Nicklaus, who turns a ripe 70 years young on Thursday, wasn't the king of my generation, he was that of my dad's and uncle's, but that didn't stop me from quickly catching up with his insane accomplishments at a young age. Playoff win over Arnold Palmer at the 1962 U.S. Open to start his career. Nine-shot victory in ‘65 at Augusta. The goosebump-bursting 1986 win that still ranks as the best major championship ever played.
For me, though, none of that trumped one of his "almost" performances at Augusta when I was really starting to love the game of golf. I was in 8th grade, and a year prior a kid named Tiger Woods had jumped from amateur Goliath to major championship winner when he treated the pristine Augusta National like she was Granny Ma's Nine-Hole Adventure.
It was 1998, Tiger was back for more at the Masters, and Nicklaus was a 58-year-old legend accepting his invitation and playing the course he once owned. It had been 12 years since his last PGA Tour win, at this same track, and the Golden Bear had finished in the top-10 at a major only once in the decade, a sixth-place finish in 1990 when Nick Faldo won his second straight Masters.
For me, it was Jack at his best. Just like '86, nobody thought he had a chance to play this course. Well, nobody except Nicklaus.
A first-round 73 followed by a second-round 72 left a lot to be desired, but Jack still had some magic left in his golf bag. He finished moving day with a 2-under 70 to get him back in red figures, and that is when the fun started.
Sundays at Augusta were made for Nicklaus, and he started off with a bang similar to Phil Mickelson at the '09 Masters. Jack birdied four of his first seven holes to move within two shots of then-leader Fred Couples. His run ended when he made bogey on the nastiest par-3 in the game, the 12th, but a birdie on 13 continued his hope for a seventh green jacket.
"If I win I'll quit," Jack said before Sunday. "I promise that I'll never be able to play another competitive round again because nothing will top that."
In that short sentence is everything you need to know about Jack. Like Tiger or Kobe Bryant, Michael Jordan or Lance Armstrong, you get the feeling of a rare sort of champion. The guy that thinks he can win when he's 58, when he has the flu or when he's overcoming cancer. A popular phrase rings true when speaking of these types of athletes -- mind over matter. In Jack's case, he didn't see himself as a 58-year-old competing to win a tournament previously captured by a 21-year-old. He sees himself as a great golfer attempting to win a tournament that is his damn tournament.
His final round 68 left him three shots back of eventual champion Mark O'Meara. You think the Golden Bear was content finishing sixth? Ha.
"I'm thrilled but disappointed at the same time. I finished four behind and when I think about all the putts I gave away, I've got to be disappointed. I felt the course was going to be easy today and there would be some good scores, so I thought I would shoot one too."
The Golden Bear gave us all one final roar, and I have to be honest ... it was probably as fun watching as it was doing. If there was a course for someone to win a major on at 58, it was Jack at Augusta.
To me, it didn't matter that he couldn't pull out the victory. Just being there was enough to encourage the fans to give us one last Nicklaus roar. Just ask Tiger.
"We had to keep backing off putts or shots because of the roars," said Woods, who was playing in the group ahead of Nicklaus. "I felt kind of bad for Ernie Els playing with Jack -- we passed him at one point and he said he wanted some earplugs."
There's only one name I can think of that would make the Tiger roars seem meek by comparison, and that's the man that has records Mr. Woods is still chasing.
- Jack Nicklaus