He actually only got one funeral bouquet," Barbara Nicklaus said last Saturday, standing between a volcano and the deep blue sea. "He got balloons that said 'Prehistoric' and an antique rocking chair autographed by his tennis friends. And Greg Norman gave him a whole case of Metamucil. All the things you'd expect."
The volcano, Mauna Kea, was up in the clouds, inland from Hawaii's Kohala Coast. The earthquake, if you didn't feel it, was Jack Nicklaus's birthday. January 21, 1990. Barbara's husband, a half century and six days old, a man acknowledged as the greatest golfer who ever lived, was minutes away from striking his first official shot as a senior golfer. It was a milestone so feverishly anticipated by the golfing press that the Nicklauses began answering questions about it two years ago.
The birthday itself, Barbara said, had been anticlimactic—a little celebration at the Nicklaus home in North Palm Beach, Fla., with 80 or 90 friends and a reggae band in attendance. "We all wore T-shirts with a globe on the front and the words 'The World Has Survived 50 Years of Jack Nicklaus.' He kind of planned his own party, so I wouldn't do it as a surprise."
A week had passed since then, and here was Jack, under the volcano and under the gun. Would he declare his seniority as emphatically as he had his majority 28 years ago? Then, as an overweight, 22-year-old ex-insurance salesman, he had beaten Arnold Palmer in a playoff at Oakmont for his first professional title, the 1962 U.S. Open.
Three of Nicklaus's old costars on the PGA Tour had flown to Hawaii to share the moment, or better yet, to steal it:
•Palmer, 60 and gray-haired, with eyes narrowed to slits by years in the sun without a hat, but still slashing at the ball with youthful vigor.
•Gary Player, 54, the ramrod-straight South African with the monochromatic wardrobe and the incredible sand game; one of only four players to have won all four major championships.
•Lee Trevino, a newly minted senior himself, having turned 50 in December; a five-time winner of the Vardon Trophy for the season's low scoring average and winner of six major championships.
Collectively, the four hold 180 PGA Tour victories, 43 major championships, 14 PGA money titles and nine Vardon trophies, not to mention their $12.3 million in official Tour winnings. If this had been the U.S. Open, or even the senior U.S. Open, played on some great old course like Baltusrol or Cherry Hills, Bobby Jones himself might have rolled up out of his grave and bought a ticket.
Instead, Nicklaus's senior debut came in a made-for-television bonbon called the Senior Skins Game, an event as old and venerable as the cheese in your refrigerator. "Any time I play with these guys, whether I'm 10 or 50 or 100, I'm excited about playing," Nicklaus said last Friday. Maybe so, but he played his pro-am round in pink shorts and ankle socks, suggesting that he didn't think the golf gods were watching.