The Bear and the Tiger

The 27 million Americans who play golf--and 100 million who don't--understand that Jack Nicklaus is the best ever to put on yellow plaid trousers. In his day, he was the longest, straightest driver and the finest clutch putter of all time. Among the four-score trophies in his breakfront are a pair of U.S. Amateur crowns, four U.S. Open wins (the first of them during the Kennedy administration), three PGA Championships, three British Opens and six wins at the Masters--the first in 1963, the sixth an astonishing 23 years later. By all accounts, Nicklaus has won tournaments in New Zealand, Australia and South Africa that he doesn't even remember.

Still, no one picked the Golden Bear to prevail last weekend at Augusta. Some golf experts have been discussing his decline since 1977, and Nicklaus hasn't won on the regular PGA Tour in a dozen years--not since he became the oldest-ever Masters winner with an improbable come-from-behind victory way back in 1986. No duffer gazing at the boob tube in Keokuk supposed that Jack could vie for a seventh green jacket at the impossible age of 58, in his fortieth visit to Magnolia Lane. No Tour baby with 350-yard driving power rated him the vaguest of threats.

Even the walking, talking bourbon bottles who run Augusta National Golf Club like a gulag see him as a monument now. Last Tuesday they dragged a bronze plaque honoring Nicklaus's six Masters wins out to a spot between the sixteenth green and the seventeenth tee and hoisted it into history among the azaleas. Nicklaus misted over.

Then he promptly got down off his plaque and caught fire like the Jack of old. On Sunday--Easter Sunday, but there's no point belaboring the parallel--he almost pulled off a miracle.

If another putt had dropped here and there, if a couple of Nicklaus six-irons had flown a little straighter on the back nine, we would behold this week one of the most incredible sports stories of the twentieth century. Instead, we still behold one of the most incredible sports stories of the twentieth century.

Nicklaus started Sunday's final round by birdieing four of the first seven holes (a drama denied to CBS viewers thanks to Augusta National's Byzantine television directives) and vaulted into contention at four under par. He shot 33 on the front nine but 35 on the back, and in the end finished at minus-five, four strokes off the pace, in a tie for sixth.

Plucky Mark O'Meara, a child of 41 playing in his fourteenth Masters, wound up winning his first major via three birdies in the last four holes, capped by a twenty-foot putt on the eighteenth green to forestall a three-way playoff with Fred Couples and David Duval. Nice going. Memorable. But in years to come, you can't help thinking that the 1998 Masters will be most vividly recalled as the Golden Bear's last hurrah.

"You see all the people out there," a weary Nicklaus said afterward, "knowing that may be the last time you walk down in front of them. Having a chance to do something good was a pretty nice feeling. It was a pretty special day."

For us, too. Only a few months ago, two of the burning questions in golf were whether Jack Nicklaus deserved another special exemption to the U.S. Open, and if he could still be competitive. In a game more obsessed than ever by youth, the PGA's thought police, too, were ready to bolt a bronze plaque over the career of golf's greatest player and throw away the wrench. How lovely that he stopped them cold, one last time, in mid-toss.

"On Sunday, he played better than I did," co-runnerup Couples marveled. "Better than O'Meara, better than Duval. What he did was amazing."

What he did also flew in the face of the Tour's prevailing wisdom. For those who've been teeing off on Mars for the last year or so, the only current rage in golf is named Tiger Woods, the young man credited with bringing $650 million of new revenues into the golf industry since winning last year's Masters. So the young star's return last week to Augusta National, where he had demolished the field by a record twelve strokes, attracted the same attention that, say, Madonna might if she went to Easter mass in the nude.

In the first round, buffeted by thirty-mile-an-hour winds, Woods was paired with U.S. Amateur champion Matt Kuchar, a bright-eyed sophomore at Georgia Tech. Much was made of the fact that the two players' ages totaled 41 years--same as the winner, as it turned out. Commentators started talking about "Tiger Par" at Augusta--68--because the big hitter was so likely to birdie all four of the course's par-fives. Carrying the burden of expectation, he finished the day one under par.

In the second round, Woods's playing partner was none other than Fuzzy Zoeller, the Tour veteran who got himself into hot water after last year's Masters with his ill-considered fried-chicken-and-collard-greens comment. With the pairing, the Augustans probably intended to put an end to the racial friction that had grown out of Fuzzy's gaffe, but who knows? This is the same stuffy Georgia country club, after all, where chairman Clifford Roberts once declared: "As long as I'm here, the players will be white and the caddies black."

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