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Their Leader Stumbles, but Golf’s Faithful Masses Still Follow

The Golden Bear no longer is golf’s golden boy, but the galleries still gather around, round after round, to examine his every movement.

They watch him sip water. They watch him wipe his brow. They strain across restraining ropes to overhear the most insignificant chit-chat between the sultan of shots and his caddy, be it the old pro with the sunbaked Zorba face, Angelo Argea, or the 24-year-old blond with the familiar features, Jack Nicklaus II.

They still cannot take their eyes away, regardless of the quality of what they are seeing.

No more is he the favorite in whatever tournament he enters, but Jack Nicklaus remains a favorite of the mobs. At each hole, not just the 18th, he receives generous applause as he strides toward the green, and back-thumping encouragement after every decent shot.

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Eighteen times a round or more, he must never forget the friendly wave from the fairway, the courteous nod from the fringe and the smile of acknowledgment as he proceeds to the next tee, lest anyone in the crowd feel that The Great Nicklaus has abandoned his fans.

How they embraced him Thursday as he teed off in the Masters, the classic that he has won five times!

No matter what Nicklaus did, even when he clanked one into the woods on the day’s third hole, the temptation near the tee was to applaud each shot by Nicklaus as if it were a guided missile, streaking toward the pin. And oh, how forlorn those Southerners sounded when the ball came down somewhere else.

“Weh’s Nick-louse?” one would ask.

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“Inna bunka,” another would answer.

Side by side, ever hopeful, they would pursue him through the paths and pines of Augusta National, crossing fingers that somehow, somewhere in his bag of sticks, Nicklaus would find the missing wand. The one that won 70 pro championships. The one that would put him where he was supposed to be, on the Masters’ first-round leader board, above the Bill Kratzert and Ken Green types who probably learned how to play using Nicklaus-signature clubs.

The spectators continued to study every Golden Bear swing, every step. They seemed mystified when eight-foot putts refused to fall, or when Nicklaus stepped up to a 155-yard par-3 and double-bogeyed.

Arnold Palmer can go out and card 80 and catch no one by surprise, but let Nicklaus shoot a 74 and it’s a disappointment, a dirty shame. It’s like proof that he belongs 158th on the season’s money list, which he is, and that he no longer can cut the mustard at age 46, which he also is.

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These are conclusions that Nicklaus has been contesting. He still considers himself a threat to win at any time, even though “I haven’t played very well lately,” and will entertain no question as to whether he intends to play in Senior Tour competition when he qualifies for it in four years. He is not yet some old bogeying fogey.

When athletes in other sports lost whatever edge made them excel, they often retired to a lifetime of golf. What, then, is a Nicklaus to do?

He could keep playing, publicly and second-tier competitively, as do Palmer and Sam Snead and other heroes of Masters past, or leave his followers with memories of him strictly at his best, as did Ben Hogan. He could happily stay on display, like Ali or Rose, or quietly get off the stage, like DiMaggio or Borg.

When Nicklaus pulled up to the Augusta National course this week, driving the car himself, he said the mere sight of the driveway was enough to get his juices flowing.

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The mere sight of Jack Nicklaus, though, did not seem to worry his peers as it once would have.

“I think the players now respect him more for what he has done and what he has meant to golf than for his game,” said Corey Pavin, for one.

Said Tom Kite, for another: “I think you’d have to say he’s past his prime.”

No disrespect intended. They were being brutally honest, though, and a listener practically winced as Kite continued.

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“But it’s also not like you wake up one morning and find out you’re not in your prime,” he said, regarding Nicklaus. “You don’t all of a sudden just lose it. He’s not at rock-bottom yet.”

It is disconcerting to hear the man spoken of this way. Fellow golfers still recite Nicklaus’ credits with reverence, and always toss in a disclaimer to protect themselves, should he find the magic once more. But even the compliments seem to be delivered left-handed.

“I think he can still win it,” Greg Norman said. “He’s still got the nerve--maybe not as much as he once had--but he’s still got it.”

What Nicklaus also still has is the charisma. He can light up lives, as he did Thursday, just by materializing on the first tee of the Masters in a crimson sweater, waving to an adoring crowd.

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He had been paired on the first day of play with an amateur, Craig Verplank, the Western Open champion, an Oklahoma State college student of 21. Jack Nicklaus has shoes older than 21. But this Verplank kid has skill and nerve and style, they say, and reminds some people of a young Nicklaus, and might even win this Masters, they say.

Nicklaus winked at him at the first tee. “Have a good day,” he said.

Then off they went to play.

Hours later, Verplank struggled home with a 77.

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“Tough day,” you could hear someone say, near the green.

Nicklaus had his 74, only two over par.

“Jack’s had it,” you could hear someone say somewhere else.

Only two dozen golfers had had a better day, but Jack Nicklaus was not just another golfer.

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He curled an arm around his caddy’s shoulder and said, “We’ll see if we can’t do a little better tomorrow.”

Jack Nicklaus II nodded. There was applause for Jack Nicklaus I from a crowd behind the 18th green that immediately parted for him. He smiled to both sides, then gave a little wave.


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