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Golden Bear growling again

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By HUBERT MIZELL

© St. Petersburg Times, published April 8, 2000


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- Jack Nicklaus was unhappy at being paired with Arnold Palmer and Gary Player. Likes them. Admires both. But, to the six-time Masters winner, the Thursday/Friday assignment had the aroma of an Augusta National old-timers' game.

Golf's greatest champion, he's a feisty Golden Bear. Not ready for some historic taxidermist. At age 60, not content to be stuffed, exhibited and sweetly cheered for glories past.

When Nicklaus last ruled the Masters in 1986, it shook the competitive heavens. At 46, the Bear cried. Hugging son Jackie who, then as now, carries Dad's Augusta bag. It just had to be the coup de grace. An unanticipated 18th major professional championship.

Unexpected by us.

But now, with Georgia pines showing rings of 14 more years, the Olden Bear is growling again with no-surrender spirit. Two years ago, he made an incredible run, finishing sixth behind Mark O'Meara.

In 2000, he's backing up an ongoing hang-tough attitude with some extraordinary play, for a grandfather born 1/21/40, shooting 74-70-144.

Nicklaus is three strokes ahead of Tiger Woods.

"I've hit the golf ball far better than my scores show," Jack said. "At the worst, my rounds should've been 70-68. Maybe even 68-67. I should be right there with David Duval at the lead."

Player, at 64, had 76-74-150. Not bad, but the South African, winner of three green jackets, missed the 36-hole cut. Palmer had 78-82-160. He hasn't qualified for Saturday/Sunday rounds at Augusta since 1983.

Adoring, roaring thousands encompassed the 18th green Friday as the graybeards approached. Palmer's second shot plunked into a trap. Something painful was about to occur.

Arnold swung his sand wedge. No ball flew out. He took a second whack, again leaving it in the bunker. Spectators groaned with empathy. Then a third blast. No luck. On his fourth attempt, Palmer escaped. On his favorite golfing stage, the home hole at Augusta, the 70-year-old icon crash-landed with quadruple-bogey 8.

Nicklaus glanced at a gigantic scoreboard. Beside his name was a red 1. After 35 holes, Jack was under par. His 9-iron approach from 131 yards had the Bear's fantasies doing a jig.

"It looked so perfect, like it could be a 2 (eagle)," he said. But the ball came up a whisper shy of its target, then backspun, trickling off the green. Nicklaus was left with a delicate chip.

Standing there, waiting as Palmer suffered as Mr. Sandman, the 1963-65-66-72-75-86 hero seemed as patient as always. "I kept thinking, "Hit it harder, Arnold, I want to play,' but those bunkers really are tough," Jack said.

Nicklaus would chip 7 feet past the cup. He then missed a putt. Bogey 5. People grimaced, then cheered. Jack's round of 70 was the best Masters score for a 60-plus golfer. Eclipsing 71 by Sam Snead in 1975 when he was 63.

For the Bear, it's no prize.

"They wouldn't have paired Arnold, Gary and me," Jack said, "if they (Masters officials) thought we had a chance." To win, he means. Player was asked if Nicklaus truly has a chance to win his seventh. "No," Gary said. "Not at his age." Palmer nodded, adding, "It would be extremely difficult."

After the opening round, Gary and Arnold immediately marched to the Masters media building for a joint interview. Jack said, "See you in a bit," then walked to a practice range to smack some shots.

By the time Nicklaus arrived to address reporters, Palmer and Player were gone. My guess, it was a Bear mini protest. Not against his two longtime rivals but to send a message to Augusta National, that he's not yet comfortable with full association with an over-the-hill gang.

Backing it up with 74-70.

Asked about his surgery, Jack said, "My hip is good." Regarding keeping his mind on golf throughout a five-hour round, Nicklaus said, "I take concentration pills."

On enduring spunk at 60, he said, "My nerves and my nerve have gotten better each day this week. Being at Augusta is certainly something that helps enthuse old bones."

Hip replacement has necessitated adjustments. "For years, I'd been bailing out, due to the pain," Nicklaus said. "Now that I can hit through shots again, without hurting, I've had to relearn much of my golf swing."

They're the old Big Three, famous as a troika since the '60s. Their old black-and-white TV series continues to replay on the Golf Channel. It's just that Nicklaus, unlike his aging counterparts, hasn't fully surrendered to golf's powerful, gifted kids.

"I've gotten rid of a lot of guys since we began Thursday," he said, sitting in a tie for 15th place. "Sure, there are plenty of guys ahead of me. I agree with Gary and Arnold. Yeah, it would be unexpected for me to be among the challengers Sunday afternoon.

"But that doesn't mean I'm not going to give it all my energy. It doesn't mean I've written off the possibility. Why can't it happen? I'm a funny duck, I guess. I still come to Augusta thinking about playing golf. Good golf. Competing."

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