Say, is Jack really 65 now? Doesnt seem possible, does it? But there he was, playing alongside Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and the youngun of the group, Craig Stadler. It was just a Skins Game, and Stadler was supposed to run the table ' he is by far the best player in this foursome. But I was spellbound, intrigued enough to stop by the TV and watch Sunday ' could it be that Jack Nicklaus might really win?
Yes, he actually won. He won 11 skins and $340,000. He won his first skins game since way back in 91, when he was just 51 years old. That was back when he was still a feared player ' he won three Senior majors that year. That was before a surgeons knife had ripped through his torso so many times that he felt like melted butter. He could actually get outside and practice a little.
He cant contort his body to practice anymore, of course. Far too often the past 10 years, he will catch lightning in a bottle one day and swear he is going to play more this year. Then some other body part begins to ache and he realizes he just cant stand long enough to rehearse his drills. He had played just four rounds ' four rounds! ' since his own Memorial Tournament in June of 2004. And those were all at course openings of yet another Nicklaus design.
But, by cracky, he won the Skins last week! The $340,000 check, incidentally, is the biggest payday of his playing career. It seems preposterous, but he never won that much for a victory during a regular-tour career - a career in which he was the champion 73 times. In fact, he never won $340,000 during the course of a single season in his PGA Tour career. Jacks biggest year was 72, when he won $316,911. And that was a year when he won seven times.
The game to me has always been ' I dont care if I won $20,000 or $2 million playing golf, he said. It was winning the tournament, playing the game, playing it well, doing what youre supposed to do and winning the event. The prize was ancillary to whats going on.
The Skins course was set up to suit the talents of the gentlemen, by way of explaining the generous fairways yet short yardage. Jack realizes he never would have shot 5-under if the course were set up for a normal Champions Tour event, much less a regular tour event. But why quibble over such a niggling thing ' the important thing was, here was a 65-year-old doing exactly what he had to do ' and he was able to do it!
Nicklaus just had another hip surgery and there was much doubt whether he would even get to play. But the mind can do amazing things with the golf club. And though his lack of great technique undoubtedly hampered his length, still he was able to place the ball enough times in just the right spots to make a bushel of birdies. And every time he had a reasonable chance to make a putt, he jarred it. He shot what was the equivalent of 5-under.
It was a far different Jack from the one we have seen on the golf course lately. More and more, its been a frustrated Jack, unable to derive happiness from a good score for an old man. Nicklaus does not see things that way ' the days when he was No. 1 in the world are still seared into his mind, and thats the only way this game is any fun. A shot that is pretty good for a 65-year-old is not nearly good enough to satisfy him. Better - much better - to be fishing or hunting.
He won the match Sunday on No. 14, when his six-foot putt earned him five skins. That gave him a total of $300,000 and, for all intents and purposes, the entire game.
I saw where Tom put his ball, 15, 18 feet, and I saw where Arnold hit a really nice shot behind the hole, said Nicklaus. I said if I want to win the Skins Game, I can win it right here.
I just went ahead and aimed it six feet left of the hole, and thats where it went - 165-yard 6-iron. Putt was dead-center and once I did that, I knew the only one who could catch me was Stadler and he had to win all the rest of the skins.
Once again, the outing was enough to light a spark. Jack saw a little something. He wants to play a tournament or two before he decides if the Masters is possible. No, he doesnt just want to show up and go through the motions for a couple of days. But he does want to be competitive ' even if there isnt one chance in a million he might win.
Why does he feel so good? Because he was able to do this when he had sore hamstrings.
I dont have the power in my legs yet, he said. I have to get my legs back. Thats where your power is at. That will come back when I play more.
And the youngsters really enjoyed seeing Grandpa Jack play so well.
The old man here played really good, said Stadler. He moans and complains about the hips, the back, the legs, he just lulls you to sleep and then he makes four birdies in a row. Im not surprised by anything he does.
The game still has room for Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, said Watson. It still has room for them. Yes, theres a lot of room for people like Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer to promote the sport the way they do.
Palmer is content to play just for the sake of playing ' thats how he promotes the game. But Jack ' Jack needs to play well to derive any satisfaction. And this weekend ' he did it to perfection.
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