Golf: Nicklaus back in full swing: John Hopkins on golf's 53-year-old champion with six US Masters titles who led at Augusta again this week

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The Independent Online
A COUPLE of years ago I spent a weekend flying around Europe with a chap who had thick thighs, a high-pitched voice and could play golf a bit. Jack Nicklaus and I met at Dublin airport on Saturday morning and said goodbye in Paris, on Monday afternoon.

As he inspected the golf courses he was designing in Ireland, Scotland and France, he could not have been more accommodating to his visitor from the fourth estate. This was not the steely eyed competitor who had won 20 major titles and had been known to frighten hardened journalists with one glance. This was a new Jack Nicklaus, and one was not familiar with him. 'You come and ride with me,' he said again and again. 'We can talk as we go along.' If there was a lull in the proceedings he would say: 'Go on, ask me what you like.' He could not have been more gracious.

All this came back to me last week when Jack Nicklaus charmed America by sharing the first-round lead in the US Masters with four men young enough to be his sons. In a nation where ageism is as constant a topic of conversation as sexism and racism, this was news to hold the front page for.

After all, this is the man who is older than the President, the man who was 53 last January, the man whose children have all grown up and left home. Jack Nicklaus was competing in his 35th successive US Masters. Yet he was playing golf like the Jack Nicklaus of old.

And he loved it. The old trouper stepped back into the limelight as if he had never been away. All of a sudden he banished the memories of a wretched 1992 when he had missed three cuts in the major championships and finished 42nd equal, his worst 72-hole position, in the fourth, the US Masters.

Nicklaus attributed his good play to his control of the ball. At last he had been able to hit the shot he wanted to hit, he said, which he had not always been able to do in the past. 'As I recall Sam (Snead), Ben (Hogan) and Byron (Nelson) could control the ball pretty well but as they got older they could not putt,' said Nicklaus. 'My putting has never been a problem. It has been controlling my game that has been my problem. I would look up after I had hit a shot and not know which way the ball was going.'

His ball-striking in his second and third rounds was even more accurate than in his first, but unfortunately his putting was worse. He took 38 putts in his second round and a further 34 in his third and at the end could only say ruefully: 'You have to be able to make the short putts here.' His rounds of 75 and 75 gave him a 54- hole total of 218, two over par.

Down the years Nicklaus has been plagued by poor eyesight and a bad back. Last year he had referred pain in his right hip. With half a mind on his various businesses, his golf went from bad to worse. 'If you said I embarrassed myself I wouldn't have much of a defence,' he admitted. 'I really worked hard physically to prepare because of where the majors were last year. Then I fell absolutely on my face and played terrible.'

It was made all the worse by the fact that he had been exercising each day since late in 1988. Clearly, something was wrong. On 14 October last year he began a new exercise programme, pursuing it with total commitment for anything from 45 minutes to two hours each day. Each morning at seven o'clock Nicklaus would begin working out under the direction of Pete Egoscue, an anatomical functionalist who runs a clinic in nearby Palm Beach.

After a few weeks this physical work began to pay off and enabled Nicklaus to turn with renewed enthusiasm to receiving golf instruction from Jim Flick and Rick Smith, a bright young teaching pro who had helped his son Gary. By altering his position at the address to put more bend in his legs and less in his back, Nicklaus found he could make a longer, deeper turn and swing harder through the ball.

He arrived at Augusta last week ready to be inspired as he always is by the majors. For Nicklaus, Augusta is the first competitive event of the year, the beginning of his season. Fit, strong and healthy, he was always going to be a threat. Johnny Miller, who was beaten by Nicklaus at the Masters in 1975, said: 'The course suits his game perfectly and I think he plays there with great emotion.'

Furthermore, Nicklaus is patently at ease with himself and his station in life these days. 'There is still an air of unpretentiousness about him,' said Ken Bowden, Nicklaus's friend and business associate. 'You are welcome to drop in to his house and you will probably find he is there in a pair of shorts eating pizza. If you stay for dinner you will find there may be as many as 12 there. He and Barbara don't sit down and read books and listen to music.'

On one of those nights in Scotland, as the big black car carrying us purred through the Scottish gloaming, Nicklaus said he wanted to earn enough money so that his children did not have to work and to guarantee the survival of his course-design business. He looked out of a window and remembered something he had said when he won the 1986 US Masters. 'If I was smart, I'd retire now. The trouble is I am not smart.'

Just as well. If he had retired then, there would have been no last hurrah for him and all his fans this week.

(Photograph omitted)