``People have asked me, 'What would you want to do differently?' and I can't imagine anything, frankly,'' he said, ``except have my wife dress me better than she did in 2000.''
That year's Open was actually a dress rehearsal for Friday, and apparently a bad one at that. Barbara Nicklaus has been choosing the outfits for her husband since he came out on tour and neither was happy with the way he looked in photos from what was to have been his last appearance at St. Andrews five years ago.
So this time she chose a replica of the sweater Jack wore in 1978, when he won his second British Open -- a navy blue argyle number -- and sent him on his way.
``They both said 'large' on them,'' Nicklaus explained sheepishly, ``but that was a much larger sweater than the one I wore before.''
His waist may be thicker, his blond hair thinned, and his swing an abbreviated version of what it used to be. But Nicklaus hasn't lost the ability to thrill. After an opening-round 75, he shot 72 and wound up missing the cut by two strokes. Judging by the hubbub that gripped the auld gray town, he may be the only one who cared.
Nicklaus hasn't been in contention at a major since the 1998 Masters, and if truth be told, for dozen years before that. But the reason applause rippled with every step he took is that Nicklaus never stopped caring, never stopped trying and never, ever set foot on a golf course, even at 65, when he didn't believe deep down he could win.
One hundred and sixty-four majors, 18 victories spanning a remarkable 24 years, another 19 second-place finishes, and each accomplished with more grace and character than any sportsman before or since. Saying he was an inspiration to several generations of major winners only tells the half of it.
A young Tiger Woods taped a list of Nicklaus' accomplishments to his bedroom wall and set out to check off each one. Future Masters winner and southpaw Mike Weir wrote Nicklaus when he was a teenager growing up in Canada, asking whether he should change over and try to hit the ball right-handed. Weir received a handwritten reply.
``If the greatest player of all time tells you to stick to it,'' he recalled a few years ago, ``then I was going to do it.''
Six-time major winner Nick Faldo watched flickering images of Nicklaus playing the Masters on a TV screen in England and three months shy of his 14th birthday, knew exactly what he wanted to do for the rest of his life. His mother cut his hair like Jack's the following day and sent him off for lessons at a club outside London.
``They should make him out of gold,'' Faldo said Friday at the Old Course, ``and stick a little Jack on every tee box.''
Two-time major champion John Daly was 4 years old when he fell in love with golf and began checking the newspaper each day to keep up with a series of cartoon-style golf tips featuring Nicklaus.
``I learned the grip, the cut and the draw. And that,'' Daly recalled 35 years later, ``is how I learned to play.''
But it wasn't just champions that Nicklaus touched.
On both sides of the Atlantic, he played the leading man in the game's greatest dramas. That's why the men who run the British Open moved the tournament back to St. Andrews a year earlier than originally planned -- so Nicklaus could bow out here in the final year of his exemption. Like the rest of us, they remember his epic 1962 U.S. Open battle with Arnold Palmer at Oakmont, his 1977 ``Duel in the Sun'' with Tom Watson at Turnberry, his closing rush in the 1986 Masters at age 46. If they could, they would let him play forever.
Such miracles aren't easy to reproduce. But because Jack is who he is, no one is sure there isn't a Xerox machine tucked in one of the side pockets of that huge golf bag one of his kids is always lugging around. And in the same way that he raised his hands over the years to still cheering galleries so an opponent could putt, Nicklaus put a stop to such talk.
``If there's one person in this room who doesn't wish he could go back 20 or 30 years, I'd be very surprised,'' he said. ``But I don't want to do it again. I kind of enjoyed what I did. I don't know whether I'd be as successful today going out there or not, playing against those guys.
``I think I would,'' he added. ``That's the way I'd feel. But who knows?''
The answer is easy.
``He,'' said Woods, without wavering, ``is the greatest champion that's ever lived.''
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