in the state. The world discovered him four years later, when the amateur from Ohio State almost won the U.S. Open.

Palmer rallied from seven shots behind in the final round to win at Cherry Hills, but notice had been served. Nicklaus was chunky, had a blond crewcut, a squeaky voice and he became the nemesis of Arnie's Army.

Ohio Fats. El Blobbo. Fat Jack.

Nicklaus heard them all, especially after he beat Palmer two years later in the U.S. Open, making up a five-shot deficit in the final 11 holes.

"Now the big guy's out of the cage," Palmer said. "Everybody better run for cover."

The Nicklaus-Palmer relationship was publicized, analyzed and scrutinized more than Elizabeth Taylor's and Richard Burton's during the 1960s. Palmer already had the common man noticing golf. Nicklaus gave him a rival that ignited the entire sport and turned them into one-man conglomerates.

The years passed. Nicklaus and his wife, Barbara, started a family. The fact he won all those majors while raising five children to be productive citizens probably warrants a special wing at the Museum of Parenthood.

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