Nicklaus will semi-retire after tourney

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, June 2, 2004

DUBLIN, Ohio - Jack Nicklaus knows he will play this week at the Memorial Tournament, which he founded and hosts.

Beyond that, he hasn't made any tee times.

''I don't have anything else on my schedule the rest of the year,'' Nicklaus said prior to the start of the Senior PGA Championship at Valhalla outside Louisville, Ky. ''I'm going to play father-son stuff and Skins games and that kind of stuff, you know, if I'm invited. But tournament golf, I don't see myself playing much. I might play an odd tournament here and there, but only if the mood strikes me and I want to go play.''

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The 64-year-old Golden Bear, not so tired as much as tired of not playing well, has enjoyed his time away from the course. He dotes on his 17 grandkids and spends a lot of time with his wife of 43 years, Barbara.

Unlike early in his career, when he built his summers around the major championships, Nicklaus now enjoys a varied life. Just as he has cut back on his competitive schedule, he no longer devotes as much time to his golf-course design business or to golf exhibitions and public appearances.

Asked what motivates him these days, Nicklaus smiled.

''Frankly, I find an awful lot of competition in trying to catch a fish properly,'' he said. ''It's something that I'm getting better at all the time - particularly with a fly rod. A lot of the courses that I select (to play) usually are close to good trout streams or something. And my wife likes to fish. So the two of us can go trout fishing together. We can go bone fishing together or do whatever we want to do.''

Nicklaus always put his family first but he was always pulled away by his travels to the far-flung golf outposts of the world. He said he is fortunate that he can now spend more time with loved ones without giving up his many other interests and businesses.

''My wife has spent a whole bunch of weekends watching me hit a golf ball, so it might be time I spent some time doing the things she likes to do,'' he said.

Joey Sindelar, another former Ohio State golfer, won the Wachovia three weeks ago at the age of 46. He grew up idolizing Nicklaus.

As sorry as Sindelar would be to see Nicklaus stop playing tournaments, he also admires the decision.

''I'm actually happy that he said those things. It's nice that he came to that conclusion,'' Sindelar said. ''He was a slave to the game - in a great way, you know - but he did it all and now he says, 'This is a different time in my life for different stuff.' I'm OK with that. I think it's pretty awesome.''

Nicklaus doesn't spend a lot of weekends around his home in North Palm Beach, Fla. If he did, he might end up doing nothing but sitting in a lawn chair behind the chain-link fence at a dusty ballpark every night.

''I've got 17 grandkids,'' he said with a chuckle. ''I'll have to say that maybe it's a little bit too much Little League baseball.''

In April at a charity pro-am in South Carolina, Nicklaus all but said his competitive golf days were over. Too proud to play ceremonial golf while shooting high scores, Nicklaus said then that he didn't want to lower his standards just because of his age, his creaky back, his hip replacements or arthritis.

''If I go out and finish in the top 10, and that's a great week, then I know it's time to hang up your spikes,'' he said at the time.

That caused a sensation because many people do not want to see Nicklaus step away from the game. He is still a popular draw at tournaments.

But while players and friends such as Arnold Palmer and Gary Player seem perfectly content to make appearances to soak up the applause of an adoring public, that doesn't get Nicklaus excited. Only winning gets Nicklaus' competitive juices flowing.

''That is all I've ever played for. That's why I probably don't want to play anymore because winning is really an issue with me that is probably beyond my ability at this point in my life. And that is the only reason I ever play,'' he said.

Even when he does not play up to his expectations, Nicklaus is met with thunderous applause at every green during the Memorial Tournament. He designed and built the Muirfield Village Golf Club course, helps organize and administer the tournament and has won it twice.

The large galleries don't really care how Nicklaus is playing; they just appreciate the fact that he brings the PGA Tour event to his hometown.

''I'm always amazed at the number of people who walk up to him and say, 'Jack, thanks for bringing this to Columbus,''' Memorial Tournament executive director Dan Sullivan said.

Nicklaus said he may continue to play the Memorial even after he has stopped playing in other tournaments. He has played in all 28 Memorials and once again was the first player to commit to the field this year.

Nicklaus' last major championship was the 1985 Masters. He has won 73 PGA Tour events and 18 major titles. Now he gets a kick out of playing events with his four sons - Jackie, Gary, Steve and Michael - or teaching his grandkids the finer points of the golf swing.

Just like the inaugural tournament in 1976, Nicklaus will tee it up in the Memorial. But the clock is ticking, even for one of the titans of the game.

''He's been the best we've ever seen in modern tour golf - it's not even close,'' Sindelar said. ''Just as I came on the tour in the early 1980s, he was pretty much phasing out. I never got to see him in his prime, although I got to see him play some great golf. I know it hurts him to play golf. That isn't fun.

''It's an era that's going to be officially closed.''