A remarkable streak that began in the Eisenhower administration and continued through Father's Day 1998 ended yesterday when Jack Nicklaus informed British Open officials that he will not be playing in the championship next week at Royal Birkdale in Southport, England. He had participated in 154 consecutive major golf championships for which he had been eligible, dating from the 1957 U.S. Open.
"I'm unhappy to end anything; I'd like to keep playing," Nicklaus said yesterday in Dearborn, Mich., where he is playing in the Senior Players Championship on the Senior PGA Tour for players age 50 and above.
"I love to play the game of golf and I love to play major championships more than anything in the world. But I think all good things must come to an end, and I'd like to have come to the end on a note that I played reasonably well through the ones I've played up to this point."
On the full calendar of professional golf tournaments, the four "majors" (The Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and the PGA Championship) are the sport's pinnacle. Nicklaus, 58, has won a record 18 professional majors and two U.S. Amateur titles, and is arguably the greatest player in the history of the game. This year at The Masters, he was in contention for the championship in the final round before finishing tied for sixth, four shots off the winning score of 279 posted by Mark O'Meara. Two weeks ago at the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, he tied for 43rd.
In recent years, Nicklaus has been suffering from a degenerative hip there is virtually no cartilage in his left hip that has curtailed his schedule.
The day after the Open, playing in an exhibition match with NBC golf analyst Johnny Miller, his hip problem flared, and Nicklaus said yesterday that is when he began thinking about ending the streak before the British Open.
As a measure of Nicklaus's consistent success and decades of endurance, his closest competitor to matching the streak is 40-year-old Nick Faldo, with 44 straight major appearances dating from the 1987 British Open. Faldo withdrew yesterday from this week's Loch Lomond tournament in Scotland with an injured elbow and could miss the British Open next week.
Even if he plays at Birkdale, Faldo would have to participate in every major through the PGA Championship in 2023, when he will be 66, to match Nicklaus's record.
Tiger Woods, 22, winner of the '97 Masters, has played in six consecutive majors and would have to enter every major for the next 35 years to approach Nicklaus's record.
"It was inevitable that somewhere along the line Jack was going to have to break this string, whether it's because he got tired of it or because of his hip," Hale Irwin, a three-time U.S. Open champion, said yesterday in Dearborn. "It's his decision. It's like the Cal Ripken record. Somewhere down the line, Cal is going to miss a game and it comes to an end. But this is not the end of Jack Nicklaus. It may be the end of the streak, but I don't think we've seen the last of Jack Nicklaus."
Nicklaus's last major championship victory came at the 1986 Masters at 46, when he became the oldest golfer to win that tournament. He said yesterday he will continue to play tournament golf, much of it on the senior tour, and also will play in more major championships. Because the British Open falls between this week's event in Michigan, considered a senior major, and the U.S. Senior Open (another major the week after the British), Nicklaus said he didn't think he was physically able to play in three straight important tournaments.
"I see no way in the world that I can walk and prepare myself properly to do justice to playing in the British Open," he said. "In this time of my life, I'd like to win the Senior Open. That's more important to me in the game of golf right now than competing in the British Open. I don't think I could prepare myself to be competitive."
In a statement released earlier in the day, Nicklaus said: "After 42 years of playing major championship golf, I felt my ability to compete at the highest level on a continuous basis is marginal at best. As much as I enjoy playing and competing in the world's major championships, I feel it is time to end my streak."
Nicklaus said yesterday he also would not play in the final major of the year, the PGA Championship at Sahalee in Redmond, Wash., Aug. 13-16. But he plans to play in the '99 Masters, for which he has a lifetime exemption as a six-time champion. He also has a special exemption to play in the U.S. Open through 2000, can play in the British Open until he is 65 and has a lifetime exemption in the PGA Championship. He said he will base his decision on playing in future majors on his physical condition and the state of his game.
As a pudgy 17-year-old amateur at Inverness in Toledo, Ohio, Nicklaus missed the cut in his first Open in 1957. When he turned professional late in 1961 making him eligible for the PGA Championship, he ran off 146 straight majors.
"As a fan, I was amazed this year at the impact he had at Augusta National," said PGA Tour Commissioner Tim Finchem, who was in the gallery to witness Nicklaus's weekend performance at The Masters when he got within two shots of the lead early in the final round. "The electricity he created playing at that level really was something to see. It was phenomenal he could compete at that level, and to be in position to win at his age. ... If you grew up as I did watching Jack Nicklaus, it was tremendously exciting.
"On the one hand, it was a great streak, probably never to be duplicated. On the other hand, I think there are a lot of years of quality competitive golf left in Jack Nicklaus for all of us to enjoy, and I wish him well as he chooses how he wants to construct that."
Nicklaus, a native of Ohio whose pharmacist father taught him the game, is one of only four golfers to win all four major championships, joining Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan and Gary Player. He is the only player to win each multiple times. In addition to the six Masters victories, he won four U.S. Opens, three British Opens and five PGA Championships. He also has 19 second-place finishes in the 154 majors, and made the cut in 130, including 10 of the past 12. "When I got to the mountaintop, I kind of looked at the scenery and said, 'Now what?' " Miller once said of a career that brought him 24 victories and two majors. "When Jack got there, he said, 'Where's the next mountain?' "
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