DUBLIN, Ohio – If he could write the script to the end of his storied career, Jack Nicklaus wouldn’t just walk across the Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrews on Sunday, it would be late in the afternoon, and the engraver already would be etching his name on the silver claret jug.
He gazed out at some three dozen reporters Tuesday morning and knew what was coming.
“Stop laughing,” Nicklaus said, unable to contain his own smile.
The final chapter could have been written long ago, and Nicklaus, 65, wishes he had a mulligan.
“The real script of going out would have been to say goodbye in ‘86 at Augusta,” he said of his sixth victory in the Masters, and 18th professional major. “That’s probably what I should have done. If I had any common sense, I would have said goodbye there.”
Jack is still here.
He was on the practice range at Muirfield Village late Monday afternoon with swing coach Jim Flick standing behind him. Nicklaus poured all his concentration into every shot, taking his time over each one, as if a major championship was riding on the outcome. His head tilted ever so slightly just before taking the club back, a signature move that allowed him a full turn. Inevitably, his shoulders slumped when he watched the flight of the ball.
Nicklaus is playing in the Memorial, a tournament he created in 1976, for the 30th consecutive year. When he played in the pro-am Tuesday afternoon, it was his third round since he missed the cut at the Masters and said he would no longer compete at Augusta National.
“I don’t have a game,” he said. “You know that.”
Nicklaus has been saying that for years.
What troubles him is that he doesn’t have a plan.
The British Open will be his last major championship, and Nicklaus said he has no intention of playing any more tournament golf. But in the same breath, he reserved the right to play in the Memorial as a past champion (1977 and 1984) and as the host of one of the best PGA Tour events of the year.
But if Nicklaus is done with tournament golf after the British Open, and he decides to play in the Memorial next year or any year thereafter, then by his own definition he will become a ceremonial player.
And that’s the one thing he never wanted to be.
Some might argue he already is.
“Realistically, the best I can do would be probably make the cut or something, and that would be about it,” Nicklaus said. “That’s not really competitive. I wish I could answer your question, because I can’t answer it myself. I can’t answer in my own mind what I want to do.”
Arnold Palmer had ceremonious farewells from the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1994, and twice from the Masters, the final occasion coming last year in his 50th appearance. He posed atop the Swilcan Bridge at St. Andrews in 1995, the last year he was eligible for the British Open.
Nicklaus has never been about ceremony, only competition.
He also is vastly different from Palmer in the amount of golf he plays when the ropes are down and the gallery gone. Palmer plays as often as he can. Nicklaus doesn’t know what recreational golf is.
“I like tournament golf,” Nicklaus said. “That’s what I do. I love to go out and prepare to do something. When I’m not preparing to do anything, what am I doing out there?”
Still, it would be easier to walk away for good if not for the occasional hope. He played Friday at the Bear’s Club in south Florida, where the greens were running about 14 on the Stimpmeter, and shot 70. His other round since the Masters was Sunday at Muirfield Village, and he shot 74 with a triple bogey on his card.
“If I went out there and in preparation was shooting 80-something, I would say I’m not even going to bother to play,” Nicklaus said. “While I have some semblance of a game, I’m going to say, ‘OK, I’m going to play.’ But I’m going to say bye at the same time while I still have that.
“I don’t want to be shooting 85 when I’m saying goodbye.”
Then again, Nicklaus has never been big on goodbyes. Even on the day he shot 30 on the back nine at Augusta National and won his sixth green jacket at age 46, someone asked him about retirement.
“Maybe I should go out on a win like this,” he said that Sunday afternoon. “Maybe I should just say goodbye. Maybe that would be the smart thing to do. But I’m not that smart.”
Now, he grits his teeth when players congratulate him for making the cut, as they did last year at the Memorial. He won’t play just to satisfy the nostalgic whim of the fans.
“I can’t please anybody if I can’t please myself,” he said. “If I’m shooting 85, I can’t possibly be pleasing anybody else. Somebody has come in – whatever it cost them to buy a ticket – to watch Jack Nicklaus play golf, I’d like to have them see Jack Nicklaus.”
Nicklaus gets rousing ovations wherever he goes, primarily out of admiration, partially because no one is sure if they will see him again. He expects to get the royal treatment at St. Andrews, but only because that’s the nature of the British fans.
“They’ve always accepted me as a golfer, and that’s what I wanted to be accepted as,” he said. “Hopefully, that’s what I was.”
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