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Kid Stuff

Jack Nicklaus found that missing his first major in 42 years wasn't so tough

by Jaime Diaz

Click here for more on this story
Posted: Wed July 22, 1998

Sports Illustrated Sunday, July 12: "I don't believe I can win anymore. I'm just not good enough." The familiar high-pitched voice cuts through the drone of jet engines, but because the speaker is Jack Nicklaus, leaning back in one of the eight molded passenger seats in his $29 million Gulfstream G-4, the listener wonders if he has heard correctly. Yes, Nicklaus is a creaky 58 and a few days before had announced that he would be skipping the British Open at Royal Birkdale, ending his 42-year-old streak of playing in every major championship for which he was eligible, at 154. But Jack Nicklaus never says he's not good enough to win.

  GPJACKNICK02.JPG Instead of spending a chilly week in England, Granpa had extra time to cozy up to the growing Nicklaus brood.    (Bill Frakes)
Because no one has had such a sure grip on the game, letting go is a complicated exercise for Nicklaus. Even while announcing the end of his streak at the Senior Players Championship, in Dearborn, Mich., a few days earlier, there had been a trace of ambiguity. Was this really the end, or more of the shadowboxing that began when he first hinted at retirement after winning the '86 Masters?

If you want the unvarnished truth from Nicklaus, the best place to get it might be in the sumptuous cabin of his jet, 40,000 feet above the ground and traveling at 500 miles per hour. "Jack loves this airplane," says Ronald Hurst, his pilot for the last nine years, who in tandem with copilot Kent Sherman spends about 400 hours in the air with his boss each year. "This is where he can relax and be himself." So when Nicklaus drags his ailing hip aboard his jet, 90 minutes after finishing sixth in Dearborn, the walls of public life come down and the plain speaker comes out. An hour into the flight to, incongruously, Great Britain, Nicklaus sets the record straight.

"Every article has said, 'Hip forces Nicklaus out of British Open,'" he says, "but the hip wasn't what took me out. I have no doubt that if I went to the British Open this week, I could finish in the top 20, but that doesn't interest me. If I really thought I had a chance to win, I would've crawled around Royal Birkdale. But, realistically, I don't have enough game to have a chance anymore."

Even if the hip was repaired and he could play pain free? Nicklaus is asked. "Even if the hip was repaired," he says. No, Nicklaus has never said that.

  GPJACKNICK05.JPG Nicklaus's publicly held company has fallen on hard times, which called for some tough decisions last week.    (Bill Frakes)
Monday, July 13: After four hours of sleep on a sofa at the back of the G-4, Nicklaus awakes as the plane prepares to touch down at Hawarden Airport in Wales at 8 a.m. The countryside is buffeted by wind and rain, just the sort of weather that gives Nicklaus's aching joints, particularly his hip, fits.

His mission is to open the Nicklaus Course at Carden Park, which he co-designed with his second son, 35-year-old Steve, on a 17th-century estate in Cheshire. The opening was scheduled when Nicklaus thought he would be playing in the British Open, but now the only way he will make it to Royal Birkdale, 35 miles to the north, is if Gary, the third of the four Nicklaus boys, makes it through the qualifying rounds, which end today. Even then Jack would only spend a day at Birkdale. "I'm not going to hang around," he says.

Bleary-eyed, Nicklaus is paying for four days of competition followed by an overnight flight. "I feel awful," he says as he rises. The next 15 hours are crammed with a press conference, an 18-hole exhibition with Ian Woosnam and a dinner to raise money for a children's hospital.

At the press conference, attended by 70 journalists, Nicklaus is nostalgic and informative. He reveals that he believes his hip problems began in 1963 at the Lucky International in San Francisco. A doctor prescribed 25 cortisone shots in 10 weeks. "I think they destroyed the area, or started to destroy it," Nicklaus says.

More than 3,000 fans come to see the exhibition. Nicklaus wants to play well, but his body won't let him. To keep weight off his bad hip, he walks straight-legged, but tilted forward from the waist, as if he were imitating Groucho Marx. Nicklaus's left leg, which has become shorter and smaller in circumference than his right, can no longer support the weight shift so critical to what was golf's most explosive swing, so he sometimes pull-hooks the ball into the rough.

