Sunday, April 22, 2018

Masters still special for Nicklaus


In the spring of his life, long before Jack Nicklaus was Jack Nicklaus, back when he was just a chunky kid with golden hair on his way to do some things in this game, he fell in love with a golf course.

Who knew that love would last forever?

It was a half-century ago, in a magical year, that Nicklaus won the Masters for the first time — and changed everything. It was then that he held off Sam Snead, Gary Player and Tony Lema for the title.

Fifty years. Can it really be that long ago?

It was such an extraordinary year, 1963. John Kennedy was in the White House. Martin Luther King Jr. had a dream. George Wallace was standing in the schoolhouse door. The Beatles released their first album. Iron Man debuted in the comic books. Sandy Koufax befuddled the Yankees. Doctor Who hit the television airways. Michael Jordan was born. Gas was 29 cents a gallon.

And a kid named Nicklaus became the then-youngest golfer to win the Masters.

Even now, he does not have to reach back very far for the memories, of driving up Magnolia Lane, of being invited to Bobby Jones' cabin to talk about golf and life, of being draped with an oversized green jacket. He is 73 now, and there are lines on his face, and his hair does not flow the way it once did. But when Nicklaus sits at the front of the room and talks about the Masters, time moves backward.

These days he is a walking history book of this place. Back then he was just a kid trying to hit a shot.

"The Masters is always something special to me," Nicklaus said. "I always loved it, had that love affair with the thing. There are so many special things here when you finally go through and win this tournament. … I was only 23 years old (when he won his first). It was still very, very special."

Nicklaus flashes that grin of his, and the calendar retreats, and suddenly it is April of 1963 again. His memories are still vivid. Yours, too, perhaps.

Nicklaus had played the Masters for the first time in '59 as an amateur, and the lessons hit him quickly. In four days, he hit 31 fairways, which was pretty impressive. But he noticed that Arnold Palmer was leading the tournament and Palmer hit only 19 fairways. The lesson was simple: Learn to putt.

"These greens are greens you have to learn," Nicklaus said. "They are difficult, particularly for a newcomer.

"I played well in '60, and I played pretty well in '61. I did decently in '62. I was very disappointed, and I think I finished 14th. So coming back in '63, I felt I had really prepared. … I had hurt my hip early in the year, and I had had 25 injections in my hip over a 10-week period, which was probably why I had that hip replaced. But what it forced me to do was play right to left."

The first round, Nicklaus was average with 74. But he shot 66 on the second day. In the third round, he survived a heavy downpour.

"I remember the 13th fairway, we had casual water everywhere and no place to drop it," Nicklaus said, grinning. "They said 'Tough, play it.' So we played out of the water. We finished. We got to the 18th green, and I'm color-blind. I looked at the leaderboard. I saw seven 1s on the board. I looked at my caddie, Willie Peterson, and I said 'Willie, how many of those 1s are red?'

"And he said: 'Just you, Boss. Just you.' That's when I found out I was leading the tournament."

The next day, Nicklaus shot 72 to win the tournament, and Palmer draped a large green jacket around his shoulders.

"It was a size 46 long," Nicklaus said. "I could have used it as an overcoat. I was a 43 regular. But the story goes on that I came back the next year and they didn't have a coat for me. They said, 'Here, use this one.' It was (former governor of New York) Tom Dewey's. The coat fit me perfect, and I wore that one about 10 years. They kept putting Tom Dewey's coat on me every time I won the Masters.

"It got around 1998, and I told (then-Masters chairman) Jack Stephens the story about how I never had been given a green jacket. And he said, 'What?' I said, 'I've never been given a green jacket. I've won six times, and I've never been presented with one. I'm the only guy who has won this tournament and never got one.'

"When I came back, there was a note in the locker: 'You will go to the pro shop and get your green jacket.' So now I have a green jacket, guys. Same one."

Nicklaus would win five PGA Championships. Four U.S. Opens. Three British Opens. And five other Masters besides that first one. And here's something worth considering: In those majors, Nicklaus finished second 16 times.

"I never counted," Nicklaus said. "Honest. Never really worried about it. All I did was try to play the best I could. I knew I was obviously near the top of the game. I certainly didn't like being second, so that was my goal, to stay right where I was."

The other majors are a moving feast. The Masters is at the same place every year, with the same traditions, with the same creek, the same Amen Corner and the same Eisenhower Tree. How could he not embrace it?

"The others are all championships," Nicklaus said. "This is a tournament. Bob Jones structured this to be a tournament. This is probably the most important tournament there is. Financially, for the winner, this is probably the most important tournament. To me, it's the most fun one of the ones to play in. I love it.

"There are so many things about it. It's always been very special. To have won it six times, that's pretty special, too."

Fifty years. In the glimmer of his eye, the years all fade away, and Nicklaus is back to his start.

He did all right that week. All right after it, too.

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