The golden one is bearing up

Ken Jones watches a veteran campaigner rekindle his competitive fire
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When Jack Nicklaus picked up four shots in the first six holes yesterday, improving to one under for the tournament, he imagined being able to frighten a few people.

Even at 56 years old, the greatest player golf has ever known considers himself competitive, so back-to-back birdies followed by an eagle for an outward half of 32 got his juices rising.

No golfer is guaranteed more applause, but it isn't why Nicklaus continues to play in The Open he won three times while accumulating 18 major championships. "There are three reasons why I decided to play this year," he said after failing to keep his round together. "Firstly, I love to come over. Secondly, I've been hitting the ball well and felt competitive. Finally, alternative medicine has lessened the pain in my left hip, enough to justify a gamble with the weather. It's warmed up a lot since the first day and I don't feel old at all. Age is all in the mind and if I don't move as freely as I used to, my swing isn't a great deal different."

As Nicklaus spoke, a television to the right of where he sat showed one of the birdies Tiger Woods made on the way to a record-equalling round of 64.

The past and the present juxtaposed. The future in the hands of a 21- year-old phenomenon.

Not that Nicklaus is content with his memories. "I don't think that age comes into it," he said. "I'm not influenced by time but I have to accept that I haven't got that many years left on the golf course. So as long as I've still got something like my old swing and the hip holds up, I'll continue playing."

Watching Nicklaus on the course reminds you of Bill Shankly's assertion that there is nothing in football to compare with playing. Nothing for Nicklaus in golf to match the joy of being out there, testing himself against the best of today's players, showing them a thing or two in matters of technique and course management.

The homeward half, however, didn't come up to Nicklaus's expectations. He began to hit the ball left, the fault resulting in five dropped shots before he birdied the last. A great cheer went up, the warmth felt for him tearjerking. Nicklaus smiled but his disappointment was obvious. "I let it go," he said. "I wasn't getting my left hip out of the way and you saw the results.

"I really thought that it was going to be a much better round, and that I'd still be in the middle of the golf tournament and causing people to look over their shoulders. You never know. From there, anything can happen."

On the par-three 17th, Nicklaus went left again, his ball finishing on a path below the green, the lie bare and discouraging. As Nicklaus approached, the response was as generous as he had heard all day and people called out from a grandstand. With very little to work with, he chipped to four feet, but not close enough to make par a formality. Another bogey, another groan.

The last brought a breath of the Nicklaus legend, gladdening the hearts of those who had made the pilgrimage. Long and straight from the tee, Nicklaus found the green with his second and sunk a 20-foot putt for birdie.

Typically, he had left his mark as a reminder of past greatness. "You seemed to have birdied the 18th in so many majors," somebody said to him. Nicklaus smiled. No, he could not remember. Was he disappointed? "Come on," Nicklaus said. "Do you think I came here to make a mess of things? Of course I'm disappointed. On the first two days I shot 38 on the front nine. Today I shot 32 and from there I should have done much better."

It's been a long time. So many years, so many championships, so many reasons to suppose that not even Woods can emulate Nicklaus's enduring fame.