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Nicklaus Has Seen It Before

Jack Nicklaus, popular American athlete, tried to get a grip Tuesday on how he felt about the possible postponement--in case of war--of popular American athletic events such as the Super Bowl, scheduled for Jan. 27, or even something like the Senior Skins Game, of which Nicklaus is expected to partake on Super Bowl Sunday.

To play or not to play.

“That’s a very difficult question,” Nicklaus said. “Off hand, I think it’s good for the morale of the general public to continue to do business as usual, or to be provided with entertainment. If you shut down the United States, it might be more harmful than helpful.

“But I appreciate that the President has a very difficult situation. Morale and support on the home front can be very important at times like these, but if what we do can be construed in any way as risky or counterproductive, then athletes and all Americans should rally behind their country and do whatever’s best.”

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The games people play proceeded as planned during previous U.S. wartime involvement, including the Vietnam years, when a younger Nicklaus was in his prime. Now, five days from his 51st birthday, the Nicklaus who decided to “semi-retire,” to use his word, would prefer to provide anxious Americans with a pleasant diversion than to call off all non-essential activity.

It is not a special cause for him. He was merely responding to a question. Yet, Nicklaus remains something of a dignitary in American sport, and, like it or not, his example can influence others.

He, Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Chi Chi Rodriguez and Gary Player form the star-studded cast for the $450,000 Senior Skins Game Jan. 26-27 at the Mauna Lani resort in Hawaii. No man among them would prefer to have anything more nerve-racking than a three-foot putt on his mind when that weekend comes to pass.

Golf life is coming full circle for Nicklaus, who finds himself easing into his elder-statesman phase just as a 20-year-old amateur, Phil Mickelson, verges on becoming the most talked-about player in golf. Mickelson, a junior at Arizona State, has duplicated Nicklaus’ feat of winning both the U.S. Amateur and NCAA championship in the same year, and last Sunday he became only the third amateur since 1954 to win a PGA Tour event.

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Mickelson: Son of Nicklaus?

“I’d have to call him the brightest young star we’ve seen come on the scene in a long, long time,” Nicklaus said.

He even gets a little wistful, just thinking about it.

Reminded how he left Ohio State early to join the tour, Nicklaus said: “It hasn’t affected my livelihood any, but it’s one of the few things in my life I didn’t finish, and that’s something I still regret.”

While respecting that Mickelson is old enough to make up his own mind, to be an adult, to go his own way--to go to war, even--Nicklaus is old-fashioned enough to encourage him to get a diploma to hang above his trophies. The world already is populated by too many individuals who thought they would make it through sports alone.

“I played with Phil one time, and I thought he was a very impressive hitter of the ball,” Nicklaus said. “He’s got a fantastic short game.

“I just love to see young kids make a quick splash--and, for a change, he’s an American golfer this time. Mickelson’s also left-handed, so that’s something out of the ordinary he has going for him.

“But I think he should probably finish up his college education. Kids today have a tendency to want to get out in the world too early. Or maybe it’s always been that way. It’s the same problem I had. (Ben) Crenshaw was probably the last one to have that kind of success so young. But that’s our life. We chose it.

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“Mickelson should just be careful. If he starts picking up the newspaper every day to read about how good he is, it could distort things. Because I don’t care if you’re Joe Montana going into your third straight Super Bowl or Magic Johnson or whoever, even if you’re at the top of your sport, you’ve always got a lot of pressure on you. You just have to put on your blinders and go out there and play.”

Nicklaus doesn’t do much of that anymore.

The 18 holes he played Sunday marked his first full round in a month. He went 28 days without picking up a club. Even when he enters some tour event such as the coming AT&T; tournament at Pebble Beach, it is mostly because his son, Steve, enjoys the relaxed atmosphere and playing at his side.

“My tennis game is better than my golf game, to tell you the truth,” Nicklaus said.

The man who has won 20 major championships is hardly convinced there will be no 21st. He is, nevertheless, a realist.

“I wanted to semi-retire, to be something between a ceremonial golfer and a real golfer. I owe it to the guys and to the public to go out and compete some, and I still enjoy playing. But to play 25 tournaments is just not realistic. I’ve built a business (golf-course design) where there are over 150 people now who look to me to guide them in making a living. I owe them my time and attention.

“As you’re growing up, you have that burning desire to get better and better, to climb that hill. I used to be out practicing four or five hours a day, minimum. Now, I’ll find myself saying, ‘Well, the Masters is a long way away. We can start worrying about that next week.’ You don’t have that kick in the rear you need.”

Golf is Nicklaus’ trade. He is glad to still be plying it, glad to still be playing it. Strolling up a fairway alongside Arnold Palmer, well, it pleases him, makes him feel young again.

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Yet there are, after all, other walks of life.

“Given a chance of playing golf or, say, going fishing, I think Arnold would play golf every time,” Nicklaus said. “I’m not sure that I would every time. Or have every time.”


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