SAVANNAH, Ga. — A massive line along the putting green at The Club at Savannah Harbor on Wilmington Island suggested something special in the Monday morning air.
Sure enough, Jack Nicklaus arrived in a golf cart, posed for a picture with a worker and his son, and prepared to take a few practice putts.
He drained his second warm-up putt – a 25-footer.
“It’s a historic day for golf in Savannah,” said Greg Wojcik, of Callawassie Island, S.C. “It’s a chance to see a legend.”
Nicklaus was the main attraction of this year’s Demaret Division of the Liberty Mutual Insurance Legends of Golf.
He’s 73 now, rarely plays, but he agreed to partner with Gary Player in the division for golfers 70 and over.
They’re playing for the first-place prize of $60,000 apiece.
“I haven’t played (competitively) in eight years, and I haven’t been this ticked in eight years,” Nicklaus said about the round of 3-under-par 69, which included three consecutive bogeys on the front nine.
The team of Lee Trevino and Mike Hill – accompanying Nicklaus-Player in a foursome – shot 65 and was one shot off the division’s leading duo of Frank Beard and Larry Ziegler entering today’s final round.
Nicklaus admittedly didn’t play well, but a gallery of about 400 – maybe the biggest ever for a first day – wouldn’t have cared if he failed to break 100.
“I’m a huge fan,” said Rudy Wurtemberger, of Hardeeville, S.C. “Just look around and look at the people. If it weren’t for Jack, they wouldn’t be here.”
Fans held iPhones and iPads to document every move of Nicklaus’ first trip to Savannah. They braved the cold and wind of the morning and gave a hearty applause for Nicklaus’ introduction at the first hole.
The man really smiling throughout Monday was Joe Rotellini, the executive director of the Liberty Mutual Insurance Legends of Golf.
“I think any time you have (players) of that stature playing in your tournament, it would be like the PGA having Tiger Woods playing in it,” Rotellini said “It creates a buzz and it brings notice to the event, which in turn brings notice to the community. … If you’re in Savannah or in the area and you want to see the greatest golfer who ever played, you can come out and do it very (inexpensively).”
Nicklaus arrived in town Sunday and had dinner at the Pink House. He said he had been to the Savannah/Hilton Head International Airport and Gulfstream Aerospace Corporation, but never had walk-around time in Savannah.
“It’s a very old, quaint Southern town, pretty, I really enjoyed it,” Nicklaus said.
He’s no longer the golfer who won 18 majors and 122 professional tournament overall, and he rarely plays these days.
“That’s why I don’t play,” Nicklaus said. “I had no problem walking away. I had plenty to do. … Rather than frustrate myself, I stayed away from it.”
Fans, of course, wish he would reconsider.
“(Seeing Nicklaus) was pretty much what we were looking forward to,” said Jackie Brasher of Savannah, who followed Nicklaus and his group through the first nine holes before she stopped for lunch with a friend.
It was a festive day for all, particularly after the sun peeked out to warm the afternoon.
Trevino and Hill acknowledged Nicklaus’ status made the tournament a little more fun.
But Trevino saw one drawback.
“The only thing that bothers me is all the eBay collectors are here, and I have to sign all that stuff,” he said as Nicklaus began to sign autographs. “They’ll eat good tonight. Hey, Jack, sign my name over there, will ya?”