We didn't like him. His boot-camp haircut, beefy body and stormy brow gave him the look of a renegade military policeman. My father, watching 22-year-old Jack Nicklaus win the 1962 U.S. Open on our black-and-white television, shook his head in dismay. It was as if Attila the Hun, granted a special exemption by the USGA, had torched the fairways of Oakmont Country Club. "This Nicklaus kid can belt it a mile," I remember my father saying, "but he's not a golfer."
Thirty-four years later, it is clear that my father was right. Nicklaus turned out to be not a golfer, but the golfer. Eighteen major championships. Two U.S. Amateurs. Sixty-six other PGA Tour and international tournament victories. A globe-girdling empire of golf-related companies. "Jack is playing...a game I'm not even familiar with," the great Bobby Jones said in 1965. But Nicklaus made his game familiar, every aspect of it: the powerful blasts off the tee, the long, high iron shots, that infinitely patient putting posture—the right elbow jutting out—that had my father muttering, "Hit it, dammit."
On Monday, in his annual "State of the Bear" press conference at his office in North Palm Beach, Fla., Nicklaus came as close as he has yet come to declaring the Nicklaus era ended. This summer's U.S. Open at Oakland Hills will be his 40th in a row and, he said, probably his last. He also said he might pass up the British Open at Royal Lytham & St. Annes in July, ending his string of 34 straight appearances in that event. If that happens, Nicklaus's mind-boggling streak of consecutive major championship appearances will expire at 138. The only player with any chance of equaling that number is Tom Watson, and he's a distant second, at 85. "Everything has to end sometime," Nicklaus said last weekend, "and while I still have the ability to play a little bit, I thought this would be a good time to end it."
The note of finality is misleading. Nicklaus made it clear that he is not retiring. He will play in the PGA in August, at his own Memorial Tournament indefinitely and at the Masters as long as his legs support him. He plans to increase his Senior tour commitments and doesn't rule out ceremonial appearances when the U.S. Open returns to Pebble Beach and the British to St. Andrews (both in 2000). He isn't disappearing; he's merely disengaging.
Golf, of all sports, requires this of its heroes—the voluntary no más, the reluctant downward yank on the flag, stopping the meter. In the 1990s, Nicklaus has only one top-10 finish in a major, a sixth in the 1990 Masters. He has missed nine cuts in his last 16 majors. And, at 56, his play is not likely to get any better. Need we weep for Nicklaus? Hardly. He has won everything. He has won everywhere. He qualified for his first U.S. Open at age 17 and won the Masters at 46. If he slumped, he rarely choked. Twelve times he led or shared the lead of a major after three rounds. Eleven times, he won. And although he may say he's tired of living on memories, it's less than a year since his last Senior tour victory, the Tradition.
Nicklaus has always been able to stay relevant by redefining himself. "Fat Jack," the rumpled and unsmiling Nicklaus of the early '60s, gave way to the slimmer, personable, bangs-wearing champion of the '70s. ("I had him wrong," said my father, watching now on a color TV.) Only George Foreman, among modern athletes, has a remade personality to rival Nicklaus's—and Jack achieved his without blows to the head. More recently Nicklaus has recast himself as the businessman who plays championship golf in his spare time and senior golf only when it serves his purpose. "I've tried to be a ceremonial golfer," he said when he turned 50, "and I just can't do it." Now he says he not only can, he will.
The task then, when Nicklaus tees it up at Oakland Hills, will be to reign in the emotions, not let them fly. The storyline should be the end of his streaks in the U.S. Open and the majors, not the end of an era. Think Cal Ripken, not Lou Gehrig. After all, the Bear hasn't had his last showdown with Lee Trevino or Tom Weiskopf. It won't be the last time we hear some fan yell, "Jack's back!" And knowing Augusta as intimately as he does, it will be years before Nicklaus tees off for photographers at dawn at the Masters.
Ceremonial status, to Nicklaus, may just be a blind from which to ambush a few more milestones.