The golf world will again by shocked by Nicklaus if the final win of his professional career is the 1996 Tradition, forerunner of the JELD-WIN Tradition. The fact is, however, that more than six years have passed and Nicklaus is now 63 years old. In between that first and that last have come 83 tournament victories in the U.S. and Canada, 11 more internationally, and nine team championships, most with Palmer.
When the Tradition was played at Desert Mountain outside of Phoenix, Nicklaus virtually owned it. He won it the first time he played it, as a rookie on the Champions Tour in 1990. He repeated in 1991, then watched Lee Trevino, Tom Shaw and Raymond Floyd win the next three years.
But in 1995, here was Jack again, beating Isao Aoki in a playoff. And in a tournament that grows monumentally larger each year that Nicklaus doesnt win again, the year 1996 may one day rank as the year of his final victory, that coming at the Tradition.
After an opening round of 68 and a windy second-day score of 74, Nicklaus was a 2 under and four off the lead held by J.C. Snead. On Saturday, however, he fired the shot heard round the world to get into a first-place tie with Hale Irwin.
Nicklaus began the 12th hole two back of Irwin. He hit a good drive on the 500-yard par-5 and sized up his second from only 159 yards away. By coincidence, Irwin was his playing partner that day.
He (Irwin) put a really good shot into that green, and I said Ive got to put this one pretty close, said Nicklaus. I said to Eric (his caddie, Eric Veilleux), Is the pin of one side or the other? And he said, No, its sitting just about in the middle of the green.
I said I could throw it right at the hole ' and it was pretty good.
Nicklaus selected his 8-iron and swung ' and watched the ball track right to hole. When Irwin birdied, the two were tied.
It was Jacks third double eagle. The first came either in college or high school, he cant remember which, at his home course of Scioto in Columbus, Ohio. I was just out with a couple of my friends, he said. Nobody paid much attention to it.
It happened again after he turned pro, in the mid-1960s at the Jacksonville Open. This one at age 56, though, he will remember the rest of his life.
Irwin finished Saturday with a one-shot lead over Nicklaus, and by the same 12th hole Sunday, Irwin was two shots ahead.
Irwin was on the 12th green facing a six-footer for par as Nicklaus was about to chip from just off the green for his third shot. I looked at it and said, This chip can be made, said Jack.
Sure enough, Nicklaus chipped the ball, and it rolled right into the hole. He had scored an eagle, exactly one day after he had scored a double eagle. And they both occurred on the 12th.
Irwin missed the par putt, and Nicklaus had picked up three strokes on the hole for a one-shot lead. He gained another stroke the next hole when Irwin bogeyed again, and closed out the three-shot win with a birdie on the 16th.
Nicklaus was a short-game wizard that week. He holed out two other times from off the green.
It was almost destiny, said Irwin. Jack was chipping and putting at a barrel. The rest of us were going at a pinhead.
Irwin kidded that he was thrilled with the opportunity to prolong the legacy of Jack Nicklaus.
The kicker? Thats the best Ive seen him play in years, marveled Jacks wife, Barbara.