Will Nicklaus make it official?

Will he or won’t he? That’s the question we asked here a couple of months ago and it’s time to update the matter again. The question is being asked about Jack Nicklaus, who is speaking of a possible retirement. But let’s be clear: Nicklaus has been effectively retired for quite a while.

"I don’t want to hang on beyond my time," Nicklaus, 60, said recently. He’s been thinking about hardly playing at all in 2001, perhaps not even the Masters that he won six times. A couple of tournaments on the Senior PGA Tour, his own Memorial Tournament on the PGA Tour, and that could be it.

Nobody could fault Nicklaus with taking a pass on any further competitive golf at all. He’s always said he will quit for good when he feels he can no longer compete. Yet Nicklaus is like any other pro golfer in that he usually feels he has one or two more terrific tournaments left in him.

However, one has to ask whether Nicklaus has really given himself the best chance of playing well in recent years. He hasn’t played 15 tournaments in any season on the PGA Tour since 1986. Nickus never played more than 26 events a year, but playing fewer than 15 doesn’t constitute much of a schedule at all. Nicklaus has played only 10 or more three times since 1988, and not more than seven since 1996.

Last hurrah

On the Senior PGA Tour, meanwhile, Nicklaus has never played more than seven tournaments a year since becoming eligible in 1990. He has often said his best chance of winning any tournament is at a major, where his experience counts the most. The great man demonstrated that in 1998, when at 58 he tied for sixth in the Masters.

That was Nicklaus’s last hurrah, really. Oh, he did participate on teams that won three unofficial events in 1999, including a victory with his son Gary at the Office Depot Father/Son Challenge. But it demeans Nicklaus’ immense ability — and immense it was — to think of him as a golfer who is reduced to contending in events that are more confections than tournaments.

The point is that Nicklaus at 60 can hardly expect to compete at the highest levels of the game when he isn’t playing regularly. People are excited about comebacks in sports, given Mario Lemieux’s successful return to the Pittsburgh Penguins after a layoff of three and a half years. Lemieux got three assists on December 27th when the team of which he is an owner laid a 5-0 shutout on the Toronto Maple Leafs.

Nicklaus at 60

Nicklaus isn’t 35, though, and he simply can’t regain his former abilities, or come close enough to them to compete. That’s not a criticism, it’s reality. Nicklaus played the first two rounds of the PGA Championship last August with Tiger Woods, who went on to win the major — his third in a row of 2000. That was the first time Nicklaus and Woods had played together in any tournament. Woods shot 66-67 and made it look easy.

"He doesn’t have to extend himself at all to do what he is doing," Nicklaus said. Asked if he had any advice to offer Woods, Nicklaus answered, "I wouldn’t offer any to him. I’d ask him for a lesson.

Nicklaus for years didn’t have to extend himself at all to do what he did. His fellow players wouldn’t think of offering him any advice, and were more likely to ask him for a lesson. But Nicklaus at 60 can’t be expected to play golf in the easy manner he did for so long. It’s asking too much to expect him to compete well in tournaments.

Golf goes on

So now Nicklaus sees the light fading in his well-known corner of the church of high achievement. His accomplishments are set hard into the memory of anybody who has followed golf since 1960. Most readers will have a good idea of what Nicklaus has done in golf, and it is more than good and it is more than great. Nicklaus has been to golf what Muhammad Ali was to boxing — its most commanding presence, by a long ways.

That position now belongs to Tiger Woods. That alone is not a reason for Nicklaus to leave competitive golf. But as he moves into 2001, he knows there is every likelihood that his game has slipped too far for him to recover it so that he can contend in tournaments.

It wouldn’t surprise me to see Nicklaus play the 2001 Masters anyway. He’ll likely feel energized as the tournament approaches. But will that surge be enough to bring him to the first tee as a competitor and not the ceremonial player he doesn’t want to become?

Only Nicklaus knows, or feels, the answer. The Masters wouldn’t be the same without him there, with a chance to win. Yet it’s been this way for most tournaments for a few years now. Golf goes on. Nicklaus will too. He’s Nicklaus, yes, but even he must finally depart the competitive scene sometime. And soon. That’s becoming more evident as the months pass. And Nicklaus appears to know that, much as he might regret it.