CHERRY HILLS VILLAGE, Colo. – On Sunday night, Jack Nicklaus said it again: “If I had but one round to play, I’d like it to be at Pebble Beach.”
Nicklaus made the statement during a dinner at the Inn at Spanish Bay Resort, where he was one of the honorees at The Langley, a tribute to former Cypress Point pro Jim Langley and a charity fundraiser event.
So what possibly could keep Nicklaus from passing on playing Pebble in the Langley Pro-Am the next morning?
Jack doesn’t play much golf these days, but this still took something special. And indeed it was. His son Gary, a 43-year-old reinstated amateur, had qualified for the U.S. Amateur. Pebble would have to wait.
“I wanted to be here,” Jack said.
Especially, after what happened the last time Gary was supposed to compete in this championship, in 1990, Jack said.
On that occasion, Gary had qualified for the Amateur at Cherry Hills, where his dad had nearly won the 1960 U.S. Open. But Gary never got a chance to compete. He was rushed to the hospital and diagnosed with pericarditis, an inflammation of tissue surrounding the heart. He withdrew from the championship and spent a week in bed. Jack visited every day.
“He was a very sad young man,” Jack said.
Gary turned pro the next year and failed in his first eight attempts to earn his PGA Tour card. On his ninth attempt, he made it. In 2000, he nearly won a tournament, losing a one-hole playoff at the rain-shortened BellSouth Classic in Atlanta. Soon his game soured, and by 2003, he gave up chasing a card and became involved in the Nicklaus family business interests. But the itch to compete returned, and Gary applied in 2007 to regain his amateur status.
“All my boys got their amateur status back,” Jack said. “Heck, I think I’m going to get my amateur status back.”
Last month, Gary was runner-up in his local qualifier to earn a spot in the field of 312 in the U.S. Amateur. Jack didn’t even know Gary had signed up. He was overseas, but when he heard the good news he was giddy and asked where the U.S. Amateur would be held. “I said, ‘Great. Looks like we’re going to Denver,’ ” Jack said.
Gary got off to a jittery start Monday. He said it was his first competition outside Palm Beach County, where he lives, in 10 years. He was 4 over through seven holes and bogeyed both par 5s. He switched from cross-handed to a conventional putting grip and poured in birdies on four straight holes, from Nos. 8 to 11, to get back to even par and shot 1-over 71 at Common Ground Golf Club.
So his chances of being among the 64 players in the field to advance to match play would depend on his round at Cherry Hills. There was Jack at the 10th tee at 8:20 a.m. local time to watch his son. Jack’s return to Cherry Hills stirred memories. Spectators took turns approaching him to tell their “I was there when” story. They spanned from when Jack won the U.S. Senior Open in 1993 to an old-timer who said he was there in 1960 and walked 36 holes when Jack was paired with Ben Hogan on the last day of the Open. Afterward, Hogan said, “I played 36 holes today with a kid who, if he had a brain in his head, should have won this thing by 10 strokes.”
Jack said he received a lesson in course management that day. Hogan put on a ball-striking clinic.
“He didn’t power the golf ball; he just put it in play every hole,” Jack said. “He hit the first 34 holes in regulation. He didn’t miss a shot.”
But mostly, Jack stayed in the present and on the periphery. This was Gary’s time. Jack leaned on an umbrella and clapped for his son.
“It’s always tougher to watch,” he said. “Especially your kids.”
Gary hit a familiar fade. He said he hits the ball better now than when he played on Tour. But the putter, the club that plagued him as a pro, still gives him fits. He took three putts from 60 feet on the par-5 17th and completed his first nine holes in 2 over. There wasn’t much to cheer about until Gary rolled in a 15-foot downhill birdie putt at the seventh hole. There was still hope.
“That’s one,” Barbara said.
But that was the only one. His 10-foot birdie putt on No. 8 broke more than he expected from left to right. On his final hole, he chunked his approach into the front right bunker and couldn’t get up and down. It added up to 3 over and a 36-hole total of 146, making him just a footnote among the casualties who failed to qualify for the match-play portion of the championship.
Jack made his way over to his son, slipped an arm around Gary’s shoulder and in a comforting voice said, “Hey, we’ll get ’em next time.”