Is Jack Nicklaus Really Retiring?

After swearing for years that he was done with James Bond movies, Sean Connery famously changed his mind. The title of his last 007 film, suggested by his wife, Micheline, was Never Say Never Again.

From his rookie years as a pro, Jack Nicklaus so often implied that he would retire early from tournament golf that his words became major ammo for Arnold Palmer in their career-long needling contests.

Particularly in their later years when they met at tournaments, the King would sardonically inquire of the Bear, "What are you doing here? I thought you said you'd be long gone years ago." And Nicklaus had the sangfroid to laugh about just that recently when he told a group of writers, "Well, I've been retiring for years, you know that."

But this time, could it be serious? For real? Will Jack stand by his widely publicized recent statements about quitting top tournament golf following this year's British Open?

Or does the fact that none of those remarks has quite slammed and locked and barred and chained the door on his future indicate that the Age of Nicklaus might, just possibly, continue after St. Andrews?

To first examine what might be called the negative side of this question, the man certainly has plenty of reasons for hanging 'em up:

At age 65, after more than a half century of heavy golfing wear and tear that has resulted in a hip replacement and back surgery, plus a slew of less serious but nonetheless debilitating ailments, Jack Nicklaus can still move the golf ball around pretty well "socially," meaning with his sons and close friends. For example, talk of scores of par or better, even from the back tees, periodically leaked last spring from his far-from-easy home course at the Bear's Club in South Florida.

But what his body won't let him do for sure—-even if his mind still might—is practice the game as long and hard as he knows he must to be genuinely and consistently competitive at the professional tournament level. Consequently, his primary career-long goal-—not simply sustaining his prodigious skills, but raising them to ever-higher levels-—appears to be, incontrovertibly, a thing of the past. Which, to so accomplished a person, is dispiriting, to say the least.

One reason Nicklaus has competed for as long as he has is that he discovered, with time, that he possessed a deeper love for golf than he believed was the case in his youth. Nurtured by that love, extending his record to its absolute zenith became the primary driving force behind his unparalleled achievements. Either 18 or 20 major championship victories, depending on whether you count his two U.S. Amateur wins, crown his career. But there never was a cap on those numbers in his mind. And if he'd achieved his ultimate goal by winning the Grand Slam—he once got almost three-quarters of the way there—-his next ambition, he told me, would have been to win it again, and then a third time.

Jack's love of the game persists, but regardless of what his still-powerful ego and will might suggest to the contrary, the truth, sadly, is that his Social Security--qualified body has taken command. Very simply, his muscles and tendons and bones and tissues, for some years now, have ever more painfully informed him that the wear and tear of achieving what he did, plus the inevitable degradations of aging, have reached way beyond the point where he could add anything to his record.

Tied tightly to his physical limitations is Nicklaus's intense and oft-stated dislike of being what he calls a "ceremonial" golfer—the guy who is congratulated for making a cut rather than winning a major. Sure, he recognizes that most of the game's cognoscenti still enjoy seeing him play, regardless of how well, and, being a warmer person than he lets on, he greatly appreciates that interest and support.

But he baldly stated the harder truth at his Memorial Tournament this past June:

"I can only play golf for myself. I'm nostalgic and sentimental enough to try not to be that way, but it doesn't work."

"All my life I've tried when I'm out there to play the best golf I possibly can, first for myself and then for the fans, because that's what I expect of me, and it's what they expect of me—it's what they come out to see. And so, even as an old man, I can't make myself just go through the motions, just put myself on show, just play the game 'ceremonially.' And that's true not just in tournaments but all the time, every time-—which, if you don't believe me, just ask my sons or friends."

"If I'm out there, I'm just driven to play competitively. And if I can't do that—well, the truth is I don't enjoy being out there, regardless of how the people feel about me. And I also think that taking up spots in tournaments, just to play 'ceremonially,' isn't fair to the other guys."

For his years, Jack's energy level remains remarkably high, meaning that he would abhor any gap left in his life by quitting the tournament scene. As his severely reduced competitive schedule has shown, however, his commitment to and intense involvement with a large and loving family, plus his flourishing and greatly enjoyed course-design endeavors, will more than take care of that.

Nicklaus admits that missing being "part of the scene" is a downside of his present tournament curtailment, and that total retirement from big-time play would exacerbate that loss. But he also recognizes that no longer being, in effect, "public property" offers compensations, most notably in terms of fewer aggravations and increased privacy.

So back to the question: Is Jack Nicklaus about to disappear from the highest reaches of the game that he has dominated so totally and so gracefully for so many years?

Here, to assist you in making a judgment, is the essence of his most recent statements on that matter:

"The [2005] British Open is basically going to be the end of my tournament play. As host of the Memorial Tournament, I do reserve the right to play in it, if and when I choose. Also, I'll probably play in some fun things like father-and-son events and skins games as such opportunities arise."

"But, outside of that, I have no intention of playing any more tournament golf."

A recent canvas of media colleagues indicated that quite a number remain ready to borrow Micheline Connery's line.

But as his friend and colleague for many years, I truly believe him.

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