Legends Have It

By Rex HoggardJune 3, 2009, 4:00 pm
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DUBLIN, Ohio ' Nearly an hour after the cameras and microphones had been switched off Jack Nicklaus was still perched against a wall in the Memorial press center answering questions.
 
Every question, no matter how inane, deserved an answer. Its a circle of life thing ' kids need heroes, late night needs Letterman, and, as Wednesdays skins match proved, Tiger Woods needs Nicklaus.
 
Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus
Tiger Woods and Jack Nicklaus played alongside one another Wednesday. (Getty Images)
More so than any other player, living or dead, active or perched on a couch, Nicklaus is Woods ultimate litmus test even some 30 years removed from the formers prime.
 
It wasnt Arnold Palmers 62 PGA Tour titles or Byron Nelsons 11 consecutive victories streak pinned to the Southern California prodigys bedroom wall. It was Nicklaus 18 major door prizes that turned the skinny kid into Superman. And Wednesdays skins match between Woods, Nicklaus and six others ' no matter how contrived ' showed how much the Golden Bear still means to the games golden child. And how much Nicklaus thinks of the current world beater.
 
When the scribes finally fell silent early Wednesday, Nicklaus took his leave with a wink: Got somebody to grill this afternoon. For all of Woods accomplishments, the old man still holds the upper hand on the kid, at least for four more majors.
 
Nicklaus doesnt seek the spotlight nor the rush of competition any longer. That hole has been filled by grandkids and bone fishing and a golf course design business nearly as prolific as his Hall of Fame career. But this was for the good of the tournament. His tournament.
 
So instead of 54 hacking Morgan Stanley executives and clients taking their turn at muddy Muirfield, it was Woods and Nicklaus and an A list supporting cast providing warmth on the coldest of June days.
 
But then, not all exhibitions are created equal.
 
Its a truth that could be seen in the cold wet faces of the thousands who lined the back nine on Wednesday to get a glimpse at silly golf at its finest. Among that group as the rain worsened was Chris Stroud. The third-year PGA Tour pro cut short his practice routine to work his way into the crowd because, Its Jack.
 
Awesome, really special, said Stroud through wide-eyes and an even wider smile. What other sport can you have an all-time great with a future all-time great playing side-by-side. Bowling? Darts? Its just incredible.
 
Nicklaus and Woods will be eternally linked, and whether it was the economy or politics or just good fortune that drew them together for one final lap so be it.
 
Nicklaus may have reluctantly agreed to the outing, but when organizers paired him and Woods in opposite groups the legend big-footed the proceedings as only an 18-time major winner can.
 
They had me paired in the other group and I said, unh-unh, Nicklaus said. I havent played with him for nine years. Ill throw my 98 mph club head speed at him.
 
He knew what he was getting into. Nine holes on one of the Tours longest layouts alongside one of the circuits most pointed trash talkers. And he loved every minute of it ' from his opening drive, which he playfully reckoned travelled about 180 yards, to his two-skin clinching birdie on the groups second hole.
 
Only in golf can generational lines be crossed so seamlessly. Even a semi-aged ace like Nolan Ryan would have little luck against one of todays sluggers, but Wednesdays exhibition was a beautifully blended cross between an all-star game, reunion tour and a water polo match.
 
The course was long and his back cold, but in brief fits and bursts Nicklaus showed that you can remove the legend from competition, but never the competition from the legend.
 
The main similarity I see is they both have the ability to focus in on task, said Stewart Cink, the cellophane man in Wednesdays marquee four-ball. Whether its on Wednesday at a charity event like this or on Sunday at a major championship, they both just lock in on the shot and do what they have to do.
 
This was challenging for Jack, to hit good drives just to get to the fairways. He only missed one fairway. To see him lock in, its very reminiscent to what Tiger does.
 
Although hes not one to get lost in nostalgia, even Woods recognized the significance of Wednesdays game. Before the match he recounted his first round with Nicklaus, a practice outing at Augusta National before the 1996 Masters.
 
You know, tall, thin looking 1-iron kid. Arnold birdied the last hole to take all the skins, Woods remembered. I remember Jack not being happy about that. And basically said, let's go get Arnold on the Par 3 course. But I don't have a tee time. He said, We'll work it out. For them to invite me to play basically 27 holes with them, certainly a day I'll never forget.
 
The last time the two were paired together was at the 2000 PGA Championship at Valhalla. Knowing Nicklaus needed something special on his 36th hole to make the cut, Woods pushed as only a fellow immortal could, Hey Jack, lets finish the right way.
 
On Wednesday it was Woods who saved his dramatics for the closing credits, a chip that trundled across the 18th green and into the hole for four skins and the title. It surprised no one, least of all Nicklaus.
 
Didn't surprise me. Didn't surprise him. When you look at it, he just said, Oh, OK, Nicklaus said.
 
In the end, Nicklaus applauded the galleries, who braved temperatures that never got higher than 50 degrees and a steady rain. Day like today, I wouldnt have been out there. Not even to watch Nicklaus and Tiger, he said.
 
He would have missed a historic show.
 
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