Whatever the size of it, there hasn't been a sports event in years that sent so many Americans home from the game or away from the television set with such an afterglow.
You pull up to a traffic light and the guy in the next car cries out, “Hey, how about that Nicklaus!”
You stop at the filling station and the attendant says, “You just come from the Masters? What about that Nicklaus!”
I wouldn't have been at all surprised if some joker had passed with a “Honk If You Love Jack Nicklaus” bumper sticker on his machine.
There have been great and dramatic finishes by immortal athletes, or in traditional events, or on historic grounds. The entire combination was at work in this Masters, immortal Jack Nicklaus, winning on the course where the heart of American golf beats, the course that Bobby Jones helped build just for such scrapbook finishes as this, charging like a 25- year-old and setting the gallery into a stampede. Glory be, that's golf that Americans have been out of touch with lately.
The nay-sayers were legion
The combination requires one other ingredient — an old tour hero whose game is on the fade, who hears the distant chant, “You’re through, Jack. You’re through, Jack,” drumming in his head, and reads of the death of his game.
Tom McCollister should not get too much of the censure, or the credit, or whatever it may be. Our man wasn’t alone when he wrote, “Nicklaus is gone, done. He just doesn’t have the game any more.” Fellow travelers on the tour were saying as much, and worse, Fuzzy Zoeller, Tom Kite and Calvin Peete.
Tom Kite? Who crumbled again with a short putt between him and a tie?
Peter Jacobsen said Nicklaus’ putting confidence was gone. “His fellow pros no longer fear him,” a radio show host proclaimed before McCollister ever got to him.
Instead of fearing the man they should have feared most, the pros took their fear out on the golf course. Some of them left crying out in rancor, the greens, how it favors the long hitter, how it penalizes unfairly, the wind, the pollen and the pine straw. They’re too accustomed to these tank-job courses they play from Torrey Pines to Pecan Valley. Some of them even caught themselves saying nice things about the U.S. Open.
Forty-six isn’t old for golfers, jockeys and race drivers. It is old for baseball, basketball, pole vaulting, prize fighting, mile runs and tennis. A 46-year-old with a turbo-charged determination ain't old. He's dangerous.
A wonderful sight for the son.
Nicklaus isn’t the oldest player who has won a major. Julius Boros was 48 when he won the U.S. Open. The oldest winner of a tour event was Sam Snead. He won the Greensboro Open at the age of 52, but it was like winning by rote. He'd won it eight times before. A semi-tour player of no renown was the first pro of 50 to win a tour tournament. John Barnum was even 50 when he won the Cajun Classic in 1962.
When Nicklaus walked the Country Club of the South with me and spoke of his game with no great displeasure, it should have been a clue. He wasn't trying to sell, none of the evangelical defense of his game so often put up by the old star who has faded not to return again. No false veneer of confidence, no crying out, “Hey, I’m not through! I'm not through!”
Of all the moments, of all the pictures from the great week, the heart-warmer was that of father and son embracing on the 18th green when it was done. Four days Jack Sr. and Jr. had fought it in the trenches as player and caddie. I'd thought often how marvelously wonderful it must have been for young Jack to watch his father fight back, and win, and for old dad to have him there.
Not many fathers enjoy such a pleasure as that, and as far as I’m concerned there's no more wonderful relationship in this world than that of father and son. I’m a little prejudiced, I guess. But the very thought of having one of your sons at your side while you're fighting through the dusk of a career to One More Great Championship, and to know he can look across the green and say with deep, deep pride, “That’s my dad.” Now that’s the real prize.