Awaking from a restless night of sleep, Gary Nicklaus faced the most important morning of the rest of his life with feelings he rarely had experienced on a golf course.
Calm. Belief. Self-assurance.
Gone were doubt and failure, which had hamstrung the 30-year-old son of Jack Nicklaus in eight attempts to gain playing privileges on the PGA Tour. Nicklaus went out that November morning and fired a 7-under-par 63 at the PGA Tour qualifying tournament to easily claim his tour card for the 2000 season.
"It was the first time in my career that I felt everything clicking," Nicklaus said. "It was also the first time in a high-pressure event that I went out and performed well."
Nicklaus will make his tour debut in the Sony Open in Hawaii Jan. 13 and step into a game dominated by talented players younger than himself such as Tiger Woods, David Duval and Sergio Garcia.
But he will bring with him the most famous name in golf. Gary Nicklaus is very much the image of his father, right down to the steely-eyed stare and bulging forearms. By the time Jack Nicklaus turned 30, he had won 29 professional tournaments, including nine major championships. But since turning professional in 1991, Gary Nicklaus's game has been anything but his father's.
"Some people blossom early," Nicklaus said. "I've just taken longer."
Nicklaus identifies with Tom Lehman, who has been one of the top players on the PGA Tour for eight seasons but struggled for years before his breakthrough season in 1992 at age 32.
"If you look at the average age of people getting their first tour cards, it's probably 28, 29, 30," Nicklaus said. "The average age of players at Q-school is 33 or 34. So I'm right there. Your David Duvals, the Stewart Cinks, the Tiger Woods--they're the exceptions."
The fourth of five children, Gary Nicklaus's career had languished in the formidable shadow of his father since he was a teenager. At 15, Gary beat his father for the first time, birdieing the final three holes of a nine-hole match. A year later, Sports Illustrated trumpeted Gary as "the next Nicklaus" on a 1985 cover that accompanied a nearly 4,000-word article on his "immense promise" for taking his father's place in the game one day.
"I didn't want to be on the cover of SI," Nicklaus said recently. "If I had been there, I should have done things to merit being there. I was good, and I had talent, but I hadn't won anything. [Other junior golfers] just didn't have Jack Nicklaus as their father, and I did. Don't get me wrong. It was a great honor, but I didn't deserve it."
When it came time for college, he chose Ohio State, his father's school, lettering four years in golf but winning no tournaments. Nicklaus graduated in 1991 with a degree in finance but couldn't jump-start his golf game. As each attempt at gaining his PGA Tour card met with failure, he tried to carve out a career on mini-tours and more established tours, most recently the PGA European Tour in 1998 and the Nike Tour last year.
"There were periods when I didn't want to play anymore," Nicklaus said. "But then I'd start playing better, and I'd change my mind."
After missing three of six cuts on the 1999 Nike Tour, Nicklaus began working with instructor Rick Smith in May, trying to improve his swing and ball-striking. But by the end of the Nike season, he had made just 11 of 23 cuts and $37,700 in money to finish 70th on the money list--hardly the performance of a player likely to make it through the nerve-wracking grind of the three-stage PGA Tour qualifying tournament.
Heading into the sixth and final round of the qualifying tournament at Doral Resort & Country Club in Miami, Nicklaus was 30th out of 35 spots for players who would be gaining tour cards by the end of the day. He hadn't been playing well, and his own qualifying tournament history could have forecast doom. It didn't.
"I was at ease with my game," Nicklaus said. "I knew that if I went out and played a good round, I'd have a great job next year. If I had a bad round . . . well, I'd still have a job [on the Buy.com Tour--formerly the Nike Tour] but it wouldn't be as good as the PGA Tour."
So Nicklaus began his round by drilling a 6-iron within four feet of the cup on the first hole and made birdie, the first of seven he would make that day.
It was the finest round of golf in his life at a time when he needed it most. It was a Nicklaus-like performance, but one the Golden Bear would not witness. Gary's mother, Barbara, and father had left the previous night to attend the funeral of Arnold Palmer's wife, Winnie, in Pennsylvania. But Jack Nicklaus kept in touch by receiving shot-by-shot updates from Smith via cellular phone.
After sinking his putt on the 18th hole, Gary wiped away a few tears and shared the moment with his parents by phone.
"[Getting his tour card] wasn't something that Dad could do [for him]," Jack Nicklaus told reporters at a news conference last month at the Nicklaus home in North Palm Beach, Fla. "He had to do that for himself. As I've said for quite a while, I don't think he realized that he's as good as he is. I don't think you ever play anywhere near your ability until you believe you're that good."
With Nicklaus having secured his card, there likely will be two Nicklauses on the PGA Tour this season. Although he will turn 61 Jan. 21 and last year played in only five tournaments as he recovered from hip replacement surgery, Jack Nicklaus said Gary's PGA Tour status has rejuvenated his own game, and he would like to take advantage of as many opportunities as possible to play in tournaments with his son. "It will probably give me a lot more incentive to want to go play more events on the regular tour, simply because of wanting to be around to watch Gary a little bit," he said.
As his debut approaches, Gary Nicklaus is trying to complete sponsorship deals and assemble a management team. Although Golden Bear International, his father's management company, will handle his affairs until everything is finalized, it's clear Nicklaus wants to make his own way. He said he may sign with a company other than Golden Bear, and he isn't a lock to play in his father's invitation-only tournament, the Memorial, in May.
"One of the tournaments I have said I'd never ask to play in is the Memorial," Nicklaus said. "I have too much respect for the tournament and too much respect for the field. If the tournament committee feels I can add to the quality of the field and I'm playing well, then I'd be honored."