Nicklaus sounds a blast from his Masters past


AUGUSTA, Ga. -- They are leading the 58th Masters tournament after one round. But if Augusta National had a marquee rather than a leader board, you barely would see their names.

Call it being obliterated by a legend.

That's what happened yesterday, when American phenom Phil Mickelson, defending champion Jose Maria Olazabal of Spain and David Frost, a South African now living in Dallas, each shot 6-under-par 66.

That's what happened when a fellow with a closetful of green jackets and a ghost of a chance came in at 5-under 67, a fellow who turned back the rapidly advancing hands of his 55-year-old clock with an opening-round score that equaled any he had shot in his 36 previous Masters.

A fellow named Jack Nicklaus.

"I can't remember what I shot every year," said Nicklaus. "I sort of gear my year to get started here. I always have. I guess maybe I point for this golf tournament. I like the golf tournament. I want to do well. Maybe I just get a little more keyed up."

The opening-round score matched the 67 Nicklaus shot in 1965, when he went on to set the tournament scoring record of 17-under 271 that was later equaled by Ray Floyd. He shot it again in 1976, when he finished tied for third, and two years ago, when he shared the lead before slipping quietly back into the pack.

It left Nicklaus one shot off the lead and tied with Corey Pavin -- the player currently wearing the label as the best golfer never to have won a major -- as well as with British journeyman David Gilford. Americans Chip Beck and Mark O'Meara are two shots behind at 4-under 68.

Asked if yesterday's round could portend for the rest of the weekend, Nicklaus smiled and joked, "If I knew what portend meant, I might."

Yesterday's round wasn't a total surprise, given how easy the course played because of a steady drizzle that had begun Wednesday night. It also came a few days after Nicklaus had won his first Senior Tour event in more than a year, in sudden death at The Tradition last week.

Mostly, Nicklaus had played the past two years like a fading legend, not a living and fire-breathing one. He had missed the cut in three of last year's four majors, including here for the first time since 1967 and only the third time in his career. Also, it's been nine years since he stunned the golf world by winning the Masters at 46, the oldest player to put on a green jacket.

"I feel good about what I'm doing," said Nicklaus. "I didn't get nervous at all. I felt very collected, calm. I felt very confident in what I was doing. I haven't felt that way in quite a long time."

When Nicklaus holed out at the par-4 fifth from 180 yards on a fly for eagle 2, it seemed merely to be another magic moment, not a sign of things to come. But after falling back to 1-under with a bogey at No. 8, he played flawlessly, with four birdies on the back nine.

When someone asked him if he had a chance to shoot his age, Nicklaus shot back, "I had a chance to shoot Arnold's age."

His presence on the leader board, and possibly as a factor in this year's tournament, was enough to make Mickelson, Olazabal and Frost, not to mention the rest of the field, bit players in yesterday's proceedings.

If not for Nicklaus, Mickelson's comeback from the two broken legs he suffered in a skiing accident that forced him to sit home and watch last year's Masters might have been the biggest story for a player who's accomplished more at 23 than any other since -- well, guess who?

Or Olazabal's gutty performance on a not-quite-healed foot that required surgery in January, while trying to become only the third player in Masters history to win back-to-back championships. Or Frost's best round at Augusta National.

"Seems like he's always up there," Mickelson said of Nicklaus. "I don't anticipate this being a one-round deal. I expect him to be up there come Sunday."

Even in his decline, Nicklaus has been on the brink of contention at major tournaments. In 1990, he shot an opening-round 68 here, and stayed in the hunt until a 74 Sunday pushed him back to sixth. Last year in the U.S. Open at Oakmont, he hung around the top for two rounds before a 77 Saturday led the way to a tie for 28th.

"Up until 10 years ago, he did some amazing things," said Frost, an erratic, if talented, player throughout his 11-year Tour career. "He did some amazing things last week. He does what he does. He's definitely the most respected man around the game. He obviously knows the golf course better than anyone."

Said Olazabal, who chipped in twice for birdie: "I'm 29 and crippled. When I'm 55 . . . I don't know."

Truthfully, Nicklaus doesn't know either. He doesn't know if this was another blast from his legendary Masters past, or a hint of another storybook weekend. He doesn't know if he has a legitimate chance to win again, or just a ghost of one.

But just in case, Nicklaus might want to get out a dictionary and look up the word portend. Or contend.

NOTES: Arnold Palmer, by the way, didn't shoot his age. Palmer, 65, struggled to an opening-round 79. . . . Thirty-three players finished under, two short of tying the first-round record set in 1992. . . . Mickelson's round was the lowest here ever by a left-handed player.


The leaders . . .

David Frost 32-34-66

Phil Mickelson 32-34-66

J. Maria Olazabal 35-31-66

. . . and followers

Jack Nicklaus 35-32-67

David Gilford 34-33-67

Corey Pavin 33-34-67

Complete scores: 7C

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