Moments of Nicklaus magic offer return to deepest values of sport

The wave of his right arm is slow and undoubtedly presidential but then no one could even think of presenting a baby for a kiss or a hug.

The wave of his right arm is slow and undoubtedly presidential but then no one could even think of presenting a baby for a kiss or a hug. When Jack Nicklaus is playing golf, even now when he is doing it almost certainly for the last time in a place that will forever be linked with his name, he is not for photo-opportunity or any kind of gallery-pleasing; he doesn't feed off the vast collective memory of how it was when he could do anything that was required to win.

He thinks the pleasure and the thrill is in the playing of the game here and now; how well you do it technically and with all your spirit, and if you can only make a parody of this, if you can do no more than put in a performance in your own mind - and more significantly in your own ego - there is simply no point in the exercise. It is a flippant insult to the game that has made your life and all your past achievement.

Here yesterday, hard on the public decrepitude and self-indulgence of another once great player, Billy Casper, this was more than a refreshing return to the deepest values of sport.

It is as though we have been reading here the last will and testament of the greatest golfer the world is ever likely to know.

Though his body is creaky now and in need of more surgery at 65 - when he comes over the brow of a fairway the reaction is respect of an almost religious kind rather than the old awe - you know that somewhere buried deep down is the astonishing belief that he is still obliged to try to find some way to win.

This may be beyond all practical logic, but when he finished his second round yesterday he was still in contention for the cut... within 10 shots of the leaders, and bracketed at five-over with reigning Open champion Todd Hamilton, major winners Jose Maria-Olazabal and David Toms, and the ageing infant prodigy Sergio Garcia. The point is that Nicklaus, still, is not flattered to be in that company. He takes it as a right, and when it is withdrawn - as he fears could be the case any time soon - it is, he implies strongly, another reason to be gone.

There had been two moments of pure Nicklaus yesterday before he returned to the clubhouse to await again the clearing of the Georgian skies... a long, perfectly realised birdie on the 16th green and a nerveless saver on the last. If those shots had slipped away, Nicklaus's body language would have dropped an octave or two. Instead, he was still taut when he refused to add to Casper's embarrassment, saying simply, "It was his right to make the choice to play."

That Nicklaus's own typically sturdy effort should follow so swiftly the 73-year-old's 106 - and his subsequent refusal to sign a scorecard that, whatever its official status, will now always read like a grotesque folly in the records of an otherwise highly distinguished career - inevitably increased its impact.

As Nicklaus strode on to the course, there was, predictably enough, much of the old cloying sentiment which attaches itself to this tournament, sometimes rather like a swarm of bothersome flies on the back of a sacred cow. Casper's wife Shirley, a paragon of support and family support down the long years, made her own contribution.

She said, "He knew he wasn't going to shoot a good score. I told him that nobody cares what you shoot. They just want to see you walking down those fairways." But why? To make, it is impossible not to suggest, a mockery of all that the young Billy Casper achieved when he won majors and was always a waspish threat to the hegemony of Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. When his score was soaring towards the 100 mark, when he was moving towards the 16th hole where he would shoot a stomach-churning and record 14, Casper turned to his caddie and friend, Brian Taylor, and said, "I shouldn't be here." It was a flash from a more competitive past, but the caddie said, "Yes you should, you're a Masters champion."

There have always been charming, and frequently surreal, aspects to the unique Masters' tradition of inviting back all previous champions who do not require the constant support of a Zimmer frame. It has from time to time put golf lovers into a time capsule.

Palmer, less fastidious than Nicklaus about the imperatives of retaining some level of performance, did occasionally produce a drive that recaptured some of that raw, thrilling power which created Arnie's Army, and persuaded some of them to march into the rough with placards taunting the young, and then less scrupulously fit new threat Nicklaus, with such demands as "Hit it here, Fat Boy." Gary Player, scrapping along at the back of the field yesterday, has once or twice produced the fierce snap of his old game. Tom Watson is still capable of artistry that brought doubts to Nicklaus as he had taken them to Palmer.

This week, however, Billy Casper put too high a price on such time travelling. He said that it's useful life had come to a sad and ridiculous end. So what was left? Only this last reading of the deeply moving will of Jack Nicklaus.

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