As the crowd groaned, Nicklaus' body sagged. Frustration was etched across his face.
'I played very well, I just didn't get the ball in the hole,' he said Thursday. 'To be 2 over par at this point is a little disappointing.'
Nicklaus hasn't been a serious contender at Augusta National since 1998, when he finished sixth. At 64, the six-time champion hinted earlier in the week this might be his last visit as a competitor.
What he didn't want was some warm-and-fuzzy farewell tour. And if Nicklaus can't leave as the winner, the least he wanted to do was give the younger guys a run. If he'd made a few of those putts Thursday, he might have been in contention.
Instead, Nicklaus finds himself at 2 over after 17 holes.
'I hit the ball very well, played well,' he said after his round was halted by darkness. 'But this is a golf course where you've got to make some putts, and I didn't make putts.'
If the Golden Bear can find a way to do that, it could still be an interesting finish. Considering some of the power-hitters on tour now, his drives no longer draw raves. But what Nicklaus lacked in distance, he made up for in accuracy.
At the par-4 14th, his drive went 310 yards before landing in the middle of the fairway. His second shot landed 30 feet to the right of the pin, and it looked as if he'd read the tricky break perfectly as the ball rolled right at the cup. But it kept going, even as he yelled, 'Break!' When the ball finally stopped 5 feet past the hole, Nicklaus looked at the gallery and said, 'That wasn't good, was it?'
At least he tapped in for par, just as he did after missing birdie putts on Nos. 13, 14 and 16.
Nicklaus wasn't as fortunate on 17. His drive hit a fir tree on the left side of the fairway and landed behind another, shorter tree. He skimmed the branches with a beautiful, low shot that climbed to the front edge of the green, about 35 feet from the pin. The fans whooped and whistled, and Nicklaus rolled his first putt to within 4 feet of the cup.
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