Nicklaus called Johnson after the new policy was revealed. "We talked a long time," said Nicklaus, who argued against the restrictions by saying he probably wouldn't have been eligible to play in the 1986 Masters, which he won, had the new rules been in place then. A check of the records, however, shows that Nicklaus played in exactly 15 tournaments in 1985. Since '86, though, he would've been eligible only four times. Nicklaus has no problem with the age limit, only the minimum, which he feels is arbitrary. "I don't want to spout off, especially since I'm a member," he said on Sunday as he trudged to the clubhouse following his round, "but how many Masters do you think Ben Hogan would've played if they'd had this rule?"
Gary Player said that Clifford Roberts, the first Masters chairman, promised him that he could play in the tournament as long as he lived. "They gave Arnold [Palmer] an opportunity to play until he was 72, then all of a sudden they come out with 65," Player said last week. "I'm sad and surprised. I was trying to become the oldest player to make the cut."
The biggest surprise of Johnson's announcement was that the new rules weren't performance-based, especially when you take recent history into account. Aaron made the cut as recently as 2000, while Player last made it in '98, the same year Nicklaus was in contention on Sunday.
Other Seniors, such as Raymond Floyd and Tom Watson, applauded Johnson's move. ( Watson even faxed Johnson a letter of support.) Floyd, 59, called the changes fair and regretted that they were necessary. "We're kind of a club, the past champions," he said. "As a group, we probably abused [the lifetime exemption] somewhat. Guys teed off and withdrew every year. Playing one or three holes and withdrawing got to be the norm, not the exception."
Floyd claimed that Johnson had precedent for the new policy. In 1971, Floyd said, Roberts sent letters to several older past champions asking them not to play. Gay Brewer, Billy Casper and Doug Ford received similar letters this year from Johnson. The new policy means that Ford, 79, has a stranglehold on the record for most starts in the Masters, with 49. To eclipse that mark, a player would have to qualify for the tournament when he was 16 and play every year until age 65.
Even though he was disappointed with the news from Augusta and his play on the weekend, Nicklaus left Arizona feeling better about the state of his game than he has in a year. "I've been moping around," he admitted. "I wasn't sure if I'd ever play again." Finally regaining full strength after having his left hip replaced in January 1999, Nicklaus began to have problems with his back after a lengthy practice session at the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf in April 2001, "and it hasn't stopped hurting one day since then," he said. The week before the Tradition, though, Nicklaus used an electronic stimulator on his abdominal muscles, and he felt well enough to tee it up in a tournament for the first time since he pulled out after the first round of last summer's Ford Senior Players Championship. Now at least he has hope. Early in the week at Superstition Mountain he said he didn't care about competitive golf anymore, but by tournament's end he had hit enough good shots to say that he was looking forward to playing in his own tournament, the Memorial, on May 23-26, with Tiger Woods. He also predicted that he would contend in a Senior tour event before the year is out.
After patiently signing autographs on Sunday, Nicklaus took an ambitious shortcut to the parking lot, up a steep bank covered with loose stones. "This wasn't such a great idea," he admitted halfway up as he struggled to keep his footing. With a nudge from behind by two security guards and a steadying arm from an acquaintance, he made it safely to the top. "Thanks for the push," Nicklaus said to the guards.
It wasn't much, but like his week at the Tradition, a little push was enough to keep Nicklaus going.