MIAMI — Little by little, greatness drips away from them all. But nobody, none of the kings and princes of our games, clings to his glory with the tenacity, the style and the gracefully loosening grip of Jack Nicklaus.
Whatever it is that youth possesses and middle age has lost has been taken from him by now. Whatever time could steal is gone. Yet he's still here.
The Golden Bear's gone forever, but the Olden Bear's still around. And, to both his and our delighted surprise, he might be around a long time.
Yes, the golf season can begin again. The first Bear of spring's been sighted; the Franchise is back. For the sixth straight year, Nicklaus--now 45--has used the Florida chunk of the PGA Tour to reassert himself.
Last Sunday at Doral's Blue Monster, Nicklaus' name was atop the leader board for hours. He finished third, could have won with more luck, and said, "I like my swing pattern better than I have in a long time . . . in general, I'm putting well, too, and I've played better every tournament--57th, 17th, 15th to third. If I keep up that progression--well, the way I'm playing right now, I think I probably will."
Since 1980, we've welcomed Nicklaus back each season like a staggering warrior who's on his last legs. Yet, every year he finishes between 12th and 16th on the money list, has a marvelous Vardon stroke average and is a contender in most of the major championships.
Maybe it's time to reassess.
Just because Arnold Palmer only won one Tour title after age 41 doesn't mean Nicklaus must pack his cue, too. Palmer never cracked the top 25 in money after 41; Nicklaus hasn't been worse than 16th since turning 40.
From '62 through '78, Nicklaus had 17 uniformly great seasons. They made him the best golfer ever. In 1979, he hit the wall, finished 71st in cash and faced jock mid-life.
The magnitude of the adjustment he made--playing less, practicing more, revamping his swing, learning the short game--still is coming into focus. His next level of athletic erosion probably is five years away, or, who knows, maybe 10 years if he stays as fit as Sam Snead. The magic's gone, but the craft and competitiveness remain.
Is it possible this Olden Bear, perhaps winning a tournament a year and finishing on the top 10 leader board every other time he tees it up, will stick around as long as the Golden Bear? Will we see a Masters win in '88 and an Open title past age 50?
Don't laugh. All Nicklaus has left to prove is that he's the best old athlete ever. And he's working on it. Last year, he won his own prestigious Memorial Tournament, was 15th in money and, far more indicative, was second in stroke average on Tour despite playing the toughest courses.
Lest we romanticize, let's look again at Sunday. Ten or 20 years ago, Nicklaus would have walked away with that baby. At age 45, he lipped out birdie putts at the 12th and 15th and also got discouraged by a four-foot miss at the 13th and a left-it-short-in-the-heart 12-footer at the 14th. When he had to gamble at the 16th and 18th, he hit ugly shots and swallowed bogeys.
Nicklaus can't hit overdrive on command anymore. Those sputterings down the stretch are his norm now. Luck and circumstance must attend him. Which, of course, makes him all the more beloved.
"I don't have a whole lot to talk about," he said clench-jawed after a final 74 when 70 would've won it clean.
Every golf fan knows Nicklaus' limits. He's colorblind and has legs of different lengths. His back can lock up at times and a virus once dogged him a whole season. His course building and the rest of his mammoth business empire might sap him.
Despite this, if any athlete is entitled to wishes for longevity, it is Nicklaus. It is not too much to say he defines and protects what is best in his sport, and in sportsmanship. If golf has the most gentlemanly tone of any game and the highest level of intelligence among its stars, doesn't some credit go to Nicklaus? When Fuzzy Zoeller waved his towel to Greg Norman at last year's U.S. Open, and Norman waved back the next day, wasn't there some of Nicklaus' generosity to Tom Watson and others in the gesture?
On Sunday, just seconds after Mark McCumber had holed out a chip shot for the birdie that virtually closed out the tournament, Nicklaus--when he couldn't have thought the cameras were on him--put his arm around McCumber's waist and squeezed him as he might a kid brother in a gesture of genuine congratulation.
In victory, McCumber said, "I always play my best with Nicklaus because he's so inspirational. You just wouldn't want to do anything less than your best around him."
Nothing in golf, and not much in sports, approaches the excitement that's sparked when Nicklaus gathers his game and his glare one more time.
When the wind blows or the rough is high or the greens are so bumpy that nobody can make anything--when the game of golf comes down to ball-striking and shot-making, experience and composure, ball management and self-management, Nicklaus still can win.