Outlined against hulking Superstition Mountain in the pale morning light, a familiar swing sent another ball soaring through the desert air. A gathering of fans murmured approval, but the golfer was displeased. "One-eighty," Jack Nicklaus derisively muttered, mocking how far he had hit the practice-range drive. Perspiration formed on his weathered face as he leaned on his driver and gingerly bent over to tee up another ball. Nicklaus took a deep breath and straightened to stretch his back. As he grimaced, he spied a cameraman from PGA Tour Productions nosing between the men around him—his coach, Jim Flick; his caddie, Scott Lubin; and television commentator Ian Baker-Finch, who had stopped by before Sunday's telecast of the final round of the Countrywide Tradition. The cameraman asked Nicklaus if he could film a few swings. Nicklaus chuckled, pretending to be perplexed. "Why would anybody want a shot of this?" he asked. "I wouldn't."
Jack is back, sort of, although he's playing a game with which he is not familiar. There are no more towering iron shots and intimidating drives. Because of his tender back, the 62-year-old Nicklaus is unable to create power by driving through a shot with his legs. There aren't enough putts dropping either. What's left is the heart and the mind of the greatest golfer of the 20th century, and last week, playing in his first real tournament since last July, that was enough to produce 16 birdies as well as a wind-whipped one-under-par 71 on Friday that easily could've been a 66 had his short game been sharper.
Nicklaus's return put a much-needed skip in the step of the Tradition, the Senior tour's first so-called major championship of the season. This year the tournament was moved from the Golf Club at Desert Mountain's Cochise course to the Prospector course at Superstition Mountain, east of Mesa, Ariz. There has also been talk, unconfirmed, that the tournament could be downsized as soon as next year, its status as a major transferred to the Senior British Open.
Jim Thorpe and John Jacobs enlivened the finish. The $300,000 first prize went to Thorpe, who birdied the 72nd hole to catch Jacobs, then birdied it again to end a playoff. ( Jacobs's four-foot bid to extend overtime beyond a single hole dived halfway into the cup, but then the hole spat out the ball like a cat coughing up a hair ball.) Jacobs, who lives in nearby Scottsdale, salved his disappointment later by popping open a can of Michelob Light and saying, "I should've had one of these before the playoff."
The dramatic ending sent everyone home happy, but nobody pleased the crowds more than Nicklaus, who drew big galleries even on Sunday as he put the finishing touches on a 12-over-par 300. That left him in 69th place in the 78-man field, his worst finish ever on the Senior tour. Nicklaus, though, caused a roar when he rolled in a 25-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole. "I always do that," he said. "It leaves a better taste."
He needed something to savor. The optimism of the first two days—Nicklaus opened with a 73 and was in 24th place at the midway point—turned to discouragement on the weekend. When his back acted up on the back nine on Saturday, so did his score, and he wound up with an 81, his worst round as a Senior. The nadir was a triple-bogey 7 on the 15th hole. Nicklaus pulled his drive into a hazard, and when his attempt to chop out of the rocks failed, he was forced to go back and hit another tee shot. Not wanting to further hold up play, Nicklaus rode to the tee in a cart. Big mistake. "By the time I got back there to hit, I could hardly move," Nicklaus said. "I was worn down. That was eight days of golf in a row. That's more than I played back when I used to play."
Jim Holtgrieve, whose pairing with Nicklaus on Saturday was a reprise of their first-round draw in the 1983 Masters, knew something was wrong. "Jack said he wasn't in pain, but you could see that he couldn't finish his swing," Holtgrieve said. "He'd flip his hands through the shot. On 16 he called me over because his stance was on a sprinkler head and he wanted to take a drop. He almost couldn't pick up his ball. After the round he came out to the range and tried to hit a few wedge shots, but he couldn't do it."
The harsh reality was that after two promising days, Nicklaus looked and played his age on the weekend. He also learned his lesson about sitting in a cart. On Sunday morning, when he rode a cart from the putting green to the 10th tee, he didn't sit on the seat. He stood on the back bumper of the cart instead, hanging on to the roof supports as if he were a forecaddie.
Clearly, Nicklaus has reached the final chapter of his competitive career. The question is, How many pages are left? Nicklaus says that one of his doctors describes the X-rays of his spine as a "war zone" and isn't sure if surgery would help. Nicklaus says he has now sent MRIs of his back to a host of doctors and has received four different opinions about what's wrong. "That really put me in a funk," he said. Realistically, the odds on the heavily damaged back of a 62-year-old improving markedly are too long even for Phil Mickelson to wager on. Regardless, history and your heart tell you never to write off someone like Nicklaus.
Unless you're the Masters. The new guidelines announced last week by tournament chairman Hootie Johnson mean that next year's Masters will most likely be Nicklaus's last. Starting in 2004, past champions 65 and older won't be allowed to compete, and other past champions must have played in at least 15 tournaments the previous year to remain eligible. Nicklaus is unlikely to enter that many tournaments next year even if his back—and his game—recover. In addition to Nicklaus, 2003 will also be the swan song for 66-year-old Gary Player; Tommy Aaron, 65; and Charles Coody, who'll turn 65 in July. "I'm hurt by it, like everyone else," says Nicklaus, who became a member of Augusta National last year. "You're hurt the most by the things you love the most, and I love the Masters a lot. This is a tough spot."