More than 187,000 fans jammed into the TPC of Tampa Bay at Cheval last week, many of them on hand to see if Jack was back. The Bear was ready with an answer. A last-minute addition to the held at the GTE Suncoast Classic, Jack Nicklaus didn't win the tournament—he finished in a tie for fifth, three strokes in back of winner Dave Stockton—but he created most of its excitement. To handle the overflow crowds, Suncoast officials had to add an extra parking area, immediately dubbed the Jack Nicklaus Lot. And Nicklaus provided the answer his fans were looking for by firing three subpar rounds and pronouncing himself a threat for the Masters.
"I think I've still got a chance to do some things in golf," Nicklaus said in the locker room on Saturday. He means to be a factor in major championships, to put his name up on the leader board again—and not just in senior events. The 55-year-old Nicklaus is measuring himself against Nick Price, Ernie Els, Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Fred Couples and all the strong young bucks of the PGA Tour.
Skeptics will say that Nicklaus is dreaming again. But put him on the 1st tee at Augusta National in April hitting the ball the way he is now, and only a fool would discount his chances.
"It reminds me of 1980, when everybody was writing that Jack was finished because he didn't have a good '79," said Lee Trevino. "He comes out in 1980 and wins two major championships. Same thing before he won the Masters in '86. I think he's going to have a terrific year, and I think he's going to play a lot. He's out this week, and look at the people. Tampa got a big treat this week with him being here."
Three weeks ago it was Pebble Beach that got the big treat when Nicklaus shot 10 under in the AT&T Pro-Am, his lowest 72-hole score ever on the Monterey Peninsula, to finish in a tie for sixth. The day following that tournament he shot 69 at Pebble to defeat Tom Watson by one stroke in a match that was taped for Shell's Wonderful World of Golf television series. Including the final round of the Senior Tournament of Champions in January, Nicklaus has posted consecutive subpar scores of 68-71-70-67-70-69-70-68. He hasn't been this far under par since the days of pointy collars.
"He can still compete, boys," said Payne Stewart after edging Nicklaus by a stroke at the AT&T.
What accounts for this resurgence? Two things: a new workout program and an oversize titanium driver that isn't on the market yet. "I don't know if I'm looking like a jock, but I do look like less of a dumpy old man," says Nicklaus, who is, indeed, beginning to look athletic again. Increased flexibility has lengthened his swing. As a result his drives have more hang time. And they are finding the fairway again. "This is the first metal driver I've been able to fade," Nicklaus says. "If it's going nowhere and crooked, you can't play from there."
Nicklaus's driving-distance average last year on the PGA Tour was an LPGA-like 240.5 yards. And his accuracy fell off too. He hit only 65% of fairways and 55% of greens in regulation. It's a miracle his stroke average was 72.61. This year at Pebble Beach, Nicklaus hit 76% of his fairways, 79% of his greens in regulation and averaged 25 putts per round.
"He's generating good club-head speed again, but he needs a little more distance with the driver," said Watson after out-driving Nicklaus by an average of 40 yards in the Shell match. Nicklaus, who averaged 250.5 yards off the tee in Tampa, claims he is not worried. "My distance will come back," he says.
He has already come a long way. At the PGA Championship at Southern Hills, his last official PGA Tour event of 1994, he was 10 over for two rounds and missed the cut. He entered nine Tour events for the year and missed the cut in all but the U.S. Open, where he started strong (69-70), but finished weak (77-76). In 21 rounds he shot in the 60s only in that opening round at the U.S. Open, and he was an aggregate 68 over par.