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Jack Nicklaus exits from tournament golf

Jack Nicklaus looked as though he wanted a club in his hand, not a radio.

But he was Captain Jack at the Presidents Cup, and he stood beside the eighth green to watch his American team play the short par 4 during the first set of fourball matches. Tiger Woods had left himself a difficult shot from about 50 yards away, over a bunker with only 20 feet of green to the hole, a steep ridge behind it.

Woods walked up to the green to inspect his options.

``Balls have been coming down that shelf,'' Nicklaus called out to him.

Woods looked over and nodded, but ultimately chose a different approach. He played a full flop shot that landed on a slope of fringe and shot forward about 20 feet.

``One yard too short,'' Nicklaus said to himself, then got in his cart to find another group.

That was as close as the Golden Bear got to the competition last week at Robert Trent Jones Golf Club, and he figures to become even more removed from inside the ropes as the years go on.

Sure, he'll play in the Father-Son Challenge with one of his four boys, maybe even a skins game in Hawaii or Canada, or wherever he is opening a new golf course.

But he is done with tournament golf.

And that might be his greatest success this year. He found a way to retire.

Nicklaus has spent the last five years trying to make a graceful exit from the game, and he generally made a mess of it. But with little planning, and not much more effort, golf's greatest champion went out in style.

Sitting alone at a table as his 12 players who captured the Presidents Cup headed into the night, Nicklaus looked satisfied when asked how he managed to make such a clean break.

``It was all very special,'' he said softly, his lips pursed in a smile, blue eyes blazing.

It started with the Masters, a tournament he did not plan to play. His 17-month-old grandson, Jake Walter, the curly blond who always liked being in Grandpa Jack's lap, drowned March 1 in a hot tub. Devastated, Nicklaus wanted to be with his family, then realized it might be good therapy for all of them to be at Augusta.

And somewhere along the way -- a long walk, considering how much length Augusta National has added -- he quietly decided he was done competing in the Masters.

``I'm not a golfer anymore,'' Nicklaus said that day. ``They're young. I'm an old man trying to figure out some way to get out of the way.''

Then came a spring trip to St. Andrews. Nicklaus went to the home of golf in May as part of his endorsement deal with the Royal Bank of Scotland. Meeting with the British press, many of whom he has known and respected for years, Nicklaus said the British Open would be his final major.

It wasn't the first time Nicklaus said he was done. He talked about retirement so much he became a running joke. But there was a quiet finality to these words, so much that he was amazed at the stir it created.

He embraced the farewell at St. Andrews, pausing atop the famed Swilcan Bridge for photos even during the practice rounds. He received a standing ovation on all 36 holes he played, and thousands of people packed the 18th fairway Friday, the grandstands, hotel balconies and rooftops to watch him finish with a birdie.

It was one time Nicklaus didn't mind missing the cut.

``The British Open ended on Friday, and that was fine,'' he said. ``I didn't need two more days of all that stuff.''

He had already agreed to be Presidents Cup captain after the matches ended in a tie two years ago in South Africa, never realizing at the time it would be the perfect way for him to leave the spotlight.

Players who otherwise would consider the Presidents Cup part of the PGA Tour schedule, like the Bob Hope or the Buick Championship, wanted to be on Jack's last team. Their gift to the captain was an oil painting of Jake, who would have turned 2 on the Saturday of the matches. Nicklaus was in tears when he saw it, and kept it in the team room so everyone could see it as they walked out the door.

As for the golf?

Simply inspirational.

``If you would have seen his face when he came out and talked to me on the last green, you'd have seen what it meant to him,'' Davis Love III said after winning his singles match, which clinched at least a tie. ``It looked like Jack holing a putt to win a major championship.''

Nicklaus won't have that chance again.

Augusta National surely will come calling early next year, if not sooner. It will be the 20th anniversary of his final major championship, and there is a sense that he deserves a proper farewell. Because of rain delays that led to threesomes playing off both tees, Nicklaus finished his Masters career on the ninth green.

``People say, 'Well, it ended on (No.) 9.' Well, so what?'' Nicklaus said. ``That happens.''

Some already have suggested he return as Presidents Cup captain.

``My guess is I won't captain any more teams,'' he said. ``If they ask me, I would like to, because I like being part of it. I know I can't play anymore, so it's my way of making a contribution.''

He would be better off turning over the Presidents Cup to someone else.

Nicklaus could never make a better exit from golf than this.

 

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