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Nicklaus Is Doing Golf a Big Favor

On Tuesday last, Jack Nicklaus, who had shot the opening round of the U.S. Open and three rounds of the Canadian Open in the 60s, was playing in Kansas City with Curtis Strange, Tom Watson and Lee Trevino. He shot the back nine in birdie-birdie-par, eagle-birdie-birdie, birdie-birdie, and then missed a 10-footer on No. 18 for another bird.

“When are you going to quit the regular tour, Jack?” some reporter wanted to know.

Jack looked at him. “I can’t quit on a missed putt!” he said.

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Jack Nicklaus will be 50 in January. It was the considered, reflective opinion of most dedicated golf watchers years ago that Nicklaus would long since have stopped trying to make birdie putts by that age.

The consensus was, Arnold Palmer would die in a sand trap someplace at 90. He would die with his spikes on and an iron in his hand.

Nicklaus? Nicklaus, we said, didn’t love the game of golf the way Palmer did. Nicklaus was a prisoner of his own talent. The minute the putts stopped dropping, the drives stopped soaring, the minute he needed a four-wood where he used to use a four-iron, the minute the sand traps got deeper, the greens slipperier, Jack would pick up, we said.

When he began designing golf courses, we nodded sagely. Nicklaus would rather design a par-three than birdie it, we told each other.

Nicklaus, we said, was like a power pitcher. The minute the fast one tailed off, he was out of there.

Sam Snead, everyone gravely assured himself, had this great, gorgeous one-piece swing that could repeat forever. Sam would play as long as he could see the pins. And he did. Jack would be something else. We were positive Jack would not even play the senior tour.

Nicklaus hit the ball so far when he first came on tour that nobody ever noticed the purity of his swing. A man who hit the ball that hard had to have a swing something could go wrong with.

Actually, Jack had a swing like a symphony. He was not the mechanical automaton everyone assumed. Nicklaus was a great athlete.

Sam Snead won a tournament at 52 years 10 months, the oldest winner ever. But Nicklaus won a major when he was 46. Only Julius Boros, who won a PGA championship at 48, ever surpassed that. Snead won his last major, the Masters, when he was 42.

We were right about one thing: Nicklaus will not go on the senior tour when he reaches 50. That’s because he’ll still be on the regular tour. He still plays from the tiger tees and tells young lions, “I believe you’re away.”

Nicklaus was the longest straight driver in the history of the game. The conventional--and incorrect--locker room wisdom was that he didn’t have any short game because he never needed any. Short games are perfected by guys who miss greens, who can’t get on par-fives in two.

Jack Nicklaus had as impeccable a short game as anyone on tour. You don’t win 71 tournaments--and three British Opens--without one. As for putting, in his heyday, he could make Ben Crenshaw look as if he had the yips.

Jack was through here the other day. He was opening to the media his newest design, the lordly layout at Lake Sherwood near Malibu being built by financier David Murdock at roughly the cost of the War of 1812. It’s a lovely, 7,000-yard, lake-lapped, mountain-fringed green belt with fairways like pool tables and greens like velvet. Greg Norman will be the host of a tour tournament benefiting Ronald McDonald House here in November.

You can join for $100,000, but not all the fairway houses are going to cost $10 million, just most. The clubhouse is Tuileries West, the oak trees, carefully preserved, are 600 years old, and Nicklaus knows every blade of grass on it and what the short way to the hole is.

You would think a Nicklaus course would be all par-fives, or something brutish like Pebble Beach. But Jack maintains that he favors subtlety over power.

“Golf should be fun,” he says. “You should go home feeling good.”

It is the 55th or 56th golf course Jack Nicklaus has designed, including some in Indonesia, Guam, Taiwan, Burma and Australia as well as several on the Continent.

Jack’s predilection for golf course architecture was originally supposed to be injurious to his concentration on his game, but on reflection, it’s hard to see why. The nature of the business is such that it keeps him focused on golf more than ever, Jack insists. You design a course with a five-iron as well as a slide rule. It isn’t as if his sideline were the trucking business, he points out.

The evidence would seem to bear him out. Nolan Ryan is throwing one-hitters at 42, Kareem stayed in the low post till he was 42--and the young leaders in major tournaments still turn to their caddies anxiously to ask, “Anybody heard what Nicklaus is doing?”

“He is a legend in his spare time,” Chi Chi Rodriguez once cracked.

It’s not true. Jack Nicklaus doesn’t have any spare time. As he was describing his latest Sherwood course on the 18th green for the press Wednesday, a helicopter hovered noisily overhead, waiting to ferry him to the next golf course. Jack is either on a fairway or in a seat belt on his way to one.

The great Bobby Jones, Nicklaus’ idol, quit tournament golf at 28. The game’s prophets figured Nicklaus would pick up at about 38.

Don’t bet on 88. Turns out Jack loves golf just as much as we duffers who don’t play it nearly as well. And that’s the best news the game has had since he took it up.


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