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Nicklaus: Still fascinating to watch, but not to speculate on retirement

By Tim McDonald, Contributor

I like the idea of Jack Nicklaus as a wild card, a slightly dotty grand sage of golf, popping up at tournaments hither and yon to shake up the young bloods and wow the crowds. History walking amongst us.

So different from his earlier career which was bland only in its consistency of excellence; you knew where he'd be and you knew he would probably win.

People have been calling for Nicklaus to retire for about 20 years now. Before he won the 1986 Masters, critics were saying he should give it up.

The amazing win that year in Augusta closed that particular discussion nicely for a while, but time and the rest of the field caught up and passed Nicklaus. The whispers returned. Retire, if you can't compete.

Now that he has done well at his own Memorial tournament, you would think people might use the opposite tack: Retire now while you can compete.

Nicklaus himself fueled the fire when he said that wouldn't it be nice if his final competitive round was in the red.

He looked ready _ pumping his arms after making his eight-foot par putt on the 18th, walking off the green smiling and waving like a legendary slugger who knows the blast he just hit over the left field wall was his last at-bat. Not a bad way to go out.

"If that was my last round, I was very pleased shooting under-par in a tournament," Nicklaus said after his closing 71.

But, he slithered out of that as fast as he always seems to when talking about his retirement from competitive golf.

Nicklaus isn't being sly. The man doesn't know himself when he will or should retire. He has said repeatedly he will get out when he's no longer competitive, but the term can be elusive.

Nicklaus finished sixth at the season-opening MasterCard Championships in Hawaii, putting up scores in the 60s in all three rounds, played well in the Champions Skins Game, though finishing fourth, then finished 15th at in the ACE Group Classic in Naples.

He withdrew from the rain-plagued PGA Senior Championships after struggling at Valhalla, then finished seven-over- par at The Memorial, after his excellent final round.

"It's a fascinating stage in his career,:" Ben Crenshaw told the Los Angeles Times. "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."

Crenshaw was right, it is fascinating to watch the awesome physical ability fade while the competitive fire burns hotly as ever.

The difficulty Nicklaus is having is that, though the game is no longer there, the flame is hard to extinguish completely.

In that respect, the man who won 73 PGA Tour titles including 18 majors is no different from the great ones who have faced the same question down through the years.

Their greatness springs from an outward physicality they seldom stop to ponder. When it comes time to look inward - and doubt their greatest asset, self-confidence - they're as muddled as the rest of us.

So the call for the old great to retire is deafening in its silence. Why? Maybe we've just grown tired of speculating. Maybe Nicklaus has just worn us down like so many of the also-rans who were always chasing him in his glory days.

Another reason might be that Nicklaus is carefully choosing when and where he competes. He won't play if he doesn't feel he can finish high. For that reason, he feels he can preserve his dignity and still do what he loves best - play competitive golf when the feeling strikes him.

It may be a fool's game, but it seems to make sense to those who have watched him over the years. Whenever and wherever Nicklaus chooses to show up, he always gives something for the fans, and always gives the media something to write about.

"I'm not the player I was 10 or 15 years ago," Nicklaus said. "I've admitted that 100 times. But, I can still play a little bit at times."

Nicklaus didn't say that after the Memorial. He said that after his win at The Masters - 18 years ago.

Tim McDonaldTim McDonald, Contributor

Veteran golf writer Tim McDonald keeps one eye on the PGA Tour and another watching golf vacation hotspots and letting travelers in on the best place to vacation.

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