This is the way it happens. This is the way it works. All those old icons - Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Bobby Jones - whom most of us know only from black-and-white images, plaques on walls and stories handed down through history, were living people, in color, before they crossed a border and became something for all of us to look back on.
This is that time for Jack Nicklaus. The "Golden Bear" is crossing that border, bowing out, calling it quits after one of the most remarkable and distinguished careers in sport. He has hand-picked the British Open to close the curtain on a competitive career that includes 113 worldwide victories and 18 majors, including the British Open three times.
It's his time to do it, and it's our time to bear witness. Nicklaus hand-picked the time - he's 65 now, when most mortal Americans would be getting their first Social Security checks - and the Royal and Ancient picked the place. The R&A moved up the Open rotation so it would be held this year at the Old Course at St. Andrews. It's a course that Nicklaus, a lover of the game's history, has always revered.
That reverence is returned. They've paired him up with Tom Watson, a five-time winner of the event, being played for the 134th time this year. Who wouldn't love to be a fly on a 5-iron in that pairing? Two old warhorses going at it one last time on the course they both love more than any other, in the tournament they both cherish, on the world stage they both craved.
There's something infinitely sad about it, as well as fascinating and apt. The two were the combatants in one of the most famous and tightly-contested Opens in history, the "Duel in the Sun" in 1977.
It was the tournament's first visit to Turnberry and Watson went one up when he birdied 17 and Nicklaus made par. Nicklaus sliced his tee shot, but then made that incredible birdie from 40 feet on No. 18. However, Watson's three-foot putt went into the cup and Nicklaus had to settle for one of his seven runner-up finishes.
That kind of finish this year will most likely involve Tiger Woods, Ernie Els, Phil Mickelson or one of the other young lions. But, the British love to bet and I'm betting the stronger emotions will come from Nicklaus and those who watch him walk up to the 18th green for the last time, whether that be Friday or Sunday.
I'm also betting it won't be only Americans pulling for Nicklaus to at least make the cut, against the 10-1 odds bookmakers have set (Nicklaus is a 1,000-to-one longshot to win). The Scots have done everything but teach Nicklaus to play the bagpipes: the Royal Bank of Scotland has put his face on two million 5-pound notes during the Open. He's only the third living person to appear on a note, the others being Her Majesty the Queen and the late Queen Mother.
It's been a sad year already for Nicklaus, who is making his 37th Open appearance, which includes 17 top-six showings. His grandson drowned in March. Then Nicklaus missed the cut at his own tournament, the Memorial. He has reserved the right to play that tournament and maybe a few father-and-son tournaments with son Jack, but for all intents and purposes, this is it.
He's left behind a legacy difficult to measure, but easy to aspire to. As Nicklaus studied those who came before, the young pros still study him.
Sean O'Hair, who just won the John Deere Classic and gained a berth to the Open, was having swing problems before the tourney. Who did he turn to? He bought two Nicklaus instruction books, "Golf My Way," and "My Golden Lessons," to get it right. Now, he can watch his idol go the way of Hogan, Jones, Snead and all the others.
It's said that great courses and tournaments produce great champions. The British Open has been won by people like Woods, Nicklaus, Snead and Jones, but also by Tony Lema, Kel Nagle and Dick Burton - all of whom captured their only majors at the Open. When Todd Hamilton won last year, it was the 11th straight year that a first-time winner of the Open was the last man standing.
Why not Nicklaus in 2005? Because that's not the way it happens. That isn't the way it works. Nicklaus may make the cut and he may not, but when he walks up to the 18th green at the Old Course for the last time, he'll pass into another era and another time. No more hoping he can pull off one last miracle. He will be absorbed by the history he loves so much, another old hero on the wall.
July 12, 2005