DELRAY BEACH, Fla.(AP) Jack Nicklaus shifted his hips and cocked his head slightly, then swung and watched his opening drive sail perfectly down the first fairway.
“I’m done,” he said.
He wasn’t serious. But someday – perhaps soon – Nicklaus will hit his last shot before the eyes of still-adoring galleries. That’s why hundreds of people showed up Monday morning for an event benefiting a South Florida hospital.
They called it the Delray Dunes-Bethedsa Hospital Pro-Am, the 40th and final time the event will be played. The field was a who’s-who of golf: Among the pros taking part were Tom Watson, Gary Player, Lee Trevino, Mark O’Meara and Raymond Floyd.
And Nicklaus, whose playing schedule typically includes only father-son tournaments and Skins games, was the top draw of all.
“I think it’s fantastic,” Trevino said. “I mean, when’s the last time you saw Jack Nicklaus play? And you may never see him again, you understand? It’s special.”
Tournament host Bob Murphy – the Champions Tour player and television commentator – has used the event to raise millions for charity in Palm Beach County. Trevino has given so much money from his appearances back to the hospital that a room there now bears his name, and some pros even call Murphy to see if they’re needed to play alongside 24-handicappers.
Some of those hackers, not surprisingly, started shanking everything when Nicklaus lined up with them on the driving range.
“To get a field assembled like this, well, I don’t think you will ever see a Pro-Am like this put together ever again,” Murphy said.
When Nicklaus took his first swings of the day to warm up, fans were lined up eight-deep behind him on the range. Never mind that at that very moment, Watson was on the first tee, Trevino was playing the fourth hole and O’Meara was on the putting green – people were there to see the 18-time major winner, still considered by many the greatest to ever play golf.
The 69-year-old Nicklaus found the waves of adoration a bit puzzling.
“I don’t know what they’re going to see,” Nicklaus said before teeing off. “They’re just going to see an old man walk around a golf course and shoot 75, or more.”
Nicklaus decided years ago that when he couldn’t play the game at the level he wants, he’d stop playing.
That time has essentially come.
He played one practice round for Monday’s event, a father-son match Sunday at The Bear’s Club, the course Nicklaus himself designed and a place that many top PGA Tour pros such as Ernie Els and Luke Donald now call home.
Nicklaus played his first nine holes Sunday in 32.
“Oh, sure, I enjoy that,” Nicklaus said.
Over his final nine holes Sunday, he shot 43.
“And then I’m back to reality,” Nicklaus said.
If he wanted, Nicklaus could still be the biggest draw on the Champions Tour, get warm receptions at every major, be besieged by autograph seekers at every charity tournament around the world.
Instead, he barely even watches golf on television anymore and might play for fun once a month at the most.
With the golf course design market ailing these days, another victim of the global economic downturn, Nicklaus still has a handful of design projects still going but is nowhere near as busy as he’s been in recent years.
“I’ve played a lot of golf,” Nicklaus said. “I played my golf. I’ve played the golf that I can play that was decent golf. I don’t get a big charge out of shooting 75. … I mean, guys, I’m 69 years old. I enjoy doing things like today, but let’s leave it at that.”
Murphy called Nicklaus to play in the Pro-Am last year, thinking that the 2008 event would be the last. So Nicklaus agreed.
Then Murphy decided to go one more year, and asked Nicklaus for another favor. Like most pros who get a call from Murphy, Nicklaus didn’t hesitate.
“We’re all pals, and we’ve all been doing a lot of things for each other for a lot of years,” Murphy said. “It’s pretty fantastic when a Raymond Floyd and a Gary Player call and say they want to be part of it. That’s friendship.”
Plans were revealed Monday afternoon for a similar event benefiting the hospital in 2010. The new tournament will be hosted by longtime LPGA stars Beth Daniel (who was in Monday’s field) and Meg Mallon.
Imagine the thrill Charles Bohmert, Bob Chapin, Jim Garard and Ed James got when they saw Monday’s pairings.
By luck of the draw, with 32 pros in the field, they were the four amateurs getting Nicklaus to lead their team.
“My hat’s off to people like Jack, who take the time off to come down here,” said Garard, a 76-year-old retired investor who is one of the largest private donors to the hospital, having given over $1 million of his personal fortune. “Look at the crowds around him. That’s all a function of Jack. That’s very special for all of us.”
Garard carries a 9 handicap. But with an estimated 1,000 people awaiting Nicklaus on the first tee, Garard was anything but confident. Safe to say, there usually isn’t a gallery at Delray Dunes for a $2 Nassau.
“It’s very unnerving,” Garard said, as he sidestepped the hordes of people following Nicklaus off the practice green.
But Garard got it away just fine, and laughed when Nicklaus greeted his team on the tee box by saying, “Hope you guys play well, because I’m not.”
Moments later, Nicklaus split the fairway, hitting it 45 yards longer than anyone else in his group.
For a guy who doesn’t play, he can still play.