DUBLIN, Ohio (AP) — At least twice the age of some of his fellow players, nobody let 70-year-old Jack Nicklaus play from the senior tees.
After all, it was his course and his hometown. He designed Muirfield Village Golf Club, home of the Memorial Tournament, in suburban Columbus, not far from where he grew up.
Nicklaus still had a great time in a charity skins game on Wednesday. Everywhere he went, he was greeted by loud, prolonged applause.
He didn’t win a skin – Phil Mickelson (9), Tiger Woods (6) and Zach Johnson (3) won all of them – but no one was having much more fun than the guy who founded the Memorial, won it twice and now hosts it.
Before he even teed off at the long, uphill 10th hole, Nicklaus was already expecting the worst.
“I’m absolutely worn out by three practice swings,” he said with a chuckle.
Then he turned to his caddie and said, “Give me a long ball. I’ve got to get the ball to the fairway.”
The Golden Bear acquitted himself quite well, even though he was playing with four of the best players in the world: Mickelson, Ernie Els, Kenny Perry and Sean O’Hair. They were competing for $25,000 to benefit The First Tee, as was the star-studded fivesome a hole behind: Woods, Rory McIlroy, Steve Stricker, Jim Furyk and Johnson.
It was a day for catching up as much as tuning up. All the players wore portable microphones, and their comments blared over speakers.
Walking up the first fairway, Nicklaus asked Mickelson about his wife, Amy, who is battling breast cancer. Lefty replied that she was at home, but that he hoped she could make it to the U.S. Open in two weeks at Pebble Beach.
Late in the day, at the 18th hole, Mickelson kidded Nicklaus about being outdriven by him.
“Yeah, I outdrove your 4 iron with my driver,” Nicklaus said with a laugh.
Nicklaus remains a proud man who shuns ceremonial golf. It bothers him that he can’t play the way he used to when he dominated the game in the 1960s, ’70s and ’80s. But his playing partners relished the chance to tee it up with him again.
“It’s been a fun day,” Mickelson said. “To be able to play nine holes with Jack Nicklaus is a great feeling. I think it’s cool, watching him on the last putt, grinding the way he has in the past, after he has made so many putts on the final hole. It’s just fun watching him.”
The skins game also marked the first time that Woods and McIlroy, the emerging 21-year-old phenom, played together.
“I didn’t expect anything different. I’ve been around him for the last couple of years,” McIlroy said. “I have had lunch with him and hit balls beside him on the range, chatted and stuff. It was good. He’s a normal guy. He just hits the ball pretty good and putts pretty good and we get it all together, he usually wins.”
On the 15th green, Woods sidled up to McIlroy, grabbed his putter and took a couple of pretend whacks at an imaginary ball.
Woods, returning to action after three weeks off due to a neck injury, said he felt fine and was ready to return to competition.
“It was a good time,” said Woods, a four-time Memorial winner. “I haven’t played with Rory yet. It was fun to see him play in person.”
Mickelson ranked No. 2 in the world behind Woods, was asked if he thinks about taking over the top spot.
“It would be cool,” he said. “I don’t want to discount it. Right now my goal is to play well here and get ready for the Open.”
Nicklaus, winner of 18 major championships, is sort of an authority on who the best player on the planet is, since he was for so many years.
After watching Mickelson shoot an effortless 6-under 30 that included an eagle and four birdies, Nicklaus said he believed the No. 1 ranking meant a lot more to Mickelson than he might let on.
“If I were Phil, it would mean a lot to me,” Nicklaus said. “He’s been No. 2 for a long time. Of course it means a lot to him.”
Nicklaus then turned and was greeted by a mob of eager autograph-seekers as he made his way back to the clubhouse to rest his weary body.