Golf: US Masters - Nicklaus' desire undimmed by passing years

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The Independent Online
NOBODY, not even his family and friends, imagined that Jack Nicklaus's 40th appearance in the Masters would be more than a sentimental journey made emotional when a plaque in his honour was unveiled before the tournament began. To see Nicklaus wiping tears from his eyes, to hear the crack in his voice, stirred hundreds who attended the ceremony in the belief that he would never again figure on the leader board in a major championship.

It was amazing enough when Nicklaus became, at 46, the oldest to triumph in the Masters 12 years ago, so the idea of him mounting a challenge was the stuff of dreams. But he proved that the story wasn't over, going into the final round yesterday at one under par. He then picked up three more shots over the front nine to threaten the leaders.

Announcing his intentions early, Nicklaus birdied the second after just missing a 20-foot putt for eagle and made another at the next when he chipped in from off the green. A bogey at the next was quickly answered when Nicklaus birdied the sixth and seventh holes and would have been in an even stronger position when a long birdie putt at the ninth lipped the hole.

Nicklaus fought to the end, his concentration never wavering. A shot lost at the 12th was immediately followed by another birdie at the par- five 13th when he got up and down from a bunker.

Continuing to thrill a huge gallery, Nicklaus, who is the oldest player to enter the final round with a top 10 place, supplanting Ben Hogan who was 54 when he shot a third-round 66 in 1967, kept his hopes alive with another birdie at the 15th and almost made another at the next.

When Nicklaus walked on to the final green after recovering from a bunker he was greeted by thunderous cheers. If there were tears in his eyes it was understandable. A birdie putt finished an inch short but five-under for the tournament deserved all the acclaim it got.

Positive thinking on a golf course is second nature to the six-times Masters winner and the years have not dimmed his desire or the predatory instinct that brought him 18 major championships (two of the 20 credited to him in the United States were amateur titles) and numerous second-place finishes.

When Augusta National felt the fringe effect of a death-laden storm that ripped through the southern states of America last week Nicklaus knew that his vast experience would be an advantage. "Age takes its toll," he said. "Physically, I'm no match for the younger fellows. I simply haven't got the flexibility. But I know a bit about this game and felt that if I could still win on a golf course at this level it would be here."

With opening rounds of 73 and 72 Nicklaus was never in peril of missing the cut and his game turned back time on Saturday. Had he not missed seven putts from within 15 feet the result could have been sensational.

No wonder that there was that famous twisted smile on Nicklaus's face when he came to speak after completing his third round. "I think the competitor inside me says, `Jack, I don't care what age you are, I don't care who's out in front, I'm a competitor that can still play and win. Whether that's realistic, you can laugh at yourself if you want to, or laugh at me.' I've got to think that way, otherwise I wouldn't be here. That's just the way I am."

Rick Smith, who helps to fine-tune Nicklaus's swing, paid tribute. "No matter what happens Jack has been marvellous this week, but nothing he does surprises me. Good or bad round, he still goes straight to the practice ground. If he's played well Jack will try and groove the good things into his memory bank.

"He's the greatest player who has ever been and I can imagine that millions are rooting for him. It's been a triumph for his generation."

Before Nicklaus won in 1986 he read an article saying he was finished. Nicklaus stuck it to the fridge in his temporary quarters, needled by the writer's effrontery. One of the things in his mind this week is criticism of his decision to accept a three-year exemption to the US Open. No longer good enough? In the way? A geriatric of the golf course?

Nicklaus's response has been typical. "There aren't going to be many more chances, so Saturday's round was a bit disappointing," he said. "When you get an opportunity like I had today and don't take it you feel you have let yourself down. After the front nine I felt snake-bitten. But then I picked up and I think there must have been someone looking over my shoulder on the last four holes." Nicklaus made two birdies and players were beginning to think about looking over their shoulder at him.

Woods thought Nicklaus's performance mind-boggling. "Him going into the final round one under par, for someone who's 58, people have no idea how much of an accomplishment that is."

Victory eluded Nicklaus but he was again the people's champion.