Time runs out for the legend that is Nicklaus

James Lawton

"You're still the man, Jack," cried the big fellow in the gallery living in the past as the Golden Bear headed up the back nine towards his emotional farewell at the Swilken Bridge. But though no man has ever so reluctantly bowed to the ravages of time, he hasn't been that for a wearisome number of years and no one needed to tell Jack Nicklaus.

"You're still the man, Jack," cried the big fellow in the gallery living in the past as the Golden Bear headed up the back nine towards his emotional farewell at the Swilken Bridge. But though no man has ever so reluctantly bowed to the ravages of time, he hasn't been that for a wearisome number of years and no one needed to tell Jack Nicklaus.

It was enough for him that in every corner of the great old course they remembered what he was, and what he represented, and that whatever the achievements of the young demi-god Tiger Woods, he will never be forgotten.

Sometime today, probably in late afternoon, Nicklaus will drive away from St Andrews, the place he had made his spiritual home, with his wife Barbara and his son Steve, almost certainly for the last time as a competitor. Almost certainly? In the scorers' room Hugh Campbell, chairman of the Royal and Ancient Championship Committee, suggested to Nicklaus that maybe in the event of his availability in 2005, the year of his 65th birthday, it would be appropriate for the Open to return to the Old Course. Nicklaus was touched but realistic. He said the odds were that this had been his last Open.

"If you can't walk, you can't play golf," he said, "and at the moment I can't walk." Five years is a long time and maybe he might have surgery for artificial joints in his feet, but his eyes said, as they had on the Swilken Bridge and when he walked off the last green arm in arm with the son who had carried his bag, it was over.

"All that emotion was a mixed blessing," said Nicklaus. "It was so nice for all those memories to be rekindled - but not on Friday afternoon. I hadn't planned on Friday afternoon."

He shot 73 - four better than on Thursday, but when he turned for the clubhouse he knew, deep down, that his chances of beating the cut were just about doomed. You wondered if it was then, after the surge of the blood which came with a burst of three birdies in the first six holes had begun to ebb, that the cheers of the crowd which rolled relentlessly across the course had carried him into a mood of reflection, when the present began to merge with that glorious past. Did the memories of other days, when he was so much younger and stronger and when victory seemed not a goal but a right begin to dance in the sunlight? "No," said Nicklaus. "I was still playing to beat the cut, and I wasn't playing well enough to be reflective. You reach a certain point when you want to get out of the house without embarrassment."

Because he is who is, it just happened that Nicklaus came within a whisker of an emperor's farewell. His second shot to the last green - made with icy concentration after the ceremonials of the bridge - landed five feet from the pin. It was a beautiful shot and a beautiful moment, but the putt failed and the reality closed in. If golf is a game which so often mocks the tyranny of the clock, it cannot indefinitely hold time at bay, and on the last day of Jack Nicklaus as an Open competitor we saw all the cruelty of this.

We saw a great talent, and a great man of his sport, ransack every corner of his memory to stay in the tournament he won three times - on the last occasion here at St Andrews in 1978 - and seriously threatened to carry a dozen times. He started so brightly with a birdie on the first hole, and when he did that you thought of all those times the sight of Nicklaus coming over the crest of a fairway, intent and imperious, had quickened the pulse. You thought of, most recently, the charge at Augusta two years ago when the cries for Nicklaus thundered through the dogwoods and when, after coming within a few shots of his seventh Green Jacket, he declared, "No, I'm not pleased - for gosh sakes, I could have won the tournament and I didn't."

That, we have to believe, was the last sustained defiance by Nicklaus of the march of time. He has had hip surgery but he curses the pain that comes to his feet towards the end of the round, and you sense now that he finally accepts that there is a gap between ambition, sheer competitive instinct, and the realm of the possible.

That certainly was the mood he carried from the Old Course yesterday despite those moments of uplift at the first, and the fifth, when his eagle putt brushed against the hole, and the sixth, when he made his third birdie.

"Oh, Jack," he cried when the round began to dwindle, when he missed from six feet after a beautiful approach on the seventh, then made a bogey at the eighth.

Drawing the scene, amid the great division of photographers, was the celebrated artist and friend of Nicklaus, Harold Riley. He said he felt a great sadness because since his days as a young art student he had been magnetised by the power and beauty of Nicklaus's golf.

Yesterday morning Riley's wife, Ashraf, had chided him for another dawn start to the golfing day, but he told her, "I'm an artist, and my family were artists, but I would rather see Jack Nicklaus's last round in the Open than kneel at the feet of Michelangelo."

Riley has painted many great men, including the Pope and Nelson Mandela, and when he was asked by the South African leader who had most impressed him in life, he nominated Jack Nicklaus without hesitation. "I did that," says Riley, "because I have never seen anyone so much in control of what he did, so clear in his objectives and perfect in his execution."

Such is the legacy that Jack Nicklaus bestowed yesterday upon the game he dominated for so long so majestically.

He was asked if would ever find anything to replace the sensation of walking up the last fairway with a great tournament still to win and he said, "not while playing golf". But Nicklaus said there were more important things than golf. There was his wife, with whom he celebrates a 40th wedding anniversary tomorrow, his children and his grandchildren. There was a wider worldbeyond the fairway.

So what would he be doing to celebrate the anniversary? "Playing golf," he shot back. But there would no problem with Barbara. After all, he said, he had played golf on his wedding day - and every day of his honeymoon when it didn't rain. Before he teed off, his wife was asked, "Will Jack be waving to us from the bridge today?" "No," said Barbara Nicklaus, "that will be on Sunday." Such is the belief that Nicklaus bred in himself and all those he has touched.

For a little while yesterday Nicklaus again encouraged such faith. He played to his limits, but then time and the pain in his feet took their toll. You could say it was sad. Or, then again, you could marvel that it had taken so long.

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