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Olden Bear is ready to roar

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© St. Petersburg Times, published February 18, 2001

With a lifetime of golfing treasures, 61-year-old Jack Nicklaus is worlds ahead of Tiger Woods, Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Walter Hagen, Lee Trevino, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Tom Watson, Arnold Palmer and all the celebrated others.

Let's count down the major Golden Bear numbers, toasting his six Masters, four U.S. Opens, five PGA Championships, three British Opens, two U.S. Amateurs and one of history's great wives (Barbara).

Jack is delightfully rich, eternally famous, massively respected and generously immersed in a wealth of love now encompassing five kids and 12 grandchildren. Still, something has been missing from the charmed Nicklaus existence.

Being a Sunday contender.

"I can hardly remember the last time I went to a final tournament round feeling there was a real chance for me to win," Nicklaus said, scores of 67-71 putting the Olden Bear in a tie for second, two strokes behind leader Hale Irwin as the Verizon Classic strutted toward its concluding 18 holes.

Old vigor clearly boiled again in a competitive heart, soul and trim-if-aging Nicklaus body. Jack's eyes flashed like in 1986 when, in a stunner that enchanted the universe, at age 46, he made it an Augusta National six-pack of Masters green jackets.

But that's been 15 years.

Two months ago, Nicklaus was watching the Hyundai Matches, not long after taping the TV fluffer, where he won in partnership with Watson. Jack's appearance caught many eyes, in negative ways. He had gotten especially chubby, was laboring as he played, suddenly looking a lot older.

"I was floored by what I saw," Nicklaus said Saturday. "I looked awful." This is an athlete famous for discipline. Oozing with pride. Jack didn't just fume at his appearance, there would be an immediate and effective attack.

Christmas was coming, but Barbara's guy kept pushing aside the candies, cakes and holiday fatties. Jack took on a 1,500-calories-a-day diet, dropping 18 pounds in six weeks. After weighing 207 at his December bulge, the scales now say 187, with Nicklaus hoping to achieve 182.

As a gifted, conquering youth, Nicklaus was called "Fat Jack," although he never played golf at more than 215 pounds. "Back then, it wasn't my waist that was huge, it was thighs," he said. "That was the case until 1969, when the weight began to be a factor."

About to turn 30.

After a poor golfing year by his heavenly standards, Nicklaus dropped 20 pounds, down to 195. Looking at him, it seemed more like 40 or 50. I visited the Nicklaus home in North Palm Beach in December 1969 and was startled by his body change.

Word had not gotten out, either through media or the golfing fraternity. Jack's new wardrobe was yet to arrive, so his clothes were delightfully baggy. A month later, when he returned to competition in January 1970, millions were startled at the Nicklaus physique change. A trim, handsome look he would maintain for a generation.

Jack talked weight Saturday.

"I enrolled as a college (Ohio State) freshman weighing 175," he recalled. "After high school, I stopped playing so many sports and tried my best to drink all the beer made in Ohio. I gained 50 pounds my first academic quarter, going to 225 by Christmas."

Always, when a drawback evolves, Nicklaus goes on the offensive. Two years ago, having become a limping golfer, Jack went for a hip replacement. "That situation cost me a lot of time," he said. "My new hip required a lot of physical comeback, but now it's good. I exercise a lot. Prior to that surgery, I'd had two years of golf that weren't hardly worth a dime."

Even if, during that period of wobbly pain, Nicklaus found old-style gusto and took another unanticipated (by others) run at the Masters, threatening to win in 1998 at age 58, eventually tying for sixth place.

This bloke is unique.

"Now, I'm feeling good again," Nicklaus said after his second Verizon round. "Oh, I know I'll never again play golf like I once did, but there's no reason I can't be competitive. When that happens, there's nothing like it. Wow, it has been a while.

"When it happens, knowing you're truly in the hunt, concentration is no problem, no matter my age. I'm not good at concentrating when it's about finishing in 35th place or 38th, but when there's a good reason, keeping my mind on my business is not a concern."

In the 21 years since the Senior PGA Tour was invented, with 633 tournaments, only two golfers beyond age 61 have won. Mike Fetchick did it at 63, taking the Hilton Head Seniors in 1985. Gary Player, at 62, became champion of the 1998 Northville Long Island Classic.

Who knows whether we've seen Nicklaus win for the last time? But that, of course, was the overwhelming notion 15 years ago at the Masters, where he arose from the golfing near-buried to rule another Georgia Sunday. Now, in another century, it's loads of fun, in our neighborhood, to watch Jack at 61 trying to do it one more time.

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