© St. Petersburg Times, published February 23, 2003
LUTZ -- For the longest time, his was the greatest game ever seen. Which, in a way, explains why he lets you see it less and less these days.
Jack Nicklaus is back playing golf this weekend. He is negotiating fairways, reading greens and wrestling with his legacy. Probably not in that order.
This is the occupational hazard when you make your living being Jack Nicklaus. You compete with standards no one else can comprehend. There are no shortcuts. No vacations and no excuses. You are either one of the better players on a course or you have somehow fallen far short.
And so, in recent times, Nicklaus has chosen to stay away.
Some of it, for sure, was dictated by injury. For anyone, it would be difficult to play with a painful back. For Nicklaus, 63, it is next to impossible to play with a wounded pride.
He does not expect to be the golfer he was at 35. Or, for that matter, even 55. But he cannot accept the idea of beginning a tournament if he does not have even the slimmest chance of being a contender by the final hole.
"I love to play golf, but I didn't love it the way I was playing last year," Nicklaus said. "When I play like that, I could care less if I ever pulled out a club again. And so last year, I didn't. Do I have fun hacking around ... and shooting 85? No.
"I get no enjoyment finishing at noon on a Sunday, coming in 58th place, picking up my check and leaving."
If he were so inclined, Nicklaus could simply smile. He could joke and he could cut up with Lee Trevino. He need only tip his hat or wave broadly and the crowd will roar. He could sink the occasional birdie and, for that moment or two, make us all reflect on the way it used to be.
On any course on any continent, the sight of Nicklaus strolling toward the first tee would be like watching a monument come to life. Forget par. The Golden Bear could count on memories to carry him through any tournament.
"That was never Jack," Champions Tour player and CBS commentator Gary McCord said. "Jack loves the game, but he needs the competition. That's why he hasn't played. He wants to compete at a level he considers acceptable."
For the better part of a lifetime, Nicklaus' legend has been measured alongside that of Arnold Palmer's. Nowadays, they have far less in common.
Palmer, 73, can play simply for the love of the game. He can accept the adulation of past accomplishments without being too disturbed by current shortcomings. He can be a player without really being a competitor.
That has never been Nicklaus' way. And it doesn't appear it ever will. He will not commit to playing the Masters this year. He will not even commit to playing the next Champions event. His decisions are week to week. If his game is not respectable, he will not enter a tournament. It is that simple.
As recently as 2000, when he was 60, Nicklaus played more on the PGA Tour than seniors events. He wants the difficult courses. He wants the elite competition. Even now, as he tees it up on the Champions Tour, he talks of it as if were merely a diversion to the real tour.
Take a moment to think about what this might mean for the future. If Nicklaus is waffling about tournaments at age 63, can you picture him as the ceremonial champion showing up to charm the fans at age 70?
These could well be his final days in competitive golf. He won't put a timetable on it, but his career seems to be running short of days.
"I play because I like to be competitive," Nicklaus said. "I don't want somebody to spend whatever it is a ticket costs to see me shoot an 80. I don't get any kick out of that, and I don't know that any (fan) would either."
Most of last season was wiped out by a lingering back injury. He played three tournaments, fewer even than 1999, when he had hip replacement surgery.
Yet when Nicklaus talks of 2002, there is no sense of loss. No indication he is wistful about steering clear of tournaments.
Instead, he talks of ski trips. Of family outings. Of playing tennis. Of having weekends free for the first time to spend with his wife, Barbara.
"We had a ball together. I was calling him my new shopping companion," Barbara said. "It was hard for me to believe he really did want to do that, but we had a lot of fun. He did a lot of trout fishing, went to a lot more Little League games to watch our grandchildren play.
"Deep down in his heart I'm sure he was hoping the back would clear up and he could be back out. But he doesn't want to be here if he can't compete."
To hear him tell it, Nicklaus' game has been adrift for a half-dozen years or more. It's been that long since he won a Champions event, one of his final two victories coming on this stop in 1996.
Now he is back with the idea of rebuilding his game. The back has cleared up enough to have convinced Nicklaus to play three of the first four Champions events this season.
Some days there is a spark. Enough magic to keep Nicklaus intrigued by the thought of getting to a more acceptable level. Three weeks ago, on the last day of the season-opening tournament in Hawaii, Nicklaus shot 66.
At the Verizon Classic he has played well through seven holes each of the first two rounds before running into trouble. He was within sight of par in the second round before three double bogeys between holes 8 and 14.
Maybe he is chasing something hopelessly out of reach. He admits that's a possibility.
"That's what I wonder in the back of my mind," Nicklaus said. "When you haven't played for a while, can you come back and make your body do what you want it to do? I believe I can, but I haven't proven it to myself yet.
"I'm probably a little too hard on myself. I'm probably expecting too much too early, but I always have. That's why I've been successful."
He does not need to be the best. He is neither so vain nor needy. It is not a question of feeding his pride or stroking his ego.
It is simply a question of belonging. Nicklaus does not step on a course to hear his name cheered. He is not here to relive his glory.
He comes to play and to play well.
He comes to compete and to compete regularly.
Those are the Bear necessities.