A Walk with The Master

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The shoulder and back might be touch and go, but the nerve is still healthy.

'Yeah, I could finish in the top 10,' said Jack Nicklaus. He was not referring to this week's Toshiba Senior Classic. He thinks he can win here in Newport Beach. Jack was talking about the Masters.

It's important to understand the context of the statement. It was not made boastfully. In fact it was said somewhat reluctantly, after I had clumsily headed down a journalistic road that Jack simply hasn't visited in his lifetime. I recalled that six years ago at 58 Jack damn near won at Augusta National, and wondered at what age did he finally concede that winning was no longer realistic.

'I've never thought of it that way,' he told me. And I was instantly reminded exactly what's set him apart for all these years. Forget Trevino and Player and Watson and Miller and Floyd and all the hardened gunslingers whose bullets Jack dodged for all those years. Jack had the toughest foe of all two down on the back side. That's right, he was beating Father Time, who was quoted after the 1998 Masters as saying, 'Who the hell does this guy think he is?!'

Jack explained to me that because of the aches and pains it's been difficult to put in the work that it takes to shoot 65. And that's the frustrating part for Jack. He believes he can still go low, if only his body would allow him the chance.

'If 73's the best that I can do, I'm not interested,' he said.

At this point, Jack's reasonably healthy and therefore cautiously optimisitc, though he stated emphatically that he still hadn't committed to play in the Masters. While it's hard to imagine that he won't want to erase the memory of the 85 he shot there last year -- a score he called 'embarassing' -- he offered no timetable on this year's decision, only saying it would be based on his ability to compete. All indications are that he thinks he can.

In fact, he played Augusta last week.
 
'I can play it now with the ball,' he said. Among the strongest advocates of putting limits on the golf ball, Jack's no fool, either. As long as the rules are what they are, he's going to take advantage. He's using the new Callaway ball, and it's helped.

'I'm hitting the same clubs I always hit,' he explained. 'Two years ago I hit 3- or 4-wood into No. 1 and now I hit 6-iron.'

He hit the par-5 13th in two, found 13 greens in regulation but shot 76, mostly because the hole locations were on slopes.

By the way, our conversation took place as Jack allowed me to walk a couple of holes with him during the pro-am. For a reporter, golf's unique, because in baseball, for example, it's not possible to stand three feet from Pedro Martinez and talk baseball as he's unfurling 94-mile-per-hour gas. Or, better yet, it's not possible to stand three feet from a 60-something Sandy Koufax and talk baseball as he's going through his paces on the mound. It is in golf, and so Jack continued to play and talk. I watched and listened.

His touch still looks good. He crafted a nifty up and in from a downhill lie with the green running away from him at the par-3 17th.

The subject then turned to Tiger. Technology, Jack believes, has helped Tiger's pursuers narrow the gap. 'If everyone went back to the equipment we played,' Jack said, 'he'd be even better.'

As we strode up the 18th, Jack began to tally up the more important numbers these days. He related that his 17th grandchild is on the way, as Gary and his wife, Amy, are expecting in July.

'Boy or girl?' I asked.

'Oh, I don't know,' he said. 'But in this family, odds are it'll be a boy!' Of the five Nicklaus children, four are boys. Of the16 Nicklaus grandchildren, 13 are boys.

Just short of the par-5 last in two, Jack flipped a sand wedge over a bunker to about a foot. He looked back at me, smiled and winked. 'Just put that in the bag,' he said as he walked up to toward the hole.

His caddie, Scott Lubin, an assistant pro at The Bear's Club back in South Florida, laughed.

'This one has grooves,' Lubin quipped. Jack had worn out the grooves on the old 58 degree club after eight years. 'He shaved the new one and grounded it down himself.'

April's approaching. Jack's tinkering, getting ready.