Allure of the Masters not lost on Nicklaus

Click to follow
The Independent Online

A one-time snarling bear will add another piece to US Masters golfing history this week.

Jack Nicklaus, six-times winner of the Masters at Augusta and the renowned 'Golden Bear' in his playing lifetime, will prove the long held theory that the allure of Augusta finally catches up with all men.

In the years when he was rampaging around the great golf courses of the world en route to his extraordinary, record 19 major tournament wins, the very thought of getting caught up in sentiment and slush would have horrified Nicklaus. His focus was steely and fierce; there was no room in his bag for non-essential niceties around the world of golf. His pursuit of excellence and trophies knew no bounds; he was there to win, nothing else.

In those times, Nicklaus demonstrated a fierce will that few could ever match, certainly not on a consistent basis. But then, the great man was always his own man; he never needed or sought the back-slapping, the adulation or fuss. He'd win a tournament, smile politely at the prize ceremony and then slip away the moment his duties were done. Augusta was no different in that sense to anywhere else. Nicklaus never did melancholy.

When he was in his pomp, the idea of one day, when his fabulous playing career was long over, returning to Augusta as a 70 year-old and getting involved in the emotion of the place, would have been anathema to the man. For example, dating back to 1963, this unique tournament has always had honorary starters, great players from yesteryear invited back to hit the ceremonial first shot of the new tournament.

It was a link with past greats, men whose deeds were firmly etched into the minds and memories of generations not to mention the Augusta record books. Back in his playing days, the idea of such a role would have sent Jack Nicklaus running a mile.

He always returned for the traditional Champions dinner, held on the Tuesday night of Masters week in the clubhouse where the menu is chosen by the previous year's winner. No prizes for guessing that the signature dish of tonight's dinner is steak. What else would Angel Cabrera of Argentina choose for his main course?

At those dinners, the old Champions always wear their Masters green jackets. It is a special occasion and, like several other things around here, a unique Masters event.

But that apart, Nicklaus was seldom seen in recent years. He'd slip away on the morning after the dinner and return to his Florida home, or wherever business interests took him. Hanging around like some gaudy old bauble once again brought out to hang on the Christmas tree, even though it had long since lost its glitter, was never his style.

Yet what else can we conclude now than at 70, the Augusta myth has seeped at last into the bones of the Golden Bear? On Thursday morning, Nicklaus will join his old playing adversary and friend Arnold Palmer for the traditional ceremonial start role. And they'll pack 'em in around that first tee at Augusta National just as they did in the glory years when the pair between them won a remarkable 10 Masters titles, six by Nicklaus and four by Palmer.

Between 1958 and 1966, the pair won seven of the nine Masters green jackets up for grabs. No other duo has ever dominated this fiendishly difficult tournament in the same way, before or since, not even the great Sam Snead and Ben Hogan in the late 1940s, early '50s.

Of course, the years have softened those legendary Nicklaus muscles, the roaring fire in those eyes has been dampened down somewhat. Today, Nicklaus accepts the sentiment that cloaks this place like a blanket, with equanimity.

"My attitude now... towards things like the ceremonial start role... is a lot different to a few years ago" he said. "Back then (in 2003-4, for example), I still had enough fire in my belly to think that I could still go play. But I know better than that now."

Nicklaus hasn't hit a golf ball around here since 2005, his farewell appearance. So he figures he's had time enough to smile benignly at some of the old Augusta ways and traditions that maybe as a kid he never quite got.

And Nicklaus believes the third member of that golden trio from his special era, two-time champion Gary Player, will assume the ceremonial starter's role before very long. Time will tell.