2005: British Open - A finely scripted farewell

St. Andrews, Scotland

The sign has been hung on Jack Nicklaus’ office door: Gone fishin’.

Jack plans to be in Iceland next week, working on his fly casting technique instead of his golf game. When he walked off the 18th green of the Old Course after playing two respectable rounds in the 134th Open Championship, he ceased being a golfer – at least by his definition.

The man chasing Nicklaus’ record of 18 victories in the professional majors understands the sentiment. Like Nicklaus, Tiger Woods holds himself to the loftiest of standards.

After Nicklaus had finished speaking to journalists Friday, it was arranged for him to cross paths with Woods, who was coming in for his post-round interview. They shook hands and engaged in the standard post-round banter of golfers everywhere.

“How’d you play?” Woods asked.

“I shot 72,” Nicklaus replied. “That’s my best round of the year.”

“I wouldn’t be telling that to too many people,” Woods joked.

Secure with his place in golf history, Nicklaus could laugh.

“I’m not really concerned about what my legacy is in relation to the game of golf, frankly,” Nicklaus said. “I’m more concerned about what my legacy is with my family, my kids and my grandkids. That’s by far more important to me. If I’ve done it properly out here and I can hold my head up to my kids and grandkids, that’s the most important thing.”

This writer didn’t relish the prospect of chronicling the Nicklaus circus. Only three months ago, Jack had bid a matter-of-fact farewell to the Masters. His return to St. Andrews had been previewed ad nauseum. The great man himself had downplayed it. What more could be written?

Truth be known, as the Golden Bear was making his final journey over the hallowed Old Course, I was preoccupied with following the progress ­– 3,700 miles away and two generations removed from Nicklaus – of Michelle Wie, who had won three matches against the guys at the U.S. Amateur Public Links. A victory by Wie at the Publinks, which Hootie Johnson was quoted as saying would earn her an invitation to the Masters, would have been a monumental feat. Certainly more significant than Tiger Woods winning his 10th major (another presumption at the time), which was causing me to consider how to shift gears in our coverage plans for the Open and the Publinks.

Then Nicklaus birdied the 10th hole, which dropped his total to 2 over par. The projected cut was level par, with 1 over a distinct possibility. Nicklaus figured to have realistic birdie chances at the 14th and 18th. Wie could wait; this was getting interesting.

During the time it took to walk from the media center to the 13th, Nicklaus had hit into a fairway bunker and bogeyed the 12th. He burned the edge for birdie at No. 14 then missed a 12-footer for birdie at the 16th.

(Meanwhile, news had filtered out to the Old Course that Wie had lost her quarterfinals match; so much for Plan B.)

Nicklaus bogeyed the Road Hole, but ended his major championship run with a flourish, making a memorable birdie at the last.

Like everyone who knows anything about golf, especially when its played at St. Andrews, I had anticipated the spectacle as Jack crossed the Swilcan Bridge for the final time. But finding myself rooting for him to make the cut was a surprise.

The Nicklaus swansong had been hyped to death. The bridge crossing was scripted. The previous morning, the lines of people waiting to buy Nicklaus commemorative £5 notes issued by the Royal Bank of Scotland (for whom Nicklaus is a ubiquitous pitchman) stretched for hundreds of yards. Within hours, the fivers were selling for at least £25 on eBay. And, hey, being from Western Pennsylvania, I’ve always been an Arnie guy.

Even Jack acknowledged “this was far more ceremony than I ever really wanted.”

What he wanted was to post a decent number.

“My biggest fear coming here was I didn’t want to finish shooting a pair of 80-somethings,” he said.

Thus motivated, Nicklaus went out and beat 11 major winners (Jim Furyk, Todd Hamilton, Nick Price, Ian Woosnam, Shaun Micheel, Ben Curtis, Davis Love III, Mike Weir, David Duval, Rich Beem and Tony Jacklin). Even at 65, the man isn’t lacking for pride.

“I love grinding and trying to make a score,” he said. “That’s what I live for.”

Hence his aggravation at hitting his 4-iron tee shot into the bunker at No. 12. “I was very pleased with myself because I could still get hot under the collar,” he joked.

Will Nicholson had a front-row seat in his role as official observer in Nicklaus’ group. He runs the competition committee for the Masters, is a former USGA president and belongs to the R&A. Holding his hands about a foot apart, Nicholson said: “Jack was this far away from making the cut.” Meaning a half-dozen birdie putts Friday had stopped just short of the cup.

Kay Kessler, a former sports writer for the Columbus Dispatch, has been on the Bear watch too many times to count. He began covering Nicklaus in 1950, when Jack was 10,

and he was here this week. “Jack will not succumb to mediocrity, if he can help it,” Kessler said.

Now that Nicklaus has exited the world stage as a player, he faces the challenge of channeling his relentless drive elsewhere.

“My competitive desire really runs in (golf course) design,” he said. “I enjoy the design work from the standpoint that with your golf game you leave a legacy and with your design work on the ground you actually leave another legacy. You leave something for people to understand a little bit of what you thought of how the game of golf should be played.”

Nicklaus still plays a mean game of tennis, but he’s more passionate about fishing.

“It sounds stupid, but I love fishing,” he said. “I love fly fishing, and I always feel like I can get a little better at it. I’m decent at it, but I think I can get a lot better at it.”

Nicklaus dismissed the suggestion that he doesn’t much care to lose the fish count during trips like the Iceland junket.

“My competition is with the fish, not the people I’m fishing with,” he said.

Sorry, Jack. I’m not buying that one. Not after what I witnessed here.

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