He leaned forward just a bit, eyes widening, and revealed what's going on in his mind.
'I would say the chances of not seeing me here next year are a lot greater than seeing me,' Nicklaus said Wednesday. 'It's far better than 50 percent that I won't play here anymore.'
Just don't start planning a farewell tour. Nicklaus is leaving that sort of thing to Arnold Palmer, who is playing in his 50th - and final - Masters.
Adoring fans have followed the King around the course during the practice rounds, straining to get one last glimpse at the funky swing, that subtle wink, that charismatic smile.
Nicklaus hasn't been playing to the crowd. No, he's trying desperately to get his game in shape for one last Augusta charge.
Maybe he can make the cut. Maybe he can get close to the leaderboard. Maybe he can ...
'I'd say 10th would be a pretty good week,' Nicklaus said, quickly realizing that he wasn't sounding like a six-time champion. 'If 10th is pretty good, then it's probably time to hang up my spikes.'
Nicklaus isn't much for pomp and ceremony, which may be the reason he won't come out and say it: This is his final Masters.
Everyone would make a big fuss about it. He prefers to fade away quietly, without anyone noticing.
'I liken Arnold to Bob Hope,' Nicklaus said. 'Arnold would rather go to dinner with 50 people he doesn't know than two friends. He enjoys being out there. He enjoys the adulation. I think that's wonderful.'
'I'm not built that way,' he said.
Nicklaus doesn't want to go through another year like 2003, when he shot 85 in the first round - his worst score at the Masters.
The galleries still cheered, which only made things worse. Nicklaus wants to earn the acclaim. He doesn't want sympathy.
'Sure, I enjoy it,' he said. 'I enjoy it when I'm playing well. If not, then I'm a miserable wretch.'
Of course, Nicklaus has been hinting for years that the end is near. He's 64 now. He hasn't been a serious contender since 1998. He's never sure when his back will start hurting. He yearns to spend more time on his beloved fishing boat, reeling in marlin.
He knows it's time to step aside.
'I came to that decision a long time ago,' Nicklaus said. 'It's just how to stop playing. It's a very difficult thing to do. It's something I've done all my life. It's something that I know has to come to an end sooner or later. There's only one person that's going to end it, and that's me.'
With typical ambiguity, Nicklaus left open the possibility of playing again.
He said he came back this year because he didn't want to go out with an 85. So, would another poor showing send him into retirement, or keep the competitive fires burning? What would happen if he actually shot a decent score?
'Do I love playing golf?' Nicklaus said. 'Absolutely.'
After Hootie Johnson decided that past champions could only play the Masters to age 65, Nicklaus and Palmer persuaded the club chairman to reverse course. They wanted to go out on their own terms.
Palmer, who initially said the 2002 Masters would be his last, got another chance to revel in the spotlight. His long farewell even seems to have skewed his place in Augusta history.
'After Bobby Jones founding this place, I guess Arnold has meant more to the Masters tournament than anyone,' Johnson said Wednesday.
Even more than Nicklaus?
No one has more green jackets. No one provided a more stirring tournament than Nicklaus in 1986, winning his sixth Masters at age 46. No one played so well for so long (remember that sixth-place finish in '98, when Nicklaus was 58?).
Nicklaus took no offense from Johnson's statement. This is Arnie's moment - even if it does turn out that they're leaving together.
'This is what Arnold enjoys,' Nicklaus said. 'That's why it's been so hard for him to quit. He enjoys people so much.'
Nicklaus has a different perspective. Don't even try persuading him that his mere presence at Augusta National is worth it - no matter what score he shoots.
'People come up to me and say, 'Oh, Jack, don't quit playing Augusta. We like to see you play,'' he said. 'But how much do they really see me play? They walk up on me and say, 'Oh, there's Jack, let's see him hit this 5-iron.'
'Then they go see Tiger.'
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