On the 7th hole Nicklaus's knee seizes up while he's standing on the side of a hill preparing to hit a shot. Nicklaus is miked, and the sound of the joint popping goes out over loudspeakers mounted on carts, followed by an agonized "Oh, Jesus, that was my knee." Nicklaus bends over and waits for the pain to subside. On the next hole, for the first time in an exhibition, he boards a cart and rides the rest of the way. Momentarily forgetting that he's miked, he says to the driver of the cart, "It's hell getting old."

For the rest of the round, Nicklaus's grunts, groans and sighs are audible, but, as always, he digs deep and finishes with a birdie at the 17th and a solid par on 18. His score is in the high 70s, several strokes higher than Woosnam's.

Once the round is over, Nicklaus's only concern is Gary's score. He regards warily information that his 29-year-old son, through 13 holes, is in good position to qualify. Sure enough, back at the hotel he gets the bad news: Gary bogeyed the last three holes (by missing three putts inside of six feet, it is later learned) to fall into a seven-way tie for the one remaining spot. "Jeez!" Nicklaus says, dropping his head as if he had been the one missing from short range. Wordlessly he retires to his suite. When he emerges for dinner an hour and a half later, he has learned that Gary was eliminated in a playoff. Rather than going to Birkdale, the Nicklaus party will head back home to North Palm Beach, Fla.

  GPJACKNICK04.JPG After flying all night, Nicklaus, barely able to walk, struggled through a course opening in Wales.    (Matthew Harris)
Tuesday, July 14: Nicklaus is subdued on the way to the airport—"I've never hurt that much playing in front of people," he says about the previous day's exhibition—and once on board he stretches out for some sleep. Three hours later, when he awakes, he's a new man. He spies Hurst outside the cockpit and asks playfully, "Are you leaving the flying to that good German, Otto Pilot?" Reviewing the stories of his day at Carden Park in the English newspapers, he seizes on a headline in The Express: NICKLAUS: I MUST QUIT FOR MY KIDS. The story is based on a comment he made at the press conference. "I don't think I've been much of a grandfather so far," Nicklaus had said.

Mildly annoyed, Nicklaus repeats the headline in a fey voice and gestures toward Steve. "Can you imagine quitting for reprobates like him?" he says, joking.

Nicklaus slips an icebag under his pants to reduce swelling in his left groin, and turns his attention to a movie, Addicted to Love. Afterward, with three hours left in the eight-hour flight, Nicklaus spreads out the architectural drawings for the King and the Bear, a course he is co-designing with Arnold Palmer at the new World Golf Village, in St. Augustine, Fla. According to Steve, his father's passion for architecture will make his withdrawal from competition easier. "He won't be haunted," Steve says. "He'll be too busy."

Nicklaus has long meetings scheduled at his company's headquarters, in North Palm Beach, for the rest of the week. "If I watch the British Open on television, it will be a total coincidence," he says.

Wednesday, July 15: By 9 a.m. Nicklaus has made the one-mile drive from his waterfront home at Lost Tree Village and is in his office. (His company occupies parts of five floors of the Golden Bear Plaza, off Highway 1.) The first order of business is painful—signing off on a deal to sell 14 Golden Bear Golf Centers, for $32 million, to a competitor, Family Golf Centers. While Nicklaus's privately owned course-design business is thriving, the publicly held divisions of his company, Golden Bear Golf, Inc., have struggled. The stock, which opened at $16 a share during the initial public offering in August '96, now hovers around $4. The biggest hit came in May when Golden Bear's golf construction subsidiary, Paragon Construction, announced an internal review of cost overruns at some of its 30 projects.

Golden Bear's troubles demand Nicklaus's full attention. "I'm home so seldom that when I go into the office, everybody needs me and I get swamped," he says. "Forget about playing golf or preparing for a tournament."

Is his hunger for competition satisfied by business? "Not quite," Nicklaus says after a pause. "In golf, when somebody beats you, you know it was fair and square. In business, you don't always feel that way."

Thursday, July 16: Nicklaus, wife Barbara and eldest son Jackie, 36, take part in an all-day meeting to design the clubhouse for the Bear's Club, a project only a few miles from Nicklaus's home. The three Nicklauses and more than a dozen consultants and company officials crowd around a 15-foot-long conference table scattered with plans and drawings. Nicklaus is at the center of the dialogue. At one point he offers, "The thing I don't like about a men's locker room is a bunch of naked men walking around. I like areas for privacy."

