James Lawton: History man Nicklaus happy to hail the new king

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The Independent Online

History engulfed Jack Nicklaus here when he passed through the scene of his most famous triumph on the way to a trout stream. Naturally enough, everyone was hooked.

Twenty years ago here he did what Muhammad Ali did in a jungle clearing. He won an undying place in the consciousness of all those who love sport when he won his sixth Green Jacket more than 20 years after inspiring a schoolboy Nick Faldo watching television at home in Hertfordshire to say: "I want golf to be my life."

Yesterday, Faldo, a three-times winner himself who 10 years ago won arguably the second most dramatic Masters of all time when his sheer presence seemed to dismantle the hugely talented Greg Norman, said: "Only one 46-year-old in the world could have done what Jack did. He is golf's special man." So history was being unfurled by the decade.

Ten years ago, Nicklaus said - and it was assumed, so straight was his face, he was coming down the mountain solemnly with a tablet of stone - that Tiger Woods would win more Masters Green Jackets than himself and Arnie Palmer combined. Yesterday he said the same thing, but added: "This time I'm not jesting."

That had been readily assumed because the 66-year-old Nicklaus, 20 years after his unforgettable sixth victory here and a healthy non-competitor for the first time in 47 years - a hip operation kept him out in 1999 - was in no mood for joking. You don't joke with Nicklaus about the nature and the glory of golf, no more than you do about God with the Pope.

Nicklaus is not only the legend of the game but the keeper of its faith and despite a diplomatic meeting with the Augusta National chairman, Hootie Johnson, this week, he retains the hard conviction that changes to this famous course are part of a lunatic trend.

"The game is different now," he declared in a sun-dappled clearing of pine tree, "and golf courses are being changed all over the world - but I just say what I've been saying all these years - why change all that terrain when you could just change the golf ball?"

For Nicklaus, though, the least regrettable development is that the wave of new-age golf architecture is making the ascendancy of Woods all the more emphatic. "Talent is talent, and so is the ability to get the most out of it, and that means that Tiger was probably always going to beat my record of 18 majors and pass the mark of 10 Masters titles that Arnie and I won between us.

"The fact that changes going on will now make it easier for him is not a problem for me. I was a power hitter in my time and if similar changes had come then I would also have had an advantage."

Nicklaus's brief appearance here for the dinner of champions and yesterday's par-three tournament, when his caddie was 11-year-old grandson Charlie, inevitably conjured that day in '86 when he ambushed two younger titans of the game, Seve Ballesteros and Norman. Yes, he said, he was happy to talk about one of the great sports memories of the last century because it would always be with him. But in playing terms, the King was finally dead - and so long live the King, Tiger Woods.

"There's no limit on what he can achieve - in the new conditions I guess less than 10 players are capable of winning this tournament now and you can't but start with Tiger." His own parallels with Woods remain astonishing. Now, as the Tiger follows hour-by-hour the crisis of his critically sick father Earl, Nicklaus recalls the death of his beloved father Charlie. "I was the same age as Tiger is now when I lost my father. But when you are out on the course you are playing golf, and we have to believe Tiger is capable of that to the best of his powers. We all have to deal with distractions constantly, that is what life is. In the context of this week it just depends on how he handles his personal feelings. My guess is that he will be fine." But as Woods pursues unprecedented consistency - a win here would be his fifth in 10 attempts - the consensus here remains rock-solid. It is that not withstanding Woods' other-worldly chip shot across the 16th green this time last year, he has still to provoke the kind of sensation which gripped the course back in 1986.

"I was four shots behind Ballesteros with four holes to play. I finished with eagle-birdie-birdie-par. As I came through Amen Corner, I thought, maybe this old man has a chance. Amen Corner is a place where good things can happen but also where it can go bad. You can get murdered there and when I came through it cleanly, and then started to make a whole lot of shots, I just went from shot to shot. I had a few tears in my eyes because it is not often in life you hit something like that; when everything you do turns out right. It is I suppose what you work for all your life."

Faldo briefly entered the course debate yesterday, but he was more interested in encouraging his son Matthew, who at 17 will carry the bag tomorrow. Nicklaus's son Jackie did the job 20 years ago and was recalling yesterday, "Over those last few holes I had one great challenge... keeping my mouth shut."

Faldo was puckish about the lengthening of hole 11. "The tee shot used to be wide open, but now it's through an avenue of trees. I'll be smiling in another 10 years when all those pine trees have grown up. It's going to be a scream, sitting up there drinking pina coladas and watching them threading it through the needle - the Augusta needle." That was breakfast with the champions yesterday. Today all eyes will be on Tiger. History moves on, of course. But then sometimes there is no choice but to linger, and this is especially so when Jack Nicklaus puts down his rod and fights for the game he used to know.

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