Standing on the 16th tee of the TPC at Sugarloaf on Sunday afternoon, Gary Nicklaus was living a science fiction fantasy. How do you erase 15 years in an instant? In this case one well-struck eight-iron would do the trick. Nicklaus, a 31-year-old Tour rookie, was in the midst of a sudden-death playoff with Phil Mickelson. A rainstorm had swept through Duluth, Ga., earlier in the day with enough force to wash out the final round of the BellSouth Classic. Tied for the lead at 11 under par through 54 holes, Nicklaus and Mickelson were shuttled out to Sugarloaf's par-3 16th under orders to produce a champion.
Mickelson hit first on the downhill 163-yard hole, producing a gorgeous draw that spun to a stop 18 feet from the cup. All eyes were now on Nicklaus. He went through a series of languid practice swings, his serenity seemingly unruffled. In those blue eyes there was a familiar focus and no fear. Mickelson had played a nice shot, but it takes a lot to impress Nicklaus. He beat his father, Jack, on a golf course for the first time when he was 15, several years after the old man had predicted his son would better his record of 18 major championships. When Gary was 16, he was the subject of a breathless cover story in SPORTS ILLUSTRATED that billed him THE HEIR TO THE BEAR. Pressure Nicklaus was used to.
He finished his practice swings and settled into his shot. Standing over the ball, he was—at 5'10", 180 pounds—a near replica of his father, right down to the forest of blond hair covering his powerful forearms. Of Jack's four sons, Gary bears by far the strongest resemblance to his father. Though both wear size 9�, Gary could never fill Jack's shoes; yet he alone among the Nicklaus boys has had the temerity to try. Passing on the comfortable life of working for one of Jack's myriad companies, as his brothers all have, Gary turned pro in 1991. He would bomb out at Q school eight years in a row, being forced to take his famous name and forgettable game overseas, to Africa, Asia, Australia and Europe. When he was home, Gary played the Florida mini-tours, a nobody named Nicklaus struggling to earn gas money on, of all things, the Golden Bear tour. Through all the hardships and indignities Nicklaus pressed on, pursuing golf with as much passion as his father had, if not with the same results. Year by year his game got better, his resolve stronger. Last fall, after his first full season on the Buy.com tour, then known as the Nike tour, he kicked down the door to the PGA Tour with a final-round 63 at Q school, securing his card. Now here he was in only the 10th tournament of his rookie year, perhaps one good eight-iron from completing his remarkable journey.
Nicklaus's swing has all the power of his father's, if not the precision. He caught his shot a tad heavy, but the ball whistled into the distance, dead on the flag. Standing behind the tee box, Rick Smith, the extroverted instructor who works with both Nicklaus and Mickelson, shouted, "He stuffed it!" Two more feet and he would have. Instead, Nicklaus's ball, and with it his chance of victory, landed with a thud in the front bunker, only six inches from a fat lip. It was an impossible lie, and he could do no better than bounce his second shot backward into a better position. He blasted his next bunker shot long of the hole and watched in vain as Mickelson coolly rolled in his birdie putt for his second victory of the season, a $504,000 check and a ton of momentum heading into this week's Masters.
Jack Nicklaus is not only golf's greatest champion but also its classiest loser, and here, too, Gary seems determined to emulate his father. "If ifs and buts were candy and nuts, every day would be Christmas," Nicklaus said. "This is a big milestone for me. I proved to myself I belong out here and that I can win at this level."
The events of the playoff brought a sudden end to what had been a week of cresting intrigue. Nicklaus had limped into Duluth having missed five of nine cuts, with a 28th at the Honda Classic his best finish of the season. The day before the BellSouth, he was fooling around at the driving range and decided to try relaxing his right arm on his takeaway. This magically freed up his action, and during the first round he struck the ball, in his word, "perfect," hitting all 14 fairways, eagling the 541-yard 4th hole and shooting a 68 despite a pair of three-putts. On Friday, Nicklaus played a wildly entertaining round, making five bogeys, six birdies and yet another eagle when he holed out a 115-yard pitch on the par-5 6th hole. (It was his ninth big bird of the season, tops on Tour.) With a 69 Nicklaus was three back of the midway leader, Joey Sindelar, and one behind Mickelson, who opened 67-69.
That evening Nicklaus spoke with his father, as he so often does while on the road. Jack was in Scottsdale, Ariz., playing a tournament of his own, the Tradition.
"He talked about course management and missing shots in the right place and not short-siding yourself," says Gary, who has the softest of voices and the same gentle manner as his father. "I'm like, yeah, that's great, if you hit the ball where you want to all the time. When I am hitting the ball my best, I probably hit it as good as he did. But he hit it that good all the time."
On Saturday, Gary bogeyed two of his first three holes. Standing on the 4th tee, he could all but hear the old man whispering to be patient. He made birdie on the hole and added another birdie two holes later to make the turn even par on the day. That's when all heaven broke loose. Nicklaus chipped in for birdie on the 10th hole, rolled in birdie putts on 11 and 12, and then drove the green of the 310-yard par-4 13th, two-putting for his fourth straight birdie and a share of the lead with Mickelson.
Back in Scottsdale, Jack was on the 13th hole when play was suspended due to inclement weather. Informed of Gary's surge, he made a beeline to the players' dining area so he could monitor the telecast with his wife, Barbara. When an announcement was made calling for a restart in half an hour, Nicklaus's competitors began heading to the range, but Papa Bear didn't budge. Twenty minutes later he was still in front of the TV, the only player left in the room. "I was sitting there thinking, Can I afford to be late and take the two-stroke penalty?" Nicklaus said. "I'd much rather take the penalty and get to watch Gary play 18 with a chance to take the lead."