It was buried in all the nostalgia of Arnold Palmer's 50th finale at Augusta National. It was dismissed as trivial after years of retirement rhetoric.
It can't be ignored anymore. The greatest champion the Masters Tournament and golf have ever known is on the verge of quitting both. Jack Nicklaus is becoming more and more emphatic that the end is nigh - if not history already.
"I don't think I'm going to play again," Nicklaus said in April after missing the Masters cut with consecutive 75s. "I'm just about done. I've had enough."
If you thought that was merely the Golden Bear crying wolf again, listen to his words as the playing host prepares for what may or may not be his final Memorial Tournament this week:
"I don't think I'm competitive anymore. ... I don't enjoy preparing for a golf tournament ... and I don't really have a lot of interest in wanting to do that. ... I don't know what I'll do at Augusta. ... I don't need to play golf anymore."
Sure, we've heard this kind of fatalism from Nicklaus before, but this is serious folks. When Nicklaus doesn't need to play golf, he'll stop. He's not like Palmer, whose relationship with the fans is a life elixir.
Nicklaus, who hasn't won anything in eight years, craves the competition more than the camaraderie. If that's gone, he won't be far behind. That he spent the week before the 2004 Masters fishing for four days shows that he has all but traded in his clubs for tackle gear already.
The overwhelming sendoff bestowed upon Palmer in April might have made it more likely that Nicklaus will declare his retirement from the Masters retroactively to avoid the spectacle.
It's not what the Masters wants, as Augusta National chairman Hootie Johnson indicated when he called Nicklaus after hearing his post-round comments.
"Jack, please come back," Johnson told him. "Our fans want to say goodbye."
The problem is, Nicklaus isn't particularly fond of farewells.
"I'd rather go back on Wednesday and play the Par 3 and say goodbye there, frankly," he said.
The six-time Masters champion says he had his day at Augusta "between the ages of 23 and 46." He doesn't need a celebratory week such as Palmer.
"I think that Arnold was consumed by the media and the television coverage," Nicklaus said of the saturation exposure of Palmer's 50th Masters. "I don't think Arnold really wanted to be the center of attention as much as happened last year. You didn't even know there was a golf tournament happening until Sunday when Arnold was gone."
Nicklaus wouldn't like overshadowing his favorite tournament. Certainly he has enough ego to enjoy the attention, but he also has too much ego to endure the indignity of being simply "ceremonial."
Yet Nicklaus is thinking seriously about playing in the British Open at St. Andrews next summer because the Royal & Ancient moved the site up a year in the rotation specifically because it would be the last year Nicklaus would be eligible. He was not satisfied with the enduring image from his St. Andrews sendoff in 2000, sourly posing on the Swilken Bridge en route to missing the cut.
"My wife said, 'You need to go back again. If I knew you were going to miss the cut I never would have let you dress that way,' " Nicklaus said of his yellow outfit. "I looked like a balloon."
The reason Nicklaus might return to the British Open is because of the gesture the R&A made for him and the sentiment he has for that event and place.
"I love that golf tournament, I love St. Andrews and I love going there," he said. "I don't want to go there and just stumble around, though."
That's exactly the same way he feels about the Masters and Augusta, which is why he's likely to come back for at least one more try before he quits for good.
After winning the 1986 Masters at age 46, Nicklaus joked that if he was smart he would walk away from the game immediately while he was on top.
"I probably should have," he said Tuesday.
He didn't, he said, because "I enjoy playing golf too much. There was too much competition left in me."
At age 64, that's not the case anymore. Nicklaus was "embarrassed" that he shot 85 in the first round of the 2003 Masters. He says that's the reason he came back again this year to leave on a more respectable note. It's what probably will bring him back in 2005, since his paltry putting cost him a legitimate chance at making the cut this time.
"That would have been a pretty good way to finish, so I might go back again," he said. "I don't know what I'm going to do. If I'm going to go back, I'm going to have to prepare myself to do that."
We should be as prepared for the possibility that Jack won't be back. But if we promise not to make such a big deal about it, Nicklaus is likely to give us at least one last look.
Reach Scott Michaux at (706) 823-3219 or email@example.com.
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