The low amateur in the U.S. Open called him that today -- and Jack Nicklaus caught on in an instant. He turned it into a nice piece of fun, though he knew as well as anyone it best captured the reason thousands of otherwise sensible people lost their manners and nearly mobbed him as he walked toward the 18th green today.
This was perhaps the most special golf tournament ever, for Nicklaus threw some numbers at pups such as Gary Hallberg that might well never be equaled. The crowd down the fairway and a respectable distance from the green surely sensed it would never again witness anything like this -- and broke past thin ropes and dozens of marshals to be as close as possible.
"More like the ending of a World Series or a Super Bowl," Nicklaus said later. "But the galleries were fantastic."
He felt no danger, he said. "Enthusiasm like that is very healthy for the game of golf. I don't think anybody got hurt. I know no one wanted to hurt anyone. They wanted to see something I enjoy being part of."
They wanted to be part of sporting history -- and sporting theater at its finest. And what better way for Nicklaus to enhance his legend than with a 10-foot birdie putt as his adoring public pressed almost onto his backswing?
Let such as Hallberg, just a year or so older than his eldest son, shoot at these numbers, Mr. Nicklaus might be thinking. Let any of the young clones see if they can win major tournaments in four decades. With his first victory in the U.S. Amateur, Nicklaus' 18 successes in the major tournaments have come in the 1950s, '60s, '70s and '80s.
There is more. In the tournament every golfer in the world wants most to win, the U.S. Open, Nicklaus now hold outright or is tied for almost every meaningful record. No one ever has set standards for leads after the first, second and third rounds and then broken the 72-hole record in one tournament. Probably no one ever will.
With his fourth Open victory, Nicklaus broke the four-round record he set here 13 years ago. By three strokes. And that is even more significant because he had to earn it. This was a rare Open, one that someone won rather than survived. The choking was kept to an absolute minimum.
Usually, Father's Day at the Open means every golfer on the course is trembling, looking heavenward and whispering: "Father, please keep me from melting out here." Nicklaus has offered the soundest strategy, saying: "Pars in the Open put you past more people than pass you."
So Nicklaus birdied the 17th and 18th holes today.
At 40, he shot three strokes better on the same Open course that he did at 27. When his nerves should have been more frayed on the 18th tee, Nicklaus performed with much more calm with a two-shot lead today than he had with a three-shot lead in '67. Thirteen years ago, he hit a one-iron before smacking a wonderful one-iron to set up a birdie on the par-5 hole.
He hit a three-wood today, then a three-iron -- and then a crisp pitch to a repeat birdie after being led almost by the hand by police and marshals the 180 yards to the green. Suddenly the Golden Bear was being treated like the Bear, Mr. Bryant.
And the crowd was in a football-style chanting mood when the final putt dived into the cup. "Jack, Jack, Jack," the crowd shouted. And "A -- O -- KI" for the man who had given Nicklaus such a splendid run for the title.
When he was asked to respond after being presented the Open trophy, Nicklaus took the microphone in both hands and surrounded once again, but by a smaller crowd, he stood still and savored the moment in silence. If he recalled that he had been called all manner of nasty names while wrestling the '67 Open title from Arnold Palmer, Nicklaus kept it hidden.
"The first round (63) was the most exciting thing that ever happend to me." he said.
"To us, too," somebody blurted out.
"I've never been to a place where I've been received like here," he added, and it was time for another chant: "Jack . . . is . . . back. Jack . . . is . . . back."
In victory, Nicklaus acknowledged that Tom Watson had "probably been fairly perceptive" in thinking retirement might be imminent if the fourth Open triumph materilized. It would be reasonable, Nicklaus reasoned, to leave at the absolute top of his career, a la Ted Williams with a homer in the last at bat to be cherished forever.
He will not -- and should not. American sports fans have a taste for dismissing athletes too soon, long before the proper time. For every John Unitas who in fact does linger too long, there is one we write off long before it is appropriate.
"All the people measure last year is (my) finishing 71st on the money list," Nicklaus said. "But in the majors, last year my scoring average was the lowest of any player. So I was by no means weak last year."
Nicklaus had coasted a bit after winning the Open here in '67, then charged back to his previous workaholic pace when his father died in 1970. He admitted today that his mind drifted just enough the last few years to cause the slippage of the last 18 months.
"This year I've worked harder than ever at golf," he said. "I said to myself: 'If your're going to play , you've got to play.' But when you work your tail off and all of a sudden go six months . . . you wonder if your're doing the right thing . . . for the game, for your family, for yourself and the other people."
Nicklaus found all the answers this glorious week. Hallberg and half the field were scarcely in grade school when Nicklaus began his remarkable record in the tournaments serious golfers covet most. This week he gave them a sound lesson again. And a warning.
"The next two," he said, referring to the British Open and PGA championships, "might be easier. There's not as much pressure on me to make that (winning) happen."