Originally created 06/02/04

An ageless game, an age-old problem



DUBLIN, Ohio -- Jack Nicklaus sounded as if he were ready to retire.

"I don't think my golf game is good enough to play anymore," he said. "It doesn't make any difference if it's a major championship or anywhere. When your ability is leaving you, then you go do something else."

The words were spoken at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, but not last week at the Senior PGA Championship.

Nicklaus said it four years ago at the PGA Championship after missing the cut by a shot while playing for the first time with Tiger Woods.

His honest appraisal hasn't changed since then. Neither have his plans for tournament golf, which are just as muddled.

Nicklaus has no problem saying goodbye to the game he dominated like no other.

He just doesn't know when - or how.

As he prepared to play in the Memorial Tournament for the 28th consecutive year, Nicklaus reached a double-edged conclusion. While it may be a blessing that golfers can keep playing well past the age that other athletes retire, for him it has become a curse.

"In many ways, it is," Nicklaus said. "Actually, the golf ball has been a curse. Because without the golf ball and without the equipment, we should have been done 20 years ago. It was a blessing for a lot of fellows, and actually it allowed senior golf to become a viable enterprise.

"But it kept a lot of guys in the game long beyond their really useful athletic ability."

John Elway won a second straight Super Bowl and retired. Ted Williams hit a home run in his last at-bat. Nicklaus won his sixth Masters in 1986 and wondered then if he should walk away from the game.

"I probably should have," the 64-year-old Nicklaus said Tuesday.

He has not won again on the PGA Tour. His last victory on the Champions Tour was eight years ago.

But even as Nicklaus becomes the ceremonial golfer he swore he would never be, he has no regrets.

"From a lot of standpoints you would say, 'All right, bye-bye.' But I couldn't do that," Nicklaus said. "I enjoy playing golf too much. There's too much competition left in me."

The biggest competition he faces now is within himself. His desire to win is losing out to his disinterest in proper practice. Nicklaus says he lost the desire to prepare for tournaments a couple of years ago, and he knows not to expect anything but mediocrity when he shows up on the first tee.

Nicklaus got ready for the Masters by going fishing for four days. He played nine holes between missing the cut at the Masters and playing on the Nationwide Tour. And he played nine more holes - only because he opened a new golf course - between that and the Senior PGA Championship.

"Is that preparation? No," he said.

So why play?

"I enjoy the tournament part of it," he confessed. "I've been that way for a couple of years. I keep playing tournaments, and I know I'm not prepared to play them. Why am I doing that? It's ridiculous. There's no excuse for not being prepared. So if I'm not going to play, don't play."

Nicklaus has no plans to play the rest of the year, but he expects to be at the Memorial next year. He probably will play in the Masters again. And as long as he can walk and swing a club, expect to see him at the 2005 British Open for one last trip around St. Andrews.

The Royal & Ancient moved St. Andrews up one year on the rotation because next year ends Nicklaus eligibility.

"I almost feel like if I'm able to do so, I would go back in 2005 at St. Andrews because they did that," Nicklaus said. "I love that golf tournament. I love St. Andrews. And I love going there."

Beyond that?

"I don't know what I'm going to do," Nicklaus said.

One thing is certain. When Nicklaus figures out that it's time to quit, he won't make a big deal out of the occasion. Television cameras won't document his arrival in the parking lot, or capture him sitting alone in the balcony of the clubhouse.

"I'm not interested in that," Nicklaus said. "I had my day. That's sort of how I look at it."

When was his day?

"Between age 23 and 46," he said, referring to the six green jackets he won.

The only tribute Nicklaus had at the Masters was when the club presented him a bronze plaque on a fountain in 1998 to commemorate his 40 years at the tournament. Then, at 58, he made a Sunday charge and tied for sixth.

He had no qualms with the regal treatment of Arnold Palmer, who played his 50th and final Masters this year to such fanfare that Nicklaus cracked, "You didn't even know there was a golf tournament happening until Arnold was gone."

"It was a very nice tribute to Arnold, and I think it was very fitting," Nicklaus said.

He said Masters chairman Hootie Johnson called him Saturday after Nicklaus missed the cut and urged him to return in 2005 so fans can give him a proper farewell.

"I said, 'Hootie, why don't you say goodbye to Hogan, Snead, Nelson?"' Nicklaus said. "It's become a media, press, television thing. That's what people want, and that's fine. But I don't really want to do that."

Odds are, Nicklaus will get his way.