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He Can't Bear to Quit

Nicklaus cutting back on play, but he makes local return at Newport Beach

March 19, 2004|Peter Yoon | Times Staff Writer

Somewhere in the world there is a fish hiding behind a rock, and Jack Nicklaus can't wait to go catch it.

The trouble is, golf won't let him.

Torn between playing competitively and becoming one of the game's sages, Nicklaus has taken up fishing and tennis as pursuits intended to replace the competitive void golf provides, but encouraging performances make it difficult for him to let go of the game that made him famous.

So after an unexpectedly strong start to this season, Nicklaus, 64, will tee it up today in the Toshiba Senior Classic at the Newport Beach Country Club. It is his first appearance in an official event in Southern California since the 1998 U.S. Senior Open at Riviera.

"I frankly didn't expect to play much this year," he said. "I'm amazed I'm playing as much as I'm playing. I really am amazed."

Last August, Nicklaus played about as well as he could in the Jeld-Wen Tradition, yet still tied for 10th place. Because he had committed to play the season-opening MasterCard Championships in Hawaii, he went there, shot 68-66-67 and finished sixth.

The next week he shot 64 during the Champions Skins Game and decided the fish would have to wait. Two weeks later he finished 15th in the ACE Group Classic at Naples, Fla., and this is his first event since then.

"That sort of changed my mind for a short period of time," he said. "I sort of felt, well, I played well once, I can play well again. Reality will set in again."

The Golden Bear has cried wolf about retirement in the past, but he could be close to putting away his clubs for good. Nicklaus won 73 PGA Tour titles, including a record 18 major championships. He has one sole purpose when walking on to a golf course: to win.

But Nicklaus hasn't won since 1996, a fact that hasn't gone unnoticed.

"I haven't won a tournament for eight years," he said. "So you lose a lot of desire to play."

Competitors can understand his plight. Nobody wants to see the greatest struggle to break par, least of all those who witnessed his greatness up close.

"It's a fascinating stage in his career," Ben Crenshaw said. "With all the things he's done in this game, with the most successful career of all time, what could possibly motivate him? We are still in awe of his ability, but his standards are pretty high. It would be difficult to imagine golf without Jack."

High standards, Nicklaus says, are his Achilles' heel. He can enjoy tennis because he doesn't expect to be able to win the U.S. Open. He enjoys fishing because it is recreation, not a world-class competition.

"When I go play golf, my expectations are a little different," he said. "My expectations are going to be to go to Augusta in three weeks and walk down the 18th fairway on Sunday with a chance to win the golf tournament. Those are always my expectations and if those expectations are not realistic, then why am I doing it?"

Nicklaus said if he worked a little harder at his game, he might be more competitive. But his golf course design business is booming. He has 25-30 courses under construction worldwide. He regularly speaks at banquets, attends other functions with his wife and has planned fishing outings.

Plus, nearly 50 years of competitive golf has taken its toll on his body. In the last five years, he has had numerous injuries. The most serious involved a hip replacement in 1999. He has also battled lower back pain, a bad hamstring and, most recently, a sore shoulder.

Practice often gets put off, and when you've won 18 major championships, grinding on the Champions Tour simply isn't appealing.

"You know, how does that relate to winning a Masters or a U.S. Open?" Nicklaus said. "Not a whole heck of a lot. Obviously if you work at it, you spend time with it, you can play well. I've been doing that for 50-some years. I've worked hard. You get a little tired of just going out and doing the same thing, particularly when you know you're not going to be at the level you're used to being at."

It's a difficult admission for a man respected around the world for his confidence on the course and unsurpassed ability to hit the right shot at the right time or make putts in crucial situations.

"Nobody would ever want to admit that their time is over," Nicklaus said. "We all like to think that we can do more than we can, but realistically I know that my time is past and it has been past for quite a while.

"I'm hoping to be part of the game and if I somewhat compete for my age and enjoy it, then I'll play a little bit, but if I can't, then I'd much rather try to catch that trout that's hiding behind that rock."

*

Toshiba Senior Classic

* When: Today-Sunday.

* Where: Newport Beach Country Club, 1600 East Pacific Coast Highway (6,598 yards, par 71).

* Who: 78 players, including Jack Nicklaus, Ben Crenshaw, Hale Irwin, Tom Kite, Bruce Lietzke, Gil Morgan, Larry Nelson, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Craig Stadler and Fuzzy Zoeller. Nicklaus tees off at 10:55 a.m. today.

* Purse: $1.6 million. Winner's share: $240,000.

* TV: The Golf Channel (today-Sunday, 2-4:30 p.m.).

* 2003 winner: Rodger Davis.

* Tickets: $20 for single day, $50 for week pass. Available at the gate.

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