Sentiment props up a legend only so long

Posted: Thursday, June 03, 2004

The greatest champion any game has ever known has been dropping hints for months that he's done playing. At 64, Jack Nicklaus is not tired of golf as much as he is tired of trying to convince himself he can still win.

''That's why I probably don't want to play anymore,'' he said recently, ''because winning is really an issue with me that is probably beyond my ability at this point in my life. And that is the only reason I ever play.''

Golf had never seen anyone like Nicklaus when he burst onto the scene four decades ago. But if you surveyed the sporting landscape since, there was no shortage of competitors whose skill and achievements have dimmed those memories. What all of them have yet to learn is that to make the eclipse total, they will have to be as good as Nicklaus was for as long as he was.

And if they looked deep into the old man's eyes as he talked about quitting, they got a glimpse of how daunting that is going to be.

In Nicklaus' own game, Tiger Woods' ascension came with such breathtaking speed that it seemed just a matter of time before he claimed Jack's throne. But Woods is in something of a funk, betrayed by his driver and distracted, perhaps, by romance. After reeling in championships at an unprecedented clip eight in his first five full seasons out on tour Woods heads to the U.S. Open this month without a victory in a major for nearly two years.

Serena and Venus Williams were poised to carve a similarly wide swath through tennis, but injury and outside interests have put those plans in limbo. They combined to win eight of 11 Grand Slam titles through the 2003 Australian Open. But both exited the French Open with rust on their games, meaning somebody else will have won four of the past five majors when a champion is crowned Saturday.

Nicklaus had his dry spells, to be sure, including one that lasted from the 1967 U.S. Open through the 1970 British Open. But he won his first major when he was 23 and his last at 46. That means he won when there was a growing family at home making demands on his time and tugging at his heartstrings; that he kept winning after burying the most important influence in his life, his father, Charley, in 1970; and that he won some more while trying to grow the Golden Bear brand into a course design and equipment empire.

For most of that time, Nicklaus was the surest bet in sports. And no one knew the feeling better than longtime pincushion Tom Weiskopf.

''You know he's going to beat you, and he knows he's going to beat you. What made it hard to take,'' Weiskopf said famously, ''is that he knows you know he's going to beat you.''

Nicklaus hasn't felt that way for a long time, though not as long as most of us might think.

At the 1998 Masters, the people who run Augusta National honored 40 years of memories by putting Nicklaus' name on a bronze plaque. On Sunday in the final round, he stubbornly put it back on the leaderboard, then doggedly pursued a handful of flat-bellies nearly half his age to the finish.

His closing 68 left him four shots behind winner Mark O'Meara, but those who expected Nicklaus to be entirely pleased with the effort had no idea what Jack is made of.

''I would be pretty stupid to say I wasn't thrilled,'' Nicklaus said at the time. ''But I'd also be dishonest to say I wasn't disappointed.''

Nobody else was, but sentiment only props up a legend for so long. And Nicklaus is not sentimental. Golf is that rare game that allows for a graceful exit, but he is not interested in that, either. He had a front-row seat when Arnold Palmer bowed out, but parting gifts and warm applause will never be Nicklaus' thing.

Nicklaus has always played to win, and even he can no longer fool himself on that score.

''I had my day,'' he said. ''That's sort of how I look at it.''

So far, golf's movers and shakers have refused to take that for an answer. Masters chairman Hootie Johnson called Nicklaus after he missed the cut this year and urged him to return in 2005 for a proper farewell. The Royal & Ancient shifted the British Open to St. Andrews a year earlier in the rotation in hopes of persuading Nicklaus to return in his final year of eligibility.

He might turn up at both tournaments, and he's likely to continue playing the Memorial, the tournament he founded and hosts. Thursday will mark Nicklaus' 28th straight appearance in the event.

Farewells have ''become a media, press, television thing,'' Nicklaus said. ''That's what people want, and that's fine. But I don't really want to do that.''

The only thing Nicklaus ever wanted was to win, and the measure of the man is that nobody was ever better at it. Not before him, not since, and unless Tiger and all those who would-be-kings find a way to keep the competitive fire glowing through all the challenges life throws at them, not ever.

Jim Litke is a national sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jlitke@ap.org.



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