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Lone Regret
Michael Bamberger
October 16, 2006
Thirty-two years after the incident, Jack Nicklaus wonders if there's a blemish on his spotless career
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October 16, 2006

Lone Regret

Thirty-two years after the incident, Jack Nicklaus wonders if there's a blemish on his spotless career

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This is the underpinning of all tournament golf: We believe the scores. After Annika Sorenstam plays her opening round at the Samsung World Championship this week, the AP will report that the defending champion shot some two-digit score. No headline will say, sorenstam claims to shoot 68. She'll turn in a score, and we'll trust it.

"That's right," says Jack Nicklaus, about to tell a vintage (1974) story that he has never before told in public. "Without that, it all falls apart."

Nicklaus understood the rules at a young age. In 1953, pudgy 13-year-old Jackie Nicklaus of Columbus, Ohio, was playing in his first national championship, the U.S. Junior at Southern Hills. "I got to the 1st tee maybe 30 seconds before my tee time," he says. His opponent was there, ready to go. Joe Dey, the USGA's executive director, was on the tee too. Dey was a man with a rule book in one blazer pocket and a Bible in the other. Nicklaus remembers him saying, "Young man, had you arrived here a half-minute later, you'd be walking to the 2nd tee 1 down." That's the match-play penalty for showing up late--automatic loss of hole. In stroke play the penalty is disqualification. Sure, it's harsh. Life is harsh. Young Jackie was all ears with Mr. Dey.

Nicklaus went on to play high-level amateur golf through the 1950s and on the Tour through the '60s, '70s, '80s and '90s. He was never late for a tee time. Not once. Every time out, thousands of times all told, he counted his clubs on the 1st tee and his strokes in the scorer's tent. His golf manners were famously pensive and laborious--Angie, find a rules guy, he'd tell his caddie, Angelo Argea--but he was always sure about what he was doing, and his career was unblemished by a single rules fracas.

Yet one incident has been on his mind for 32 years now. During the fourth round of the 1974 British Open at Royal Lytham, Nicklaus was in the hunt, trying to catch his friend Gary Player. On the 15th hole, a long par-4, Nicklaus's approach finished in a pot bunker 80 yards short of the green. Nicklaus tried to blast out, but the ball caught the wall of the bunker, ricocheted off it, went over Nicklaus's head and back into the trap. During his follow-through, his clubhead smashed into the wall of the bunker "and a whole lot of crap went flying," Nicklaus says--pieces of turf, sand, small rocks. Nicklaus lowered his head to keep the debris out of his eyes and something hit him on the back of his shoulder.

There was a rules official walking with the group--Dey, on the scene again, less than 10 feet from Nicklaus.

"Did the ball hit me?" Nicklaus asked. Dey, the first commissioner of the modern PGA Tour, was one of Nicklaus's mentors.

"No," Dey said, "the ball went over you. It never touched you."

"O.K. then."

Nicklaus butchered the hole. In the scorer's tent, before signing his card, he turned to Dey and asked again, "Are you sure?"

"Absolutely," Dey replied.

Nicklaus signed for a 71 and finished third, five shots behind Player's winning score.

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