Saturday, May 29, 2010

Golden Bear says he does not want to spoil the memories of his last round

Nicklaus explains why he couldn't come back to Old

Course for Champions' Challenge before Open

By Alan Pattullo
Jack's back. But, sadly, it wasn't for long. His presence defined his farewell Open in 2005, and so many before it. As if St Rule's Tower had been eliminated from the skyline, Nicklaus' absence will be profoundly felt in St Andrews in six weeks' time.
But he was around this week, delivered back to the town's ancient streets on a breeze of bonhomie, provoking gasps wherever he went. This is still his kingdom, even if he suspects Scotland has a new interest to make up for the lack of success on the golf front.
"Right now your cycle is switching from golf to tennis," he smiles. "You didn't ever see that coming, did you? Andy Murray comes along ... what is he in the world, number three now? But the cycle will change."
St Andrews remains Jack's town, no question. Even when he walks through a wrong door he is love-bombed. While searching for his lunch destination, Nicklaus happened upon the St Andrews Golf Club, which occupies a substantial Victorian mansion overlooking the 18th green at the Old Course. It wasn't an entirely inappropriate mistake. Jack, after all, is one of only three honorary members.
Never mind whether he is permitted to enter or not, the look on the faces of those inside as Nicklaus made his first ever visit was a picture. He further thrilled those munching through plates of pie and chips by choosing to have a look around.
Still clearly in golf clinic mode – he spent much of his time in St Andrews coaching schoolchildren in his role as an RBS global ambassador – he paused by the large painting which decorates the front lobby, depicting Prince Andrew driving off from the first tee, across the way.
"He's lifting his head way too much," offers Nicklaus for free, before graciously accepting a gushing tribute from another still-startled member: "You are a hero here, Jack, and always welcome."
But like Prince Andrew's (faulty) swing, Jack wants the manner of his last exit to be preserved for all-time. That's why he won't be back in July, on the occasion of the Open's 150th anniversary. He doesn't want to contaminate the colours which were splashed across the canvas five years ago. You will remember it as special too. Old Jack on the Swilken bridge, framed by the Royal & Ancient clubhouse in the background, on the sunniest of late Scottish summer afternoons.
"I am just too sentimental," he says, having eventually located the right venue for lunch. Even then, his good grace floods the room. A chef is pumped with questions about the crabs used in the seafood display. It's hard not to reflect on the absurdity. We are in the company of the greatest golfer who ever walked the earth – and remember, he remains so – and the talk is of crustaceans. But this is the only time one is prompted to think of hard shells. Nicklaus lives up to his soft, cuddly image. But he is pretty firm on one point.
"Maybe at 70, maybe I have earned the right to be selfish," he says. "This is my favourite place of all. I ended my career here, where it all began. I don't want to walk away with a different feeling.
"I called Peter Dawson (R & A chief executive] last week," he continues. "I heard there had been some reaction to my comments at the Masters, when I said I was not coming. I think what I said was misunderstood. I said I wouldn't come unless the Royal Bank of Scotland requested me to be there. I am under contract with the RBS. If RBS want me to be here, then I will be here. But I said to Peter that I would really like to not come. And the reason I would really like to not come is that 2005 was so perfect.
"Peter said: 'Yes, I suspected what your feelings were'. He knew exactly where I was coming from. Peter's pretty perceptive anyway. He understood. He said: 'We'd love to have you, but I understand'."
At least he remains in control of this part of his legacy. For years now he has sat and watched as Tiger Woods guns for his record of 18 major titles. He was helpless, bound and delivered by it. But doubt has begun to creep into the minds of those golf observers who predicted it was only a matter of time before Woods equalled and then passed this total, the way Nicklaus did when Bobby Jones' record of 13 wins was in his sights.
In his autobiography, published in 1997 and at the point where Woods had won only the first of his present total of 14 majors, Nicklaus included a short segment on the then rising star. He described him as a "most pleasant and appealing young man".
He continued: "Tiger clearly possesses all of the physical tools and seemingly the mental qualities to rewrite the record books, which leaves only the questions of desire and physical well-being." Both have been placed sharply into focus in the last six months as Woods has succumbed to a meltdown of the mind and a breakdown of the body.
