It was no surprise when Jack Nicklaus's mother died last week in Columbus, Ohio—she was 90 and had been ill for two years. But Helen Nicklaus had played a sort of game with death, hanging on and enduring a little more pain than necessary to satisfy her curiosity about a few remaining things. "She wants to die," a doctor told Jack, "but not right now."
Nicklaus repeated that line over and over at the PGA Championship. The words encapsulated not only his mother's reluctance to let go—"She was a tough old gal," he said—but also his unwillingness to concede to the erosions of time. Nicklaus, at 60, has an artificial hip and a back so stiff that he has to eat breakfast standing up. But when it comes to tournament golf, he is like his mother: ready to quit...but not right now.
That may have changed last week. Nicklaus shot a first-round 77 at Valhalla, and afterward you could read abdication in his every word and gesture. "I felt kind of inadequate out there," said the winner of a record 18 major championships. Nicklaus said it, however, without the usual edge of self-reproach. He looked serene, affable and content. All it took, apparently, was one tournament round with Tiger Woods, who has become a sort of walking retirement brochure for golfers half Nicklaus's age. Woods shot a 66 last Thursday for a share of the lead, and the golfer of the last century could only watch in admiration and try to keep up. "I did the best I could," Nicklaus said following his first round, "but I tried to stay out of his way. I'm basically ceremonial."
That, of course, was exactly what the PGA of America had in mind when it paired Nicklaus with Woods and Masters champion Vijay Singh. Nicklaus and Woods had never played a tournament round together, and both wanted the opportunity. Nicklaus fondly remembers playing with Gene Sarazen at the 1971 PGA, when the Squire was 68. The old man was wowed by the youngster then, and Nicklaus conceded that it was no different last week at Valhalla, where Woods hit shots that left Nicklaus gaping and showed a grasp of course management reminiscent of the Golden Bear in his prime.
"He's playing a game I'm not familiar with," Nicklaus said, repeating the famous line uttered by the great Bobby Jones about him. With a twinkle in his eye, Nicklaus added, "And I'm playing a game I'm not familiar with, either."
It could have been ugly, but it wasn't. Ugly was what happened to Nicklaus at the other three majors of 2000. At the Masters he made the cut but shot 81-78 on the weekend and finished 54th. At the U.S. Open he shot a second-round 82, his worst score in 44 Opens, and missed the cut. Finally, at the British Open he not only missed the cut but also missed the point, refusing to rule out another appearance in the oldest major.
Not until he put his game up against Woods's at Valhalla did Nicklaus stop trying to pull the bandage off in wimpy tugs and simply give it a big yank. The results were a little better—he shot a second-round 71 and missed the cut by only one stroke—and his last PGA had a pleasing finality to it, particularly his last shot to the 18th green, a sand wedge that nearly spun back into the hole for an eagle. His fans bellowed the usual encouragement, and he was greeted at every green with prolonged ovations. "I didn't know if they were applauding to get rid of me," he joked, "or just saying thanks." It was the latter, of course.
What made Nicklaus's appearance feel right was the presence of Woods. There was a sense of passage, the old golfer and the young golfer walking side by side on the hills of Valhalla, the two greatest golfers of all time meeting at the millennium. Woods looked at Nicklaus and saw everything he hopes to be, not just a man with those 18 majors but also an icon of sport with a love for competition that time can't diminish.
Nicklaus, in turn, looked at Woods—at his power, his finesse, his resolve, his youth—and saw himself in the glass of time. "I wouldn't want to spend the next 20 years trying to beat him," Nicklaus said after Thursday's round. But a smile immediately spread on his face: "I take that back. Of course I would."
It was the perfect exit line.