There are 156 good reasons—one for every man in the field—for denying Jack Nicklaus another special exemption into the U.S. Open, but the real reason he probably won't tee it up this June at the Olympic Club is never mentioned: Some people within the USGA think the organization should get out of the nostalgia business. Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer have each been given five exemptions into the Open already, and that largesse, the hard-liners argue, was not only excessive but also a bad precedent.
They needn't apologize for taking that position. Unlike the Masters or the PGA, which give former winners lifetime passes, or the British Open, in which an ex-champion can play until he's 65, the murderously tight fairways of the U.S. Open were never designed to be memory lanes. With more than 7,000 golfers clawing to get in, every spot is precious, particularly when as recently as 1996 a sectional qualifier, Steve Jones, won the championship.
The time seemed right for a no-Nicklaus stance, even if that meant ending his amazing streak of playing in 152 consecutive majors—including every U.S. Open since 1957. No one, including the 58-year-old Nicklaus, was surprised when the USGA concluded its recent annual meeting, the traditional time to announce special exemptions, with no mention of the Golden Bear. The tough guys had spoken by saying nothing. Since then, new USGA president F. Morgan (Buzz) Taylor has kept the door cracked open for Nicklaus for a few more months, but realistically Jack's chances of playing this summer in San Francisco are slim and none.
I think the USGA is making a mistake. Nicklaus still belongs in the U.S. Open, and not only for this year. He deserves a lifetime exemption.
Forget the streak. The number is too fantastic- Nick Faldo has the next longest current streak, at only 42 straight—and too hard to remember. There are better reasons for Nicklaus to be at Olympic.
First, he still has the game, and the majors bring out his best. Even at the Open, where the merciless conditions expose his weaknesses, Nicklaus's course management skills, age-defying putting ability and enormous will make him a viable competitor. Remember, in the last two Opens, Nicklaus finished 27th at Oakland Hills and 52nd at Congressional. Also, in a Shell's Wonderful World of Golf match last year at Olympic against Johnny Miller, Nicklaus shot a par 70 that the vanquished Miller called "classic U.S. Open-style golf." On a typical USGA setup, where distance isn't vital, Nicklaus has proved that he can still excel.
Second, as long as Nicklaus is competitive, his presence carries historical weight and offers the possibility of grand theater. Although USGA officials love to clinically describe the Open as an "examination," behind closed doors they salivate at the remote but delicious prospect of having Nicklaus in contention for a record fifth title. Such an occurrence would give their championship the shot of glamour it lacks when compared to the showy Masters and the worldly British Open.
Finally, Nicklaus should be included because he wants to play. He's not being coy when he says he would accept a special exemption, he just doesn't want to look as if he's asking. Nicklaus is on the record about never wanting to be viewed as a ceremonial golfer. Not only can the greatest player of all time be trusted to know when it's time to quit, but he has also earned the right to go out on his own terms.
If Nicklaus believes he still belongs, that's good enough for me.