ST. ANDREWS, Scotland -- Never has there been a golfer who better understood the value of a moment and could keep himself in it, who could make the unforgiving minute stutter, who could hold back the years like some Olympian god. So it was no surprise when Jack Nicklaus compressed time at the home of golf with one final perfect stroke that represented all of the competitive magic he brought to major championships for nearly half a century.
On Friday at the Old Course, one of his most cherished places in the world, with the stubborn Scottish sun at his back, the Golden Bear mustered the waning remnants of his immense talents to close the circle on the long, gray line of his career. He ended his 164th and final major championship the way he began his very first at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio, as a 17-year-old kid playing in the 1957 U.S. Open.
He made a birdie. Let the record show that at 6:01 p.m. local time – and the clock striking midnight on a golden era – Nicklaus’ final stroke traveled 13 feet, curled six inches from left to right, and connected generations. It connected those who witnessed him at the height of his powers and those who caught a last fleeting glimpse but who mostly can only see in their mind’s eye Nicklaus’ greatness through the exploits of the man who pursues his records, Tiger Woods.
Nicklaus bowed out of the 134th British Open with a round of level-par 72, an acceptable score that at once allows him to go out with dignity yet suffices as clear proof that his presence in the arena he once dominated is no longer required. His 147 total, 3 over par, was two shy of making the cut.
“When I say that I shot 72 and it’s the best round I shot this year, and I played well, and I’m missing the cut … you know it’s time to leave; that’s sort of the way I look at it,” Nicklaus said with the transparent honesty that has been as much admired as his abilities with a golf club. “I’m probably better off getting out of here.”
The nearby North Sea was still, but immense galleries, populated by family and hundreds of friends as well as thousands of faithful fans, washed wave upon wave of heartfelt appreciation over the Golden Bear. Players who spotted him going out or coming home stopped to watch him walk by or hit a shot. When he reached the famous 17th, the Road Hole, the guests that spilled out of the Old Course Hotel to catch a last glimpse of Nicklaus included Vijay Singh, Ernie Els and his wife, Liezl, Mark Calcavecchia, Ben Curtis, Joe Ogilvie, and PGA TOUR commissioner Tim Finchem.
The round began with a jolt of reminiscence. Nicklaus donned a replica of the black, blue and white argyle sweater he wore during the final round of the 1978 championship at St. Andrews, where he won his third Open title. But he couldn’t recapture the glory of that year. All afternoon Nicklaus gave himself chances to score, his tee-to-green game as good as he could produce for a man carrying just seven competitive rounds under his belt this year and 65 summers on his back. But he couldn’t collect the necessary birdies to bring his aggregate score within range of the cut. He ranked ninth in driving accuracy, but averaged 34 putts per round, 136th among the 156 players in the field.
The day and the last vestiges of his career changed on the signature 17th. The bogey Nicklaus absorbed sent him to 4 over par and forced him to concede that which the 18-time major championship winner has never wanted to concede: that his role in a tournament, at least on the last hole, was a ceremonial one.
“I played golf all day until it was quite obvious that I wasn’t going to make the cut at 17,” Nicklaus said. “That was the first time that I stopped being a golfer. I should stop being a golfer more often, because I birdied the last hole. But then I just sort of let my emotions go with it.”
The tears began to flow at that point from Jack and his son, Steve, who served as caddie, and from many others all around, including his wife, Barbara, and his daughter, Nan.
“There were lots of emotions. But I don’t think he would have had it end any other way,” said his son, Steve. “I know he hates to say goodbye, but you’ve got to say goodbye sometime.”
“It was an emotional day for me. It was an emotional day for a lot of people who watched Jack Nicklaus throughout his career and what he has accomplished both on and off the golf course,” Watson said. “He was the best player and he is a wonderful man. He’s a wonderful friend. I was really taken up with the moment.”
The reception as he finished was among the most cherished he could recall.
“I think there were three times in the game of golf that I’ve had where people were just unbelievable. I’d say four now,” Nicklaus said. “It was ’78 here, ’72 at Muirfield, and ’80 at Baltusrol, where the people just absolutely went bonkers over what went on. I was caught up in what was going on. (But) ’78 was the best I’ve ever had in golf.”
|Jack Nicklaus, left, embraces his son Steve on the Swilcan Bridge on Friday.|
A man who loves challenges, Nicklaus must now seek other outlets for his competitive fire, and his course design work will become his primary focus in that vein. But, he admits, “that’s the one thing (competition) that I’ll miss. Nothing is going to replace the 18th at St. Andrews in the British Open.”
“In everybody’s life things pass,” Nicklaus added. There was a tinge of regret in his voice but certainty, too, as if he could accept such stark reality.
Not that he has a choice. As he left the interview room in the press center, Woods was on his way in, the leader by four strokes at 11 under par. The two exchanged handshakes and a smile, compared scores, shared kind words. Nicklaus long ago passed the torch to Woods but now there was this palpable, symbolic moment – that Nicklaus now was leaving the game in Woods’ hands.
Another circle was closed.
Then the moment was gone. Time could wait no more.
Jack Nicklaus has left Olympus.