Reluctant Nicklaus leaves a lasting imprint

 

When he was about to leave the media centre at Royal Co Down on Sunday, Jack Nicklaus suddenly winced in pain as his right leg seized up. That moment offered all the explanations one could reasonably have required, regarding his reluctance to commit himself to any future appearance in this country.

The legendary name is down there in the results of the Senior British Open. His countless admirers would like it to have been as a winner, but on the way to sharing third place behind Ian Stanley last Sunday, the Bear left a lasting imprint.

"I don't know how much golf I will play in the future," he said. "I have no tournaments on my schedule for the rest of this year. I want to get a couple of these physical problems fixed. I will play if I can play, but not if I am continuously hurting." In this context, the partially-torn right hamstring, which caused him to withdraw after a first round 77 in the Ford Senior Players Championship in Dearborn earlier this month, was no more than an irritation. A far more serious concern is a herniated disk which has been causing shooting pains and general weakness in his right leg.

Nicklaus, however, has shown himself to be remarkably durable through the years. Apart from Dearborn, the only occasions he has withdrawn from professional events were in the 1980 World Series of Golf and the 1983 US Masters.

As to Royal Co Down, he went on: "Everybody has been fantastic; the people couldn't have been nicer. My wife and I have enjoyed it greatly, but I would like to have won, too. I wanted to be greedy." He clearly enjoyed elements of an extremely challenging links, which he described as "pretty skittish." But he went on: "Is it the best course I have played in the British Isles? Probably not, because there are too many blind shots. But throw that aside and it is an enjoyable course, a great, strategic test where you really have to play golf. I thoroughly enjoyed it." These comments should be taken in the knowledge that Nicklaus has never been publicly kind to courses he disliked. For instance, he described Royal St George's as "the only course I know where you can knock a drive straight down the middle and lose your ball." So, would he like to see changes at Royal Co Down? "You don't change a course like this," he replied. "You wouldn't want to change St Andrews which was built a long time ago and still stands the test of time. This is the way they built courses 100 years ago and you accept them as they are."

Meanwhile, Stanley's stumble on the 72nd hole, proved for a second time in recent weeks - Retief Goosen's win in the US Open being the first time - that there is a way back from seeming disaster, even at such a late stage of an important event. So, it is somewhat ironic that the Australian's last, serious slip on Irish terrain should have come at an earlier stage.

It was in the third round of the inaugural Irish Open at Woodbrook in 1975. On that occasion, Stanley led the field on 135 at the halfway stage, a stroke clear of the eventual winner, Christy O'Connor Jnr. At the end of his third round, however, he hit two balls out of bounds onto the railway line at Woodbrook's 18th to run up a wretched nine for a round of 74.

He and compatriot Jack Newton eventually finished in a share of eighth place, behind O'Connor. This time, in a play-off with Bob Charles, he played an equally treacherous 18th with admirable control. And won.