Nicklaus at crossroads

Click to follow
The Independent Online
ON THE third fairway at St Andrews yesterday Tiger Woods caught a glimpse of Jack Nicklaus moving in the opposite direction. Since Woods is an intelligent young man he may have thought this symbolic.

A comfort for those who make a career of golf is that they are unlikely to be seeking alternative employment at an age when people in other fields are still rising. The game does not carry the threat of fractured limbs, savaged ligaments, brain damage.

Given reasonable fortune and the retention of sanity, great golfers are around for a long time. Eventually they reach a point where victory is no longer possible but as in the case of Arnold Palmer, who bade an emotional farewell to the Open this week in his 66th year, their very presence is important.

Nicklaus, 55, won his first Open 10 years before the 19-year- old Woods was born. Looking at his young compatriot, the most successful player in history sees what used to be. Power and the nerve to go with it.

The future means different things to them. This is not Nicklaus's last Open but there will not be many more, possibly only one. Nicklaus intends to show up if the Open returns to St Andrews in the year 2000 but beyond that he is non-committal.

After returning a 77 that casts him as a bit player in today's final round Nicklaus indicated he is unlikely to be seen next year at Lytham. "Probably not," he said. "I'm at the point between still feeling I can be in contention and accepting that it isn't going to happen," he said. "Wanting to be there makes it difficult to stop and smell the roses."

The emotion evoked by Palmer's departure on Friday made Nicklaus think of what it will be like when he treads a similar path. "Arnie got a wonderful send off," he said, "and made me imagine coming down the 18th fairway for the last time. Having this great feel for the Open makes it difficult to rationalise my situation."

When Nicklaus needed four shots to escape from the hideous Hell Bunker at 14 in the first round and took 10 overall, people shook their heads sadly. Of course, it could happen to anyone, but in Nicklaus's case it appeared to be significant. When it was put to Nicklaus that this rotten experience provided a catalyst for the counter-attack he launched at the remaining holes, birdie, par, par, birdie, a wry smile crossed his lined features. "It was a catalyst for going home," he muttered. "Have you ever been in that bunker? Getting the ball out is only part of the problem. Then you have to climb out of it." The old joke was appropriate.

People in sport must confront two deaths. The one we all face and the anti-climax that comes with retirement. Like Palmer and other golfing greats before him Nicklaus will never disappear from or find himself without public attention. But as the great Liverpool manager Bill Shankly once said to his men: "Enjoy playing while you can because there is no other experience in the game to match it."

On the course yesterday Nicklaus was not clinging to his past but seeking some solace in the present. A seven at the fifth indicated that it was a struggle. Out in 40, home in 37, he still had pride to play for. "I'm still capable of very good golf," he said.

On the eve of the championship Nicklaus attended an exhibition of paintings and sketches by the distinguished artist Harold Riley that chronicle his life and times in the game. "In my experience the course has never looked better," he said. There was a time when Nicklaus might have licked his lips in anticipation. Another major.

Ambition survives but reality stalks him. Reality is in the exuberance of young tyros, golf's emerging generation. Michael Campbell, Gordon Sherry, Woods.

The prodigious distance Nicklaus achieved from the tee in his prime resulted in alterations to courses. When their paths crossed yesterday Woods was walking after a drive that had skipped past Greg Norman on the fourth tee. He had flown the ball all of 300 yards. As Woods went by Norman threw him a quizzical glance. "Where are you going?" he asked. The young American smiled, stud- ied the lie and then sent a wedge to within four feet. One putt. Birdie.

If Woods was not so respectful of the game and its great performers he could have answered Norman cheekily. He could have said that in contrast to some of the older guys he is moving in the right direction.