Nicklaus ponders his future

The prospect is nearly unthinkable but Jack Nicklaus knows it’s inevitable. He said recently that he might not play next year’s Masters. The Masters without six-time winner Nicklaus? It won’t feel like a Masters.

Nicklaus, 60, isn’t thrilled with the state of his golf game. He tried to be a ceremonial golfer a few years ago but found that less than satisfying. Nicklaus wants to contend in tournaments and as a senior golfer feels his best chance is to play the majors — especially the Masters. He knows the Augusta National Golf Club as if it were his own backyard, and in many ways it has been.

Consider the 1986 Masters, where Nicklaus, then 46, played seven-under par golf the last 10 holes to win. He was in a tussle with Seve Ballesteros and, ultimately, Greg Norman. Nicklaus hit the par-five 15th hole in two shots and had a 25-foot putt for an eagle. He studied the line of his putt, and then changed his mind. Nicklaus had remembered a putt he had hit on a similar line some 20 years before.

He committed to what he remembered and holed his eagle putt. Nicklaus hit his iron shot on the par-three 16th hole to within a couple of feet of the cup, birdied there d birdied the 17th hole. The Golden — not yet Olden — Bear went on to win that Masters, with his son Jackie caddying for him. It was his sixth and last Masters.

A flood of memories

And yet one has always felt Nicklaus could get himself on the leader board somehow during the Masters. He has demonstrated year after year how certain places help us roll back time. Don’t we all have such places in our lives? We might take a drive up to a particular spot by a lake, or attend a concert by one of our favourite musicians.

When I put on a pair of skates and zoom around a rink — well, I imagine I zoom — I feel like a kid again. Yet the object isn’t to feel like a kid again, only to recapture feelings that still lie within us, waiting to emerge if only given the opportunity.

Those feelings have emerged for Nicklaus and for his fans every April at Augusta. He was 58 when he tied for sixth at the Masters, becoming the oldest golfer to finish in the top-10 there. Nicklaus didn’t play the 1999 Masters because he was recovering from hip replacement surgery, but he was back at the Augusta National Golf Club last spring.

Nicklaus played well, and stood at even par at the halfway point of the spring classic. And make no mistake. The Masters is the spring classic as the World Series in baseball is the fall classic. We are six months from the 2001 Masters, but already I find myself looking forward to it. Will Tiger Woods win and thereby hold every major championship, having won this year’s U.S and British Opens and PGA Championship? Will Nicklaus really not be at Augusta?

Will he play?

Unthinkable, as I said. And yet quite possible. Nicklaus says he will play some Senior PGA Tour events in the spring and assess his game then. If he finds it wanting he will not play the Masters and so leave us wanting. Somehow I find it impossible to believe he won’t be there. In fact I would predict that he, like all golfers, will find a reason to believe he still has plenty of game, and will play at Augusta. As the Masters approaches I like to think he’ll feel the excitement that always comes when he drives up Magnolia Lane, the long tree-lined entrance to the Augusta National.

“I believe in myself when I play here,” Nicklaus said after two rounds of the 2000 Masters. But his belief was not enough this time. Nicklaus shot 81-78 the final two rounds to tie for 54th in the Masters. And that is what he remembers, not the fact that he played the first round with legends Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. He was at the Masters to play good golf, not to make an appearance on behalf of nostalgia. After Nicklaus shot 74 the first round somebody told him that he had outscored Woods, who shot 75.

“I didn’t outscore what I wanted, though,” Nicklaus said. That’s all that matters. He lives in the present and future, not the past. I like that credo.

And so Nicklaus continues to ponder his Masters future. The rite of spring is never far from his mind, as Nicklaus demonstrated by speaking this early about playing or not playing next spring. Deep down he is a golfer through and through, notwithstanding the impressive body of work he has created as a course designer. Nicklaus wants to be on the course in tournaments mixing it up with golfers 10, 20, 30 and 40 years younger than he. It’s inevitable that he won’t be able to do so, even in the Masters.

But say it ain’t so, Jack. Say it’s still too early not to believe in yourself at the Masters. I could spin a highlight reel of your Masters performances here, but I’d rather not — not until you have made your final decision regarding the tournament. Just now I’d prefer to believe you’ll play the 2001 Masters. And if you do, I’d wager you will somehow get your name on the leaderboard. That too is a rite of spring.