The Buzz started on the practice range before the first round of the Masters. Jack Nicklaus, stationed between Jesper Parnevik and Jean Van de Velde, warmed up with some half-wedges. When he was loose, he started hitting full shots at a flag about 125 yards away. The first ball nestled a couple of inches from the flagstick. The next one stopped about a foot short. The third dropped just past the pin, no more than two feet away. Three shots, and you could have placed a napkin over them. The spectators in the grandstand behind the practice tee elbowed each other and pointed. Hey, see what Nicklaus is doing?
A few minutes later a chubby guy in designer shades and a lavender sweater, flanked by two green-coated Augusta National members, arrived at the back of the tee. Nicklaus probably would have noticed Frank Chirkinian, the former CBS producer who orchestrated the Masters telecasts for years, sooner if he wasn't color-blind, but eventually he spotted him, and they exchanged brief greetings. "I'm doing all right...for an old man," the 60-year-old Nicklaus said before getting back to business.
Nicklaus began his 41st Masters—he has won six and come in second in four others—with 15 consecutive pars on a day when the scoring was tough due to strong, swirling winds. Three-putt bogeys at 16 and 17 and a par at 18 gave Nicklaus a 74 that, he said, should've been a 69 or 70. The next morning he went out in three-under 33, playing his way onto the leader board and causing a stampede down the hill to Amen Corner. Hey, see what Nicklaus is doing?
A bogey at the 18th gave him a 70, the lowest score ever shot in the Masters by a player 60 or older. David Duval, playing in the group behind Nicklaus, was in a perfect position to watch the round unfold. "It was cool," he said. "Everybody was going nuts."
Nicklaus was doing all right...for an old man, and we should've seen it coming. Nicklaus, who has won 18 majors, says that this will be the last year he will play in all four Grand Slam events, so the Masters marked the beginning of a yearlong sendoff. There were other clues, of course. Nicklaus made a stunning weekend run at the Masters only two years ago. With a hip that was so bad he could barely make a turn on the ball, he wound up sixth. We should've had an inkling two weeks ago when, after struggling with his game during the first three rounds of the Tradition, he fired a solid 67 on Sunday on what is probably the Senior tour's toughest track next to the Senior Open venue.
A final tip-off should've been the pairings for the first two days at Augusta. Nicklaus joined Arnold Palmer and Gary Player in a nostalgic threesome. The Big Three, as they were known in the 1960s, would ride again, perhaps for the last time. It was a sentimental—dare we say ceremonial?—grouping. Nicklaus has always said that he's not interested in taking a trip down memory lane when he comes to the course. He comes to compete. If he wasn't already pumped up for this Masters, being lumped with players who had no chance of winning added extra motivation. "I'm a funny duck," he said after the first round. "I come here to play golf. I said to myself this morning, Get realistic, Jack: They wouldn't have paired the three of us if they thought any of us had a chance. Yet I can't just go relax and play. I enjoy trying to do my best."
Translation: Nicklaus still thinks he can win this tournament, and he's not alone. His son Jackie was his caddie last week, as he had been in 1986, the last time Nicklaus won the green jacket, and as they walked up the 18th fairway on Thursday, he told his dad, "Remember what you shot in the first round in '86? Yeah, the same score. You started making putts each day after that."
There was no miracle finish this year. Nicklaus was blown away like almost everyone else on Saturday, shooting a nine-over 81. He closed with a 78 and came in 54th, 15 over par and 25 shots behind Vijay Singh. But that's not to say there wasn't a miracle. "Jack always does the unexpected," Player said. "Nothing surprises me with Jack. He played unbelievable golf."
Said Tom Lehman, "What Jack did at his age was spectacular. Besides the talent of the man, that shows how well he knows this golf course."
Nicklaus belongs in a museum, but not just yet. He's still doing all right...for an old man.