It can safely be assumed that Jack Nicklaus did not grow up with a burning ambition to win the Telus Skins Game, a made-for-television marketing event disguised as a Canadian golf tournament, but put a club in the hands the greatest player of all time and he just cannot help himself.
Hence, the results from Whistler, British Columbia, last week came as a surprise to no one: Vijay Singh — zero skins; John Daly — two skins; Stephen Ames — seven skins; Nicklaus — seven skins.
In the end Ames won the play-off, as if anyone cared. What mattered was that Nicklaus, at the age of 65, with a new hip and a practice regime that might accurately be described as being on the relaxed side of non-existent, was still able to compete against some of the best players in the world.
”Oh, they just wanted to give an old man a chance,” he said afterwards when confronted with the awe-struck ranks of the Canadian press.
Self-deprecating jokes about his age and physical infirmity are Nicklaus’s stock-in-trade these days, though he was eventually persuaded to give a more serious appraisal of his chances at this week’s Open Championship at St Andrews — a tournament that marks not just his last appearance in a major championship but also, he insists, his last appearance as a competitive player.
”I don’t expect to be competitive to any degree but hopefully I can play four decent rounds of golf,” he said. ”I certainly want to finish up on Sunday, not Friday. That’s my big goal.”
Golf has an insatiable appetite for the heroic narrative, and Nicklaus has been one of its most outlandish storytellers for the past 40 years, so only a fool would bet against him making it all the way to Sunday at the Old Course.
But, regardless of when it comes, a few paragraphs in the final chapter of a glorious career can be sketched in advance with a little certainty: there will be adulatory galleries (there has been a pragmatism and a cussedness to Nicklaus’s golf that particularly endears him to Scottish audiences); there will be a handful of great shots to remind people of the player he once was; there will be the obligatory stop on the Swilcan Bridge for the benefit of the photographers (no one has been more obliging towards the media down the years than Nicklaus); and there will be tears.
Nicklaus has become increasingly sentimental in his advancing years, never more so than when he has travelled to the country where he won his three Open Championships. ”Of all the countries I have played in, Scotland has to be my favourite. I’ve swallowed more lumps in my throat and become more damp-eyed more often in there than anywhere else,” he said after visiting St Andrews in May for a recreational game on the Old Course.
And to think it all began with an insult.
Back in 1962, Nicklaus arrived at Royal Troon having just won the United States Open — a victory that, these day, would have accorded him star status, or at least a mid-morning tee time on Thursday and the presidential suite at the Marine hotel.
But back then the R&A believed the Open Championship was the only tournament of any import. The American upstart had to qualify and when he did he was given a late-afternoon time, paired with a marker. Only when the Irish golfer Joe Carr suggested to the gentlemen in blazers that a US Open champion deserved a little more respect than that did they relent and put Nicklaus in a three-ball.
He duly qualified, but as it turned out he shot 80 in the first round and finished 29 shots behind the eventual winner, Arnold Palmer. The following year, more in tune with the type of game required for the Open conditions, he finished second at Royal Lytham. The year after that he visited St Andrews for the first time.
”It was love at first sight,” he recalled. ”It wasn’t so much the architecture I liked — there are only two holes I consider to be exceptional — but its unique feel: the way the Old Course begins and ends in the town, the way the R&A clubhouse frames the first tee, the amazingly old look of the land and all the history.”
He finished second that year, and had to wait another two years to win his first claret jug, at Muirfield — his favourite of all the links courses. That win in 1966 was the start of a remarkable record. Over the next 14 years Nicklaus never finished worse than sixth in the Open. ”Personally, I thought his consistency was a joke,” says Nick Faldo. ”But he had such great self-belief, knew he was the best and he could relax about it.”
Nicklaus has never indulged in false modesty, and his assessment of his own record is as crisp and straight as one of his long-iron shots. ”I went to the British Open every year and I felt like I was going to win, or at least be right there. I suppose it was the type of golf that I liked. I sort of like creative golf, where you have to improvise and do all sorts of things. I just love that.”
All of which raises the question: why did he win only two more Opens after 1966, both of them at St Andrews, in 1970 and 1978?
The answer can only be guessed at. Golf is a capricious game, and links golf is the most capricious game of all. Most players have a novelist’s ability for dreaming up excuses in defeat, but Nicklaus preferred to work in non-fiction, albeit with the plain, powerful prose of Hemingway. When Tom Watson famously defeated him at Turnberry in 1977, Nicklaus simply shook his hand and said: ”You played better than me.”
Of course, Nicklaus never liked being described by another of his great rivals, Gary Player, as ”the greatest loser of all”, but he was. ”Jack said, ‘Call me a gracious loser’, which is, of course, what I meant,” Player says. ”To me being gracious in defeat is the hallmark of a great champion.”
The great and gracious champion will take his leave this week at the Old Course and move into another world, one centred on his family, his business interests and his latest passion, fly fishing.
”Will I miss golf? Of course I will miss golf,” he said in Canada. ”But I’m not very good at it any more. But when that little fly comes down through the river and the fish looks up at it, he doesn’t know if the guy at the other end is 35 or 65. And that feels good.” — Ã‚