At British Open, Nicklaus to Play Last Major
SUSAN STAMBERG, host:
Thirty-nine years ago this week, Jack Nicklaus won his first British Open. Tomorrow, the 65-year-old golfing legend tees up at this year's tournament. He says that this will be his last major championship. To honor his achievements, the Royal Bank of Scotland issued a special 5-pound note bearing his likeness. Besides the queen of England and the late queen mother, Jack Nicklaus is only the third living person to appear on a Scottish note. Commentator Frank Deford says it's a worthy tribute.
The British have finally found a way to pay Jack Nicklaus back. In 1969, when Nicklaus was at the height of his power, the United States met Great Britain in the Ryder Cup. It was a completely one-sided competition back then. In fact, the British had lost 10 of the last 11 Cups. But this year, playing at home at Royal Birkdale, led by Tony Jacklin, who had already beaten Nicklaus both straight up and in four-ball, the competition was tied with one match still to be settled: Nicklaus vs. Jacklin, head to head once again. Incredibly, Jacklin eagled the 17th hole to level the match. So with only one hole left, the whole Ryder Cup was at a tie.
On the 18th green, Nicklaus had a four-foot putt for par, Jacklin a two-footer. Nicklaus sank his putt. Jacklin moved to his ball. Normally, any pro will sink a two-foot putt almost every time, but now this two-foot putt before the home crowd stood between Jacklin splitting his match and Great Britain earning a tie in a moral victory with the big bad American juggernaut. Nervously, Jacklin approached. Suddenly Nicklaus waved him off, conceding the putt. The British had earned a tie. He would not allow his stalwart opponent to forfeit his glorious play on account of one nervous mistake. His teammates might be angry, but to Nicklaus, no victory was worth that. Nicklaus threw his arm around Jacklin, Jacklin 'round Nicklaus, and they walked off the green together that way as the English crowd applauded--well, those who were not wiping away tears.
Nicklaus announced some time ago that 2005, his 66th summer, would be the last time he would play competitively. When the British learned that, they took the unusual step of changing the rota of their open championships and moving this year's open to their dearest, oldest course, St. Andrews, so that Jack Nicklaus might play his final serious round at the place where golf was effectively given to the world. Of course, Nicklaus is admired in Great Britain for more than his wonderful act of sportsmanship with Tony Jacklin. He won three British Opens, two of them at St. Andrews, and although he lost by a shot to Tom Watson at Turnberry in '77, that week the two Americans provided perhaps the most brilliant, certainly the most stirring competition in Grand Slam history.
Like Bobby Jones, who Nicklaus has been most compared to--although we cannot forget Jones' own sweet tribute when once he said, `Nicklaus plays a game with which I am not familiar'--Nicklaus' connection, his devotion with golf, with the institution, goes far beyond his 18 majors titles and all his other victories. As much as any single human being can, he represents golf as a player, as St. Andrews does as a course. The British, who treat tradition with more honor than we, understand that better.
So this Friday when Nicklaus reaches his last green--it will be Friday, won't it? A 65-year-old man can't possibly make the cut at the British Open, can he? Can he? Well, on Friday or Sunday, when Nicklaus stands over his final competitive putt from the 18th green at St. Andrews, they ought to just pick up his ball and say for us all, `Never mind, Jack. This last one's on us.'
STAMBERG: The comments of Frank Deford. His latest book is called "The Old Ball Game." Mr. Deford joins us Wednesdays from member station WSHU, Fairfield, Connecticut.
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