Nicklaus lifted the last of his three Open titles in St Andrews, when 38. Woods is 35 in December. But Nicklaus also won six major titles between the age Woods is now and 46. It is still possible for Woods to do what had once seemed inevitable. Yet to have a chance of equalling his total Nicklaus believes he must take advantage of this year's pro-Woods conditions. It seems barmy to think of something going the golfer's way after a horrendous few months in his personal life, but in the scheduling of the Open for St Andrews and next month's US Open at Pebble Beach, two of his favourite courses, then there are at least two blessings to be counted.
"These golf courses are almost gimmes for him," Nicklaus explains. "I still think he probably will (do it]. But I said at the start of this year, when he said he was not sure whether he would play again this year, that it would be far more difficult for him to take my record, because of the golf courses where we are playing on this year. He does very well each year at Augusta, but so do a lot of other guys. Pebble Beach won't come around for another ten years, and St Andrews maybe another five. And he will be 40 years old, then 45.
"Tiger is a great player. But we all get older. We all have physical issues and he has other issues which he has to straighten out himself."
Nicklaus shares a gentle, fatherly relationship with Woods, however much the younger man's recent behaviour jars with his own. After Woods' remarkable victory on one good leg at the US Open in 2008, Nicklaus phoned to congratulate his friend – and also to offer some advice. He passed on the number of the physician he went to when his long-running hip problem became unendurable. Woods never did make the call, but when they next met – at Nicklaus' own Memorial tournament in Ohio – Woods told him to observe his stance and swing.
"He had corrected the problem I spoke to him about, which was basically his right hip," recalls Nicklaus. "He played beautifully. He did listen, he just did it a different way. That's okay. He played an unbelievable tournament that year – that was the best I had ever seen him play in terms of controlling the golf ball."
But Woods has since seen his life spin away from him, amid once-unlikely tales of nightclub floosies and therapy sessions for sex addiction. Nicklaus, on the other hand, has remained as faithful to golf as to his wife Barbara. However, like many talented sport stars, he can take or leave his chosen profession when it comes to watching it. Yet he made an exception nearly a year ago, when he sat in rapt attention as Tom Watson provided golf with the kind of headlines it wants. This was especially notable, since Nicklaus tuning into scenes from Turnberry is like the captain of a vessel reviewing a ship-wreck.
He and Watson, of course, shared a memorable duel in 1977 in Ayrshire, with Nicklaus coming off worse for once. But it never impacted on their great friendship. Nicklaus joined the watching world in willing Watson on. Unlike the majority of the watching world, he had a direct hot-line to the man of the moment.
"I don't watch much golf on television," Nicklaus says. "But I watched basically all of that – the second round, most of the third round, and all of the fourth round.
"I got him about half an hour after he finished. He was still pretty down. I said: 'Tom, I know you are still down and I know it is probably not something you want to talk about right now, but you were great. You did a great thing'.
"He said: 'But I gave it away'. I told him: 'How many 59-year-olds have shot 65 at the British Open? I can't think of any but you. How many 59-year-olds have led after the end of two rounds? Nobody but you. How many have led at the end of three rounds? Nobody but you. How many after four rounds? Nobody but you.'"
No-one is more qualified to give this kind of therapy than Nicklaus, who himself defied age and form to win the Masters in his 47th year. "I was a kid compared to him (Watson]," he says. Nicklaus felt the years fall off him last year as he indulged in a frenzy of text communication with Watson. Well, his wife provided the input – except for one time.
"I am an old Neanderthal when it comes to that," says Nicklaus. "Barbara texts all the time. She texted Tom from the two of us before the first round: 'Have a good tournament, play well' and all that kind of stuff. He shot 65 so we kept it going and he texted back every day. Finally, on Sunday morning, I said: 'I want this text to be my text today, so I sent him the text and wished him 'good luck' and so forth. And I told him: 'That is my very first text ever'. I haven't sent another since."
But he will send something else during this year's Open from his home in Florida, as he catches up with play in the time snatched between being a grandfather to 21 grandchildren, aged between two and 20. That's the love of a champion to the place he clearly adores.
Jack Nicklaus is a global ambassador for RBS and was in the UK this week lending his support to the SGU to coach local kids, as well as the First Tee, through the support of RBS, a trustee of The First Tee.



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