Golden times for the Bear

Nicklaus still harbours that old determination
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Forget the leaders. Forget the sudden appearance of new trees alongside Augusta National's verdant fairways. Forget the new rough. Forget the daft greens. This Masters, the 64th, has so far been all about one man: Jack William Nicklaus.

He truly is an astonishing sportsman. At a time in his life - he turned 60 in January - when his grandchildren should be taking turns to sit on his shiny new ceramic hip, here he is contending in a major championship.

But perhaps we shouldn't be surprised. In fact, we should be used to it by now. All through his peerless career, the Golden Bear has been rewriting the record books. Think about it. How many times over the years have writers begun new paragraphs with the words: "With the exception of Jack Nicklaus comma..."

Nicklaus has always been different, has always set himself apart from the rest. Even as an amateur he was probably one of the top two players on the planet. The first tournament he ever won as a professional was the US Open. And he was only 26 years old - the youngest, naturally - when he completed the Grand Slam with his Open at Muirfield in 1966.

Twenty years later he was still good enough to win at the highest level when, courtesy of an astonishing back nine of 30 and an uncharacteristic collapse by Seve Ballesteros, he slipped a sixth green jacket over his burly shoulders. Six? No one else has more than four.

Nicklaus has won majors fat and thin, young and old. And he won them over a span of 24 years. Most champions struggle to spread theirs over a decade. Nick Faldo won six over a nine-year span. Seve Ballesteros managed five in the same timeframe. Only Gary Player comes close to Nicklaus when it comes to major-winning longevity. Even Arnold Palmer was done at the highest level after only six years.

Player and Palmer, of course, were the other two-thirds of what agent Mark McCormack christened the "Big Three" back in the 1960s. And this week they joined Nicklaus again in a ceremonial and nostalgic two-day tour of Augusta National.

For the two older men it was a nice opportunity to enjoy a little of the limelight as the youngsters fought out the tournament elsewhere on the grounds.

But Nicklaus did not quite see it that way. In fact, he looked a little peeved at the thought that anyone could imagine he is finished as a contender for golf's biggest prizes. While Arnie and Gary smiled and waved to the adoring multitudes lining ever fairway and surrounding every green, Jack went about his business in his usual single-minded way.

Not surprisingly, Jack still thinks he can win every tournament he enters. He always has and he always will. Perhaps his greatest asset in the heat of battle is his mind and that, more than anything, is what is sustaining him this week. That and his heart.

While his head may tell him that he cannot hit the ball as far as Tiger Woods or putt like Jose Maria Olazabal, his heart has not received the message yet.

In fact, at this stage of his career a lack of what passes in most people for realism is doing Nicklaus no harm. He still has an unshakeable belief in himself.

Halfway through this tournament he was asked if he felt like he should be leading. "I think I should be," he replied, without hesitation. "I'm not but I feel like I should be. I've certainly played a lot better than what my score is and I feel like I've putted my ball better than what my score is."

He is not alone in that assessment. Some of his main competitors are well aware of his presence. They can see the bear tracks. "Jack really knows how to position his ball on this golf course," Woods said.

The former Open champion, Justin Leonard, calls the Nicklaus charge "pretty cool". Fred Funk thinks it is "amazing." And Player sees the play of his close friend as "unbelievable" but not surprising. "Jack always does the unexpected."

How true.

Watch out for tomorrow's newspapers. You may just see these words again - "With the exception of Jack Nicklaus comma..."