Golf: Time will never tarnish the golden years of the Golden Bear

Jack Nicklaus is Tiger Woods' template. Ken Jones, in Augusta, on a living legend
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The Independent Online
TIGER WOODS found it difficult to think of making 40 appearances in the Masters, to be at the age Jack Nicklaus is now. "Sometimes I can't even think past tomorrow," Woods said on the day they unveiled a plaque to Nicklaus's achievements at Augusta National.

Six victories, 21 top-10 finishes, only four cuts missed. "Not a bad guy to be compared with," Woods added. "Whether he was shooting 62 or trying to pull back from an 80, Jack never dogged it."

Never dogging it, Nicklaus became golf's runaway winner, piling up 20 major championships, overtaking Arnold Palmer as the game's most successful and popular player. "He is playing an entirely different game - a game with which I am not familiar," the founder of the Masters, Bobby Jones, said in 1965 when Nicklaus set records for scoring at Augusta National (271) and margin of victory (nine strokes), equalling the course record with 64 in the third round.

Time waits for no golfer but it slowed to a crawl for Nicklaus when, at 46, he became the oldest Masters champion. "Anytime you win a golf tournament more than once is special," Nicklaus said, "but I guess 1986 was the peak moment."

Even now, at 58, the years closing in on his remarkable career, Nicklaus's quest for improvement continues. After a disappointing third round of 74 in a Seniors event last weekend, Nicklaus spent two hours on the practice ground. "The next day I went out and missed 10 putts from within 10 feet," he complained.

When responding to the tribute paid to him on Tuesday by the Augusta National chairman, Jack Stephens, the ceremony watched by the large crowd that had gathered around the entrance to the clubhouse, Nicklaus's voice wavered with emotion. "The Masters isn't just another golf tournament," he said. "It has always been special to me. I get as much excitement driving down Magnolia Lane as I did 40 years ago."

Nick Faldo, the only golfer other than Nicklaus to win back to back at Augusta is one of many outstanding golfers who have been inspired by his triumphs. "It was watching the Masters on television that got me into golf," Faldo said. "The vision of Jack Nicklaus on this extraordinary colourful stage transfixed me. I was 13 years old and knew hardly anything about the sport, yet from that instant I was hooked."

After watching Woods demolish Augusta National last year, setting a new scoring record, succeeding Seve Ballesteros as the youngest champion, Nicklaus predicted nine more Masters victories for the then 21-year old Californian. "Winning is more difficult than repeating. Once you've won you come back beaming with confidence. If Woods plays just normal this week he will probably win the tournament. If he plays poorly, I think he'll still be in contention. If he plays well he'll run away with it. Because of his length, the elevation that he hits the golf ball and a fabulous short game, Woods has a bigger advantage here than he has anyplace else."

Nicklaus is not entirely sure of how he will address the future but the year 2000 could see his last appearance in a major championship, the Open at St Andrews. "I've had a wonderful run in the game of golf," he said. "I love the game and I shall continue to play but the level I play at will depend on how things shape up over the next few months, how I play here and in San Francisco [at the US Open]."

An advantage that champion golfers enjoy over champions in other sports is that the game allows them to go far beyond the point of normal athletic retirement. However, a wise man knows his limitations. "At the moment I still feel competitive," Nicklaus added. "Competition is not walking down the 18th fairway at noon on the final day. That's just playing in a golf tournament. As long as I remain competitive within my physical capabilities I'll continue playing so I really don't know for how long."

Nicklaus's first Masters win came in 1963, 12 years before Woods was born. "I know it, but it's still startling," Woods said. "Me playing at Jack's age? Phew! But I guess so." It's called love of the game.