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Nicklaus debating when to call it time

Jack Nicklaus sounded as if he were ready to retire.

"I don't think my golf game is good enough to play anymore," he said. "It doesn't make any difference if it's a major championship or anywhere. When your ability is leaving you, then you go do something else."

The words were spoken at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, but not last summer at the Senior PGA Championship.

Nicklaus said it four years ago at the PGA Championship after missing the cut by a shot while playing for the first time with Tiger Woods.

His honest appraisal hasn't changed since then. Neither have his plans for tournament golf, which are just as muddled as he heads into the 2005 season.

Nicklaus has no problem saying goodbye to the game he dominated like no other. He just doesn't know when -- or how. While it may be a blessing that golfers can keep playing well past the age that other athletes retire, for him it has become a curse.

"In many ways, it is," Nicklaus said. "Actually, the golf ball has been a curse. Because without the golf ball and without the equipment, we should have been done 20 years ago. It was a blessing for a lot of fellows, and actually it allowed senior golf to become a viable enterprise.

"But it kept a lot of guys in the game long beyond their really useful athletic ability."

John Elway won a second straight Super Bowl and retired. Ted Williams hit a home run in his last at-bat. Nicklaus won his sixth Masters in 1986 and wondered then if he should walk away from the game.

"I probably should have," Nicklaus said.

He has not won again on the PGA Tour. His last victory on the Champions Tour was eight years ago. But even as Nicklaus becomes the ceremonial golfer he swore he would never be, he has no regrets.

"From a lot of standpoints you would say, 'All right, bye-bye.' But I couldn't do that," Nicklaus said. "I enjoy playing golf too much. There's too much competition left in me."

The biggest competition he faces now is within himself. His desire to win is losing out to his disinterest in proper practice. Nicklaus says he lost the desire to prepare for tournaments a couple of years ago, and he knows not to expect anything but mediocrity when he shows up on the first tee.

Nicklaus got ready for the 2004 Masters by going fishing for four days. He played nine holes between missing the cut at the Masters and playing with his four sons in the BMW Charity Pro-Am on the Nationwide Tour weeks later. And he played nine more holes -- only because he opened a new golf course -- between that and the Senior PGA Championship around Memorial Day.

"Is that preparation? No," he said.

So why play?

"I enjoy the tournament part of it," he confessed. "I've been that way for a couple of years. I keep playing tournaments, and I know I'm not prepared to play them. Why am I doing that? It's ridiculous. There's no excuse for not being prepared. So if I'm not going to play, don't play."

Nicklaus recently underwent minor surgery, but he expects to be at the Memorial next summer. He probably will play in the Masters again. And as long as he can walk and swing a club, expect to see him at the 2005 Open Championship for one last trip around St. Andrews.

The Royal & Ancient moved St. Andrews up one year on the rotation because 2005 ends Nicklaus' eligibility.

"I almost feel like if I'm able to do so, I would go back in 2005 at St. Andrews because they did that," Nicklaus said. "I love that golf tournament. I love St. Andrews. And I love going there."

Beyond that?

"I don't know what I'm going to do," Nicklaus said.

One thing is certain. When Nicklaus figures out that it's time to quit, he won't make a big deal out of the occasion. Television cameras won't document his arrival in the parking lot, or capture him sitting alone in the balcony of the clubhouse.

"I'm not interested in that," Nicklaus said. "I had my day. That's sort of how I look at it."

When was his day?

"Between age 23 and 46," he said, referring to the six green jackets he won.

The only tribute Nicklaus had at the Masters was when the club presented him a bronze plaque on a fountain in 1998 to commemorate his 40 years at the tournament. Then, at 58, he made a Sunday charge and tied for sixth.

He had no qualms with the regal treatment of Arnold Palmer, who played his 50th and final Masters in 2004 to such fanfare that Nicklaus cracked, "You didn't even know there was a golf tournament happening until Arnold was gone."

"It was a very nice tribute to Arnold, and I think it was very fitting," Nicklaus said.

He said Masters Chairman Hootie Johnson called him after Nicklaus missed the cut and urged him to return in 2005 so fans can give him a proper farewell.

"I said, 'Hootie, why don't you say goodbye to Hogan, Snead, Nelson?"' Nicklaus said. "It's become a media, press, television thing. That's what people want, and that's fine. But I don't really want to do that."

Odds are, Nicklaus will get his way. But the Golden Bear deserves to have his contribution to the tournament and to golf properly recognized.

It is said that while Nicklaus won more titles, Palmer won more hearts. He was respected, but not loved in the way Palmer, one of sport's most charismatic characters ever, was. People watched Nicklaus to see how well he played. More watched Palmer, though, for how he played.

Yet as the years pass, it is easy to forget just how dominant Nicklaus was and just how many records he set. For total achievement we might never see his like again, although Tiger Woods is still hoping to have a say in that and in some respects already has.

As Nicklaus spoke about his second-round 75 on the Friday afternoon of the 2004 Masters -- he missed the cut by only two and felt he could have been in contention if he had putted "half decent" -- he said he seriously believed he might call a halt at 44 Masters appearances, six fewer than Palmer.

Spectators were listening and let out a collective "No." But Nicklaus told them: "If you were in my body, you'd agree with me."

Never interested in becoming a ceremonial golfer, he has always maintained he would call a halt the moment he did not think he could get his name on the leaderboard.

He is no longer the youngest-ever Masters champion, nor the holder of the scoring and widest margin records. Woods took all those in 1997. He is no longer a course record holder either, Nick Price and then Greg Norman managing 63s.

But his six victories are still two more than anybody else and nobody has yet won at an older age. Moreover, he is the only player in the event's history to have 500 birdies. His 24 eagles are a record, as are his 71 sub-par rounds, 39 sub-70 rounds, his 15 top-five finishes, 22 top 10s and 37 cuts made.

His 18 majors are seven more than Walter Hagen, the second player on that list, and only him, Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Woods have captured all four majors.

His last U.S. Open and PGA Championship appearances were also four years ago and, fittingly, he was paired with Woods in the first two rounds at the PGA. It very much had the feel of the throne being handed over.

Woods won that week and two years ago lifted his eighth major at the U.S. Open. At 26, he was four years younger than Nicklaus was when he won the eighth of his 18.

Meanwhile, Woods has yet to add to that tally. He still has time on his side, but the current state of his game has many people wondering whether he will ever get close to Nicklaus' total, let alone pass it.

Comparing players of different eras is an argument with no right or wrong. But when Nicklaus says goodbye to the majors, it really will be the final chapter of golf's most successful career so far.

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