  GPJACKNICK01.JPG By the end of the week, Nicklaus was feeling better about his ailing hip and his chances in the Senior Open.    (Bill Frakes)
Like his brother Steve, Jackie isn't worried about what the future holds for his father. "After [this week's] Senior Open," he says, "he's going to look into everything to fix his hip—injections, coatings, exercise. He has always been leery about surgery, but I know he wants to keep playing and competing. My guess is he's going to go with the hip replacement."

Back in the office after going home for lunch, Nicklaus says he hasn't seen any of the first round of the British Open. "Who's leading?" he asks. Told Tiger Woods is tied for first, Nicklaus cocks an eye and says, "Is he really?"

Nicklaus is more interested in the results of the Golden Bear tour event taking place in West Palm Beach. His youngest son, 24-year-old Michael, a first-year pro, had started 68-69 to make the cut for the first time in 16 tries on the tour and is playing the final round today. Hearing that Michael finished with a 73 to tie for seventh and win $3,776, Nicklaus is proud. "That's wonderful," he says. "Anything under 80 would've been acceptable. He was in unknown territory."

Friday, July 17: The only Nicklaus who seems to be missing the British Open is Barbara. When Jack invites the clubhouse architects home for lunch, Barbara turns on the TV to watch the tournament. "That was always our trip," she says. "We left the kids at home. Sure I miss it." Barbara's streak of consecutive British Opens was almost as impressive as Jack's. Since 1962 she had missed only one, in '73, when Michael was born.

The Nicklaus home at Lost Tree, where Jack and Barbara have lived since 1970, is family headquarters. All five of the Nicklauses' children, including their only daughter, Nan, 33, live within a 10-minute drive. The place can get a little crazy when their eight grandchildren, ages two through eight, visit. Four of the kids belong to Jackie and his wife, Barbara, and the other four to Nan and her husband, Bill O'Leary. Both Barbara and Nan are expecting in January. To the grandkids, Barbara and Jack are Mimi and Granpa.

At 5 p.m., trying to clear his desk before the weekend and the upcoming Senior Open, Nicklaus returns to the office. As he's saying goodbye for the weekend, Scott Tolley, Nicklaus's director of communications, tells the boss that the 36-hole leader at Birkdale is Brian Watts and that a 17-year-old amateur, Justin Rose, is a stroke back. "That got his attention for a second," Tolley says later. "But for just a second."

Saturday, July 18: Although he hangs around the house until 10:30 a.m., Nicklaus hardly glances at the TV. By the time Jim McKay airs his tribute to the man who has won more majors than any golfer in history, Nicklaus is well into his round with Michael at the Lost Tree course. In a spirited match, the father beats the son. "If Jack could be paired with his sons during tournaments and play them for a milk shake, he'd still be winning," says Barbara. "He won't let the boys beat him."

That night Jack and Barbara and Nan and Bill take Michael and his fiancee, Traci Vance, out to celebrate Michael's 25th birthday. "I knew Watts was leading," Nicklaus says the next day, "but I don't remember anyone talking about it at dinner."

Sunday, July 19: Playing with three club pros—Jim Curran, Brian Peaper and Eric Veilleux—Nicklaus birdies the 18th hole at Loxahatchee to win two fat-free yogurt shakes. "I only collected on one," he says. "Next time I play those guys, it will be with house money." He's pleased because he walked without pain and hit the ball reasonably well. Is he ready for the Senior Open? "I'm decent," he says. "Am I prepared? No. I can't get prepared anymore."

After the round Nicklaus watches the playoff between Mark O'Meara and Brian Watts in the clubhouse, the only time all week he sits and watches the British Open. "I didn't go out of my way not to watch," he says. "It's just that I was busy. It didn't bother me to watch, not in the least. No one believes me, but this wasn't an emotional week for me."

Still, Nicklaus admits that something was missing. "I had my moments, my pangs," he says. "I love to play in major championships. It has been part of my life forever. I guess nothing lasts forever."

Anyone who's under the impression that Nicklaus and golf are joined at the hip are wrong. They're joined at the heart.

Issue date: July 27, 1998  

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