People didn't believe him last year. I've got a suspicion Jack wasn't sure himself. But as he dragged his 61-year-old body through the paces at each event, something just said, 'It's really gone.' I know - he got a new hip. He felt great for the first time in a long, long while. But the muscles just were not going to cooperate. He could shoot 72s and 73s, but no longer could he match the young men in shooting their 69s and 70s. Retirement - and I mean full retirement - suddenly got a whole lot nearer.
Nicklaus isn't like Arnold Palmer. He doesn't love golf like Arnie, who will go out and slap some balls just for the pure exhilaration of it. Palmer loves getting together with the guys, whoever that is at the moment, playing a little golf, having a little innocent fun.
Nicklaus is wound differently. He might go out and play a round or two with the sons or the grandkids, but he seldom plays solely for recreation. Golf for Jack has been his means of support - period. Golf for Palmer has been his means of support, sure. But it has been so much more for Arnold, a social outlet, a way to get outside and raise a little hell with 'the boys.'
Nicklaus, the ultimate champion, finds it incredulous that he can't win anymore. Deep down inside, he's struggling to come to terms with a body that just can't beat Tiger. He's smart enough to realize when to call it quits, smart enough to read numbers and tell when a 73 just isn't a 67. When he realizes it with finality, it will be over. Nicklaus won't get out there just to be 'out.' He has to have a reasonable chance of winning.
Nicklaus has never been public about his massive ability, but he was certainly aware of it. Oh, how he was aware of it. That's why today, when for the first time in years his body feels fit, he just can't believe it won't crank out a numbing succession of pars and birdies. But there's a thing called 'age' that comes creeping, that slows the swing speed just slightly, that causes putts to lip out instead of finding the cup, and that adds to the score little by little.
'I'm playing reasonably well,' said Jack this week on a conference call to tout the Senior Skins game. 'I've actually been working quite hard on my golf game in recent weeks. If I'm going to give myself a chance to play, I might as well go ahead and play.
'Physically, I'm feeling very good. My foot has calmed down and I have been walking every day. I've taken off some pounds over the holidays, so I have this new body and I'm ready to go.'
Precisely. Jack SHOULD play, although he needs to lower his sights a little. He needs to play because a whole lot of us enjoy watching him. He should play because he just might win a time or two, instead of believing he HAS to win. He still can make cuts, even in the regular-tour majors, and he has every reason to play. The only thing is, he shouldn't be so hard on himself if wins are a little more rare when he walks the fairways nowadays.
That, though, probably isn't Jack Nicklaus. He won't play when he becomes convinced he can't win. But, unlike Palmer, he doesn't believe he will miss it that much.
'I think I could find a way to handle it,' he says with honesty.
'I like to fish and hunt. I enjoy those things, but I never seem to have enough time to do those things. I catch a day here and there. There are a lot of places I haven't gone and a lot of things I haven't done.'
Nicklaus looks back at his life and knows it was golf and time for nothing else.
'All my life, my whole schedule revolved around my next golf tournament,' he said. 'What do I have to do to prepare for it? What do I have to do to prepare my body? What can I do here and now?
'When it happens,' he says, 'I will get plenty of challenge out of other things. As my kids kept me playing when I was ready to slow down in my early 40s, now my grandkids come along and they play golf and say, `Hey grandpa, take us to the golf course!
'So you never know. Life changes, and I change with it.'
This grandpa sounded pretty convincing. You know, he just might really do it. But perform in a regular golf tournament, just so people can see the swing, see him? No, that just isn't Jack Nicklaus.