Nicklaus goes out like champ, with a birdie

He ends legendary career with 72

hears accolades on emotional day for all

July 16, 2005|By Mark Herrmann | Mark Herrmann,NEWSDAY

ST. ANDREWS, Scotland - Of all the accolades that have come his way, Jack Nicklaus always has aimed for the one he felt worthy of this last time. After the final round of his championship career, he said, "I was a golfer today."

It kind of went without saying that he always has been a golfer, and likely is the best one who ever lived.

Tom Watson did say just that after he saw Nicklaus' farewell to major championship golf on the 18th hole at St. Andrews yesterday, calling him "the greatest player who has ever played the game." But Watson and almost everyone else at the Old Course suggested that there is more to being a golfer than shooting a score.

Fans and players at the British Open said an official goodbye to Nicklaus, 65, who missed the cut but made a birdie on his last hole, and saluted him for a lifetime of being what they think a golfer should be: a long driver, outstanding putter, great champion (with a record of 18 major titles) and a good sport.

"His legacy to the game is not just the majors," said Tony Jacklin, 61, who also played yesterday, "but the spirit he brought to it."

When someone asked how big a hole Nicklaus will leave now that he has retired, Watson, 55, said: "I don't think you can call it a hole. He left a mountain behind, a mountain of championship victories. And grace under pressure. He left a legacy that Tiger Woods is chasing right now."

Once Nicklaus announced that he would be retiring, it was important to him that his finale not be just ceremonial. He desperately wanted to go out grinding. He met that goal, shooting par 72.

"My best round of the year," he said, having finished at 3-over.

But of course, it was more than just another round. He looked happier and younger, a little like he had when he won the 1978 British Open at St. Andrews. He went capless and wore white shoes as he did back then. Before it got too warm, he had on a replica of the checked sweater he wore 27 years ago.

"Both said `large' on them, but this was a much larger sweater than I wore before," Nicklaus said. Then he called himself, "just sort of a sentimental old fool talking about some old things."

St. Andrews was filled with sentimental people yesterday.

When Nicklaus was on the first tee, Nick Price and Chris DiMarco delayed their putts on the adjacent 18th green to come over and shake his hand. When Nicklaus was on the last green, Vijay Singh and Sergio Garcia were among the current pros standing nearby, getting a look.

Brad Faxon and Tom Lehman were among those watching from the clubhouse steps.

Faxon, having shot a 66 to move to 6-under for the Open, felt like the 1970s teenager who used to idolize Nicklaus.

"I thought he was the coolest guy," Faxon said. "He was just powerful. He was the greatest putter in the world and he was the most popular player. He was always a gracious winner and a gracious loser."

Yesterday was the chance for fellow golfers to praise the way Nicklaus lifted the sport without making anyone else feel small.

"The game we play is a game and nothing more," Nicklaus said. "I think it needs to be played in that spirit."

His son Steve, who caddied yesterday, was proud of his dad, as he always is.

"It's the way he handles himself, and seeing how much people love him," Steve said.

"It's great being here. He loves this place. You hate to say goodbye, but you've got to say goodbye sometime."

He went out as he entered, a graceful champion. And at heart, he said goodbye as he wanted to, as a golfer.

Newsday is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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