In the end, the biggest surprise was that he didn't win the damn thing. After four remarkable decades in golf, Jack Nicklaus had us taking two things for granted: He will play forever, and he will play his best when the world is watching. Sadly, neither presumption holds any longer, as Nicklaus made official last week at the Senior Players Championship. The day before the tournament he finally yielded to the inevitable, announcing his withdrawal from this week's British Open, thus ending his record streak of playing in consecutive majors for which he was eligible at 154, including the last 146 in a row.
The bones in Nicklaus's left hip have long been engaged in a nasty sort of tectonics, grinding away his ability to practice and compromising his incomparable swing. In recent months the dysfunction has grown more acute. Still fiercely proud at 58, Nicklaus decided that he was no longer interested in showing up at Grand Slam events if the objective was simply to not embarrass himself. The degeneration of Nicklaus's hip has been known for years, but despite the many hints that he has dropped about ending the streak, the announcement was a stunner. "Are they even allowed to hold a major without Jack?" asked Jim Albus, voicing the collective dismay.
Having become the No. 1 topic of conversation throughout golf, Nicklaus, as always, was eager to make a statement on the course. At the TPC of Michigan, in Dearborn, a course he designed, he opened with a cool 67, just one back of leader Hale Irwin. "The [announcement] has taken a big weight off me," Nicklaus admitted after the round. Last Friday a birdie at the 5th hole shot him to the top of the leader board, and knowing looks were exchanged in the locker room, the pressroom and among the fans.
No athlete in any sport is as self-aware of his legend as Nicklaus is, and considering the emotion of the week, it seemed almost inevitable that he would produce one more victory for the ages (never mind that Nicklaus hasn't won a Senior tour event since the 1996 Tradition). Unfortunately, the renaissance lasted only five holes. On the par-4 10th, Gil Morgan holed a wedge for eagle, leapfrogging over Nicklaus into the lead. For Jack, it was a slow fade from there. On Saturday he made seven birdies, but because of some uncharacteristic sloppy play, he shot an even-par 72. With no chance to win on Sunday, he shot an indifferent 70, finishing at nine under, 12 shots behind Morgan, who won with a course-record 267. "This is not the end," Nicklaus said gamely, but it sure felt that way. At the very least, it felt like the beginning of the end.
Next week Nicklaus will tee it up in the U.S. Senior Open, at the Riviera Country Club near Los Angeles, but beyond that, his playing future is uncertain. (Last week Nicklaus also withdrew from August's PGA Championship.) "I don't intend to play the rest of the year," Nicklaus said at last Wednesday's press conference. He talked about wanting to spend more time with his eight grandchildren, wanting to properly rehabilitate his hip and, finally, wanting to escape the oppressive responsibility that comes with being Jack Nicklaus during those four weeks of the year when he strolls the tightly mowed memory lanes that double as the fairways at the majors. "What I have had to do to prepare has consumed me on almost a 24-hour basis, and I have never been consumed by anything before," he said.
Nicklaus would have been content to end his streak at 153 after this year's Masters, in which he tied for sixth, but in March the USGA offered a three-year exemption into the U.S. Open, and he felt obliged to accept it. He's already talking about next year's Masters and Open, at Pinehurst, N.C., and he still has every intention of playing all four majors in 2000, a year of probable swan songs as the U.S. Open visits his favorite course, Pebble Beach, and the British Open returns to St. Andrews.
How the Olden Bear is going to whip himself into shape for those championship courses remains a question. Last week he seemed amenable to having the hip replaced, and he has sought the counsel of George Archer, who has had both hips surgically redone. But Nicklaus also said, "I would first like to continue with the Egoscue method and see how that progresses." He was referring to Peter Egoscue, the Southern California physical therapist with whom he has worked since the mid-'80s.
Reached at home in Del Mar last week, Egoscue said flatly, "[Nicklaus] is not going to have a hip replacement. It's not joint pain that he is suffering from, it's muscular pain, which is very good news for Jack because it is eminently treatable. Look, he can play for as long as he wants if he commits himself to the rehabilitation." According to Egoscue, Nicklaus has a muscle imbalance in his torso, with the left side being dominant. Egoscue says it was this condition that also led to the herniated disk that had Nicklaus pondering retirement in 1987. "The reason the left hip is breaking down is because it has been doing all the work all these years," Egoscue says. "The condition is not golf-induced, it's lifestyle-induced." Nicklaus has long been under orders to do exercises and stretches designed to strengthen his right side and improve his balance, but only recently has he displayed any vigilance. (He was late to his historic Wednesday press conference because he was stuck in the fitness trailer.) "We've held [Nicklaus's condition] at bay all these years; we've never had the chance to cure it because he hasn't had the time to devote," Egoscue says. "I'm encouraged because I think that's going to change now."
If the rehabilitation is within Nicklaus's control, it would be unwise to bet against a full recovery, especially with his noted ability to impose mind over matter. (In 1967, for example, when he wanted to lose weight, Fat Jack ordered some suits that were two sizes too small.) The big winner in all of this could be the Senior tour. With a retooled hip and a playing schedule no longer built around the Grand Slam events, Nicklaus says he would be eager to make up for lost time among his contemporaries. "I haven't supported the Senior tour to the level that I think I should," he says. "I'd like to do that." In fact, Nicklaus decided to skip the British Open in part because he wanted to be rested for the Senior Open. "In this time of my life I'd like to win the U.S. Senior Open." he says. "That's probably more important to me right now than competing in the British Open."
Nicklaus's star power is a boon for any tournament, but the Senior tour can get along just fine without him as long as Morgan and Irwin continue their rivalry, which is the best in golf. At Dearborn they stalked each other throughout the weekend, with Morgan's insanely hot putter proving the difference in his three-shot victory. Sunday marked the sixth time since the start of the '97 season—Morgan's first full year as a Senior—that Irwin and Morgan have been paired in the last group for the final round. Each man has now won three times. Despite Morgan's hefty $300,000 haul in Dearborn, he still trails Irwin by nearly a quarter of a million dollars in this year's money race. In other respects, though, Morgan has already eclipsed his rival, the 1997 Senior player of the year. This season he has won four tournaments to Irwin's three, and two majors to Irwin's one. ( Lee Trevino, in '92, was the last Senior to win more than one major in a year.)