At 7:15 on Sunday evening, Air Bear barreled down the runway of Tampa International Airport. In his seat aboard the Gulfstream IV-SP, Jack Nicklaus sipped ice water from a plastic cup, looked across at his wife, Barbara, and smiled. It was like old times for the Nicklauses. Jack was heading home a winner.
From one of the eight cushy leather seats in the cabin, Hale Irwin raised a cup of Diet Coke. "Well, Jack, if I had some champagne, I'd toast you," he said.
"If I had some," Nicklaus replied, "I'd drink it."
They were making the 23-minute flight back home to West Palm Beach after Nicklaus came from five strokes back to win for the 99th time as a professional. On this occasion it was the GTE Suncoast Classic, against the strongest Senior tour field of the young season. Irwin, Raymond Floyd, Lee Trevino, Tom Weiskopf—the guys Nicklaus used to take on in the 1970s and '80s—were all at the Tournament Players Club of Tampa Bay at Cheval, battling wind, cold and, ultimately, the greatest player the game has ever known. Nicklaus whipped them all, shooting 68-67 on the weekend for his ninth Senior tour victory. What made the win particularly sweet was that it came just six days after Nicklaus, in a news conference, had admitted that he was ready to end his record streak of consecutive appearances in major championships. It also came at a time when he was full of doubt.
On the Thursday evening before the tournament, in the TPC parking lot, Nicklaus sat on the edge of the trunk of his car, turned both palms skyward, shrugged his shoulders and tried to explain how a bunch of grinders he used to dust with regularity were now taking him to school. In the season-opening Tournament of Champions, Nicklaus had finished tied for sixth behind the likes of John Bland, Jim Colbert and Graham Marsh—the "marginal players" he used to stare down on the 1st tee. Now Nicklaus seemed to be the marginal player. He no longer bombed intimidating tee shots past the other players. In fact, just weeks before, he had finally set aside the old, persimmon-headed MacGregor three-wood that he had carried for 38 years and used in each of the 18 majors he won, opting for a graphite-shafted, metal number in an attempt to gain back lost yards. Once the most dominant force in all of golf, he had not won, not even on the Senior tour, in almost 10 months. During that stretch he had lost two close decisions, the kind he usually won, to Weiskopf in the U.S. Senior Open and to J.C. Snead in the Senior Players Championship.
"I'm somewhere between respectable and lousy," Nicklaus said. "When you're hitting it all over the world, it doesn't matter if you're here with the seniors or on the regular Tour. I am so frustrated about the way I'm hitting the ball."
Those who have followed Nicklaus's career probably could have predicted what would happen next. Backed into a corner and complaining, Nicklaus found just enough game to work himself into contention and then let his instincts take over. And no one has a better instinct for winning. Of course, it didn't hurt that some of the contenders played as if they were auditioning for a part in Dead Man Walking.
Poor play was predictable last Friday, when a wicked front blew into Tampa and turned the weather raw. Colbert, last year's Player of the Year, made a five-footer at 18 to break 80. Floyd was not so lucky. He shot 80. Marsh made a nine and shot 84, which was topped by Harold Henning, who made an 11 during a round of 88. Al Geiberger, who had won the previous week in Naples, was the only player to shoot par 71. It was so cold and windy that at one point Geiberger sought refuge in a portable toilet. Luckily, it was not the one that blew over on the 15th fairway.
It was the kind of day that Nicklaus has come to dread, and one reason that he probably will pass on July's British Open and let the consecutive major streak come to an end at 138. When he's layered in sweaters and a turtleneck, his backswing, which has shortened with age, gets even shorter. "With a lot of clothes on, I just can't get it back," he says.
Sloppy bogeys on three of the last four holes turned what could have been an acceptable 73 into a beastly 76. That night at dinner Barbara killed Jack's appetite by asking, "When was the last time you opened with a 76 and won the tournament?" The answer was never.