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Published: Sunday, 4/10/2005

Nicklaus sounds off

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER
Jack Nicklaus waves to the crowd after playing the 17th hole. In what will likely be his final Masters round, he shot a 76. He finished 3-under-par 11,733 for 163 rounds at Augusta National. Jack Nicklaus waves to the crowd after playing the 17th hole. In what will likely be his final Masters round, he shot a 76. He finished 3-under-par 11,733 for 163 rounds at Augusta National.
CHRIS O'MEARA / AP Enlarge

AUGUSTA, Ga. - It's not easy to describe the sound.

Imagine the calmest of days when the wind suddenly freshens, slicing leaves off trees like a scalpel and bending their boughs sideways. The ground trembles as if a low-flying jet hits you with a sonic boom. It's the crash of surf into ancient boulders, the thunder that rolls over the plains after the bright shock of lightning.

It is the sound of cheering that swells through the pines, roaring and bouncing up, down and over the hills like a runaway train at Augusta National Golf Club.

It is the sound of Jack Nicklaus.

If this seems an exaggeration, you weren't here in 1986 when Nicklaus' eagle putt at No. 15 dropped and son/caddie Jackie jumped for joy, or two holes later when, bent over, Nicklaus thrust his putter into the air and began chasing after his birdie putt even before it fell, knowing he was improbably closing in on a sixth Masters title at age 46. Was his 65 that Sunday not the greatest final round in major championship history?

Or you weren't here in 1975, when he dueled with Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf and won by a stroke, no surprise to Miller, who said the course was covered with "Bear tracks."

Or you weren't here yesterday when the 65-year-old Nicklaus gave 'em something to remember, closing his round with a sterling 6-iron shot that rolled to rest four feet below the cup at No. 9.

Nicklaus, winner of 18 professional majors, is the game's greatest player and the Masters is the game's greatest stage. From the day in 1959 that Augusta National founder Bobby Jones first laid eyes on the powerful youngster and said Nicklaus played a game "with which I am not familiar," it was clear that the man and the venue were made for one another.

And yesterday, as the sun finally popped from behind the clouds, as if someone up above wanted a clear view of Nicklaus's finish in his 45th Masters, it most likely ended.

"I'll come back to attend the [Champions] Dinner and maybe play in the Par 3; I think I can reach most of those greens," he said, laughing. "But I don't think I'll venture [onto] the golf course again for a tournament round."

Nicklaus, of course, always hedges his bets. He pointed out that as a former champion he has the right to play in the Masters until the cows come home. He said he could always change his mind.

He said he'd be back if he could add 10 mph to his clubhead speed, or if Augusta shortened each hole about 30 yards, then laughed and said, "I don't think either of those things is going to happen."

But when he was asked about his emotions at the end, as he walked to the final green, he said: "I just knew it was my last time playing here, it was going to be the last time I was going to walk up the fairway. Obviously, I had made up my mind."

It sounded pretty definitive.

Providing it is, here are the final numbers: six Masters titles, six other top-three finishes, 39 rounds in the 60s, a career stroke average of 71.98 [par is 72] and a cumulative score for 163 rounds of 3-under-par 11,733.

For the record he finished the weather-plagued 2005 Masters with rounds of 77-76 and, despite playing his final 13 holes even par, failed to make the cut.

"You know, it's great and it's fun to play in the Masters, but it's certainly not fun to play that way," Nicklaus, an Augusta National member, said. "It's no fun to go out there and hack it around and struggle to figure out some way to break 80. That's never been the way I've operated. This is just too tough for me. I've had a great number of memorable experiences on this golf course and in this tournament. It's a treasure for me and I'll miss that greatly. But I don't really consider myself a tournament golfer anymore."

Last April, Arnold Palmer and the Masters said good-bye to one another after 50 years. It was gut-wrenching for Palmer, who is still the game's greatest ambassador and a man of the people who could barely stand to cut ties. There will never be a farewell like the one fans here gave The King, who bawled like a baby as he completed second-round play a year ago.

Nicklaus has always been different. He is a man of the game and it was the level at which he played it, not his charisma, that fascinated golf fans here and around the world. He has no interest in ceremonial golf. He has no interest in playing just to play. He played to win when he was fitted for his first green jacket in 1963 and he played to win this week.

Was he taking in the sights, soaking in the ambiance, enjoying the moment yesterday?

"No, I don't really do that," he said. "That's not me. I was trying to shoot a good score and make the cut."

By the last hole - which inappropriately was not No. 18, where Nicklaus enjoyed so many dramatic moments - that possibility no longer existed.

"I just wanted to hit two really good shots and see if I could get the ball up on the green and not walk away with a bogey," Nicklaus said. "Then I got it close to the hole and Jackie said, 'Come on, Dad, let's make another birdie.' Then I sort of lost it [emotionally] coming up to the green. I could never get it back to hit my putt. I would have liked to finish with a birdie."

After tapping in for par, Nicklaus waved to the large crowd, had a lingering embrace with Jackie, and then handed him the tools of his trade.

"I said, 'Keep the ball; keep the glove.' I don't want to see 'em on eBay tomorrow."

Contact Dave Hackenberg at: dhack@theblade.com or 419-724-6398.



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