So much of his legacy was forged at the Masters, a simple goodbye somehow seemed inadequate. This was what the 65-year-old, six-time champion wanted, though. No ceremonial last round, no grand sendoff.
'I don't think I'll play in the tournament again,' Nicklaus said Saturday after shooting a 4-over 76 and missing the cut by five strokes.
'I think it's fine to go ahead and say goodbye and so forth and so on, but I think you say goodbye when you think you can still play a little bit. I think I can play a little bit, but I can't play well enough to be playing.'
There was a time when nobody played better. Certainly not at the Masters.
Nicklaus won six of his 18 majors here (1963, 1965, 1966, 1972, 1975 and 1986), two more green jackets than Arnold Palmer. He was the first to win in consecutive years, and still holds the record as the oldest champion for his last victory at age 46.
'It's a special place,' said Nicklaus' wife, Barbara. 'It's been a special place for a lot of years.'
But it's no longer his place. The Golden Bear hasn't made the cut since 2000, and hasn't been in contention since he tied for sixth in 1998. Unlike Palmer, he never wanted a ceremonial sendoff, loathing the idea that he might have stayed too long.
'This is not a celebrity walk-around,' he said. 'This is a golf tournament. It's a major golf championship. If you're going to play in this championship, you should be competitive and you should be able to compete with who is out there.'
He had planned to make 2004 his last year. But after the March 1 drowning death of his 17-month-old grandson, Jake, chairman Hootie Johnson coaxed Nicklaus into coming back one more time.
After playing several rounds with his sons the last few weeks, Nicklaus agreed.
'I think it was good for everybody,' said his wife, who walked the course with her children and some family friends. 'It's been very heartwarming. Everybody's been wonderful, and the support has been wonderful.'
Nicklaus didn't announce this would be his last appearance. Other players didn't even know this was his final round.
'Hopefully, he doesn't,' Tiger Woods said when asked about Nicklaus leaving. 'We didn't give him a sendoff.'
But Nicklaus wanted to make one last run, not a spectacle of himself.
When he started his second round on the 11th hole Saturday morning, his mind was on the three birdies he thought he would need to make the cut. So he set out with son and caddie Jackie, planning to stay until Sunday.
'He said, `It's either going to be a 16-hole day or a 34-hole day,'' Jackie said.
But he bogeyed three of his first four holes, all but ending his chances. As his score climbed and the numbers he needed to make the cut dropped, fans began doing the math. His galleries grew for his final holes, with appreciative fans standing to applaud every time he walked onto a tee.
'If you're a golf fan, you're a Jack Nicklaus fan,' said Mark Tinsley, of Wilmington, N.C., who watched Nicklaus at the seventh green and then made his way over to No. 9. 'If he's not going to make it, I'd like to see his last hole here.'
Nicklaus refused to think about the end until it was upon him. After putting his second shot on the par-4 No. 9 within four feet of the pin, he knew there was no tomorrow, and his emotions quickly got the best of him.
He and Jackie walked up to the green together and then the son stepped back, making sure his father was front-and-center when he stepped onto the putting surface. Nicklaus looked around, took it all in, then bowed his head to wipe away the tears and compose himself. After all, he still had a putt to make -- a birdie chance, at that.
'His eyes were pretty wet as he got on top of that hill. He got me choked up,' playing partner and friend Jay Haas said. 'I wanted him to make that last putt.'
But it wasn't to be, as the ball burned the right edge of the cup. The crowd groaned and Nicklaus looked around in exasperation. After he tapped in, there was one last smile and wave.
Then he walked to the scorer's shed and turned in his last Masters scorecard.
'It's a treasure for me,' Nicklaus said. 'And I'll miss that greatly.'
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