"A spot of golf in Southampton" is what the weekend guest expects on Long Island, worked around the shopping and dining and perhaps a bit of croquet on the lawn. The tone is relaxed, the wardrobe varied. That noted sportsman J.W. Nicklaus, for instance, showed up Thursday afternoon in a blue-billed baseball cap, as if he had just stepped off his yacht. A gentleman of 55 with reddish-blond hair and a good tan, Mr. Nicklaus owns a Florida-based sports-equipment company and designs golf courses in his spare time. He was accompanied by his lovely wife, the former Barbara Bash, and two of his grownup sons, Gary and Jack II.
Judging from the familiar waves and shouts of encouragement he received, Nicklaus was no stranger to the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. He was the guest this time of the United States Golf Association, which thought he would be a nice addition to the 155 professional and amateur golfers competing in the annual Open tournament. Nicklaus had played in 38 straight of these events—which is some sort of record—but, uncharacteristically, he was not qualified to enter this year. Fittingly, the USGA extended him an invitation anyway ("special exemption" is the term it uses), and he accepted with alacrity, golf being his best game.
Those who followed him around the links on Thursday had to be impressed with his ability to keep up with the younger chaps who play golf for a living. Driving accurately and hitting more greens than was seemly for a man his age, he shot a one-over-par 71. And the golf course, we must add, was more of a test than usual, due to its fast greens and knee-high grass. From time to time a spectator shouted, "Jack is back!" or "One more time. Jack!" Of course, such yelling on the links is frowned upon, but Nicklaus nodded modestly and smiled, leaving it to his hosts to correct the unmannered. In the meantime, his playing partners—Andy North of Madison, Wis., and Ian Baker-Finch of Sanctuary Cove, Queensland, Australia—received the full measure of courtesy from Nicklaus, who led the spectators in polite applause when they hit particularly fine shots.
A Hamptons weekend, of course, can begin on any day of the week. On Tuesday evening, Barbara and Jack were dinner guests in a tent erected outside the home of Jack and Nancy Whitaker of Bridgehampton. After cocktails ( Mr. Nicklaus drank cranberry juice), the Whitakers served up Long Island duckling followed by strawberry shortcake. Nicklaus got into an animated discussion with David Marr, the retired golf professional who now works in television for NBC. It was Marr's contention that Nicklaus golfed better years ago because of a "forward press" with the hands and a little trick he had of turning his head slightly to the right at the start of his swing. Nicklaus seemed totally absorbed by Marr's comments. Before long the two men were canting their heads like eagles and addressing imaginary golf balls, to the amusement of the other guests.
The next day Nicklaus tried out Marr's tip in a practice round. Afterward he announced, in that wonderful way golfers have, that he had hit his drives "considerably longer...and considerably straighter." But whatever arcane adjustments he had made to produce Thursday's fine first-round score came undone on Friday. Four bogeys on the front side put him five over par for the tournament, and from there it got as bad as weekend traffic on the Montauk Highway. By the 15th hole Nicklaus's mouth was a perfect drooping curve, and he was shaking his head and staring at the ground. On the 16th hole, which is a twisty par-5 through dunes and tall fescue, his second shot went so far left that the rough covered him to his waist, making him almost invisible in his olive-colored polo shirt against the background vegetation. A big swing produced a shot that came out low and then nosed down like a diving kite into a steep-faced bunker, 50 yards on. And then Nicklaus was invisible, as even his head couldn't be seen once he entered the bunker. A deliberate player, by most accounts, he nonetheless exploded out of the sand with great haste, betraying some embarrassment. He finally reached the green in five strokes and wound up making 7.
In sum the USGA's guest ended up with eight 5s and a 7 for a discouraging round of 81. That score, even with his first-round 71, left him six shots over the total he needed to qualify for the weekend rounds. Nonetheless, the hundreds of spectators surrounding the 18th green greeted Nicklaus with sustained applause and whistling as he climbed the last hill with his putter under his arm. As a four-time winner of the tournament, he clearly held a special place in their hearts. It was whispered in the gallery that his tap-in on 18 might even be his last stroke in a U.S. Open, but knowledgeable observers said this was unlikely because he would almost certainly be invited back for a more proper send-off.
Sentiment, it turns out, is among the criteria for inclusion in these events. The Masters and the PGA Championship, two tournaments of similar prestige, extend their former champions an invitation for life, while the British Open welcomes back former winners to the age of 65, at which time they are required to sit in overstuffed chairs and tell stories. The USGA invites its champions back for 10 years, but after that it puts the matter into the hands of its championship committee, which decides whether to bring back players who would otherwise be ineligible. Last year the committee invited five players, including 65-year-old Arnold Palmer, raising questions about fairness and the quality of the field. But Palmer warmed hearts in his farewell appearance.
"Through the years we've been pretty stingy about exemptions," Judy Bell, who chairs the championship committee, said last week, "because, after all, it is an Open championship. If you don't open it up, it defeats the whole idea." Ms. Bell, who is expected to become the first woman president of the USGA when Reg Murphy steps down in January, added that she had voted for Palmer last year not knowing that it would be his last Open. "Arnold made that decision," she said at Shinnecock, looking official but not officious in shorts, a blue windbreaker and tennis shoes. "As for Jack, there's not been any discussion of a ceremonial goodbye. Who knows? He could very well play his way in."
Nicklaus needed to finish in the top 15 at Shinnecock to qualify for next year's Open at Oakland Hills Country Club, near Detroit. Now, his best hope is to win the U.S. Senior Open, which is to be held next week at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. The winner of that tournament gains automatic entry to next year's U.S. Open, and as a two-time Senior Open champion, Nicklaus will be one of the favorites.
He will not, however, try to make next year's Open field by entering one of the sectional qualifying events held the week before the tournament. "No," Barbara Nicklaus said emphatically as she followed her husband around the course on Thursday. "Absolutely not."