TURNBERRY, Scotland — Yes, I admit it. The very first thing I did, after driving two hours to this craggy coastal golf course, past the cliffs and the firth and the moist green countryside, and the cows and the sheep and the Scottish man in the plaid skirt — not that I think skirts are bad for men, necessarily, but why plaid? — the very first thing I did was get onto the fairways of this 115th British Open and see if I could find Jack Nicklaus.
I know, I know.
But isn’t that what every American does — look for Jack? At least those who have not already been to 134 major golf tournaments. As I have not. My job is sports, but golf is not my specialty, and the few Opens and Invitationals I have attended have been Nicklaus-less, which is to say, incomplete.
You can have your Bob Tways and your Corey Pavins. And they are good. But when you’ve never seen Nicklaus in person — and, contrary to popular belief, even sports writers can get excited over meeting the biggies — and you are suddenly told that he is out there, somewhere, between all those hills and flags, well, you go looking.
And I did.
“Has he been through?” I asked a bearded fan.
“‘Oo’s thet ya mean?” came the answer.
“Nicklaus,” I said.
“Thet-a-way,” he said, pointing. Follow that Bear I have been told that to find Nicklaus on a golf course you look for the biggest crowd. So I trudged over the high grass and the stones, past the shoreline of Holes 5 and 6 and 7, past golfers named Mahaffey and Mize and Chandler.
And there . . . yes . . . there was the crowd. I felt a tingle. He’s in there, I thought. The Golden Bear. The best ever to play this game. Did you see him win the Masters a few months ago? I almost cried.
And suddenly there he was.
He was walking down the fairway, not 20 feet away. His face looked a little weather-worn, and the blond hair was thinned out a bit in front. But it was he. He wore a yellow sweater with a gold bear over the heart. Gold on yellow. Who else could wear those colors?
He did not walk regally. He walked with the common touch. Actually, he walked like a relief pitcher coming in from the bullpen.
I fell in with the crowd. We watched him hit. When he walked, we walked. When he paused, we paused. He hit a line drive on 11 that you could hear cutting the air, like someone running a finger over a comb’s teeth, and we all went “aaaaaah.”
But now the big news. On the 12th hole I headed for the green, found a spot alongside it, then looked back in time to see Nicklaus complete his fairway swing.
I could not see the ball. I never can see the ball until it lands. Sometimes I still can’t see it. That may be why I don’t cover much golf. But this ball I saw when it landed. Because it landed in the crowd. Actually, it just missed my head. The word of Jack The crowd parted. We looked down. Here it was, this ball, this gift from the heavens, at our humble feet, like manna.
“So that’s Jack Nicklaus’ ball,” I whispered.
“Aye,” said a guy next to me, dreamily.
It was a moment, I guess, that could have gone on forever, just these people staring at a golf ball until they died of pneumonia, except that suddenly, a path cleared and — could it be? — here was Nicklaus and his caddy walking right at us.
He had come to play his shot. He checked the ball. He checked the lie to the hole. Silently. We held our breath. He chose his club.
So close. All those championships, all those years, right here in front of us, wrapped in cashmere and polyester, his magic hands wrapped around that grip. “What could he be thinking?” I wondered. “What great golf thoughts are running through his mind at this moment?”
And then he turned to me.
Not just me, I guess, but the whole load of us, although I was in the front and so, you know, it kind of felt like he was looking at me, a little. And he spoke. In a thin, surprisingly high-pitched voice. And here is what he said:
“Could you move back, please?”
Well. There you have it, don’t you? Actual contact. Which he initiated. No matter how many interviews or press tent chats, no matter how many casual clubhouse encounters we may have in years to come, those will always be the first words exchanged between the Golden Bear and me. “Could you move back, please?” And I will never forget them.
And I moved back.
And he double-bogeyed.
In truth, he had a terrible day. His drives were off, his balls went wide and fat and short, and on the greens they curved away from the holes. It was windy and blustery, and he kept picking up strokes like lint.
By day’s end, someone else would lead him by 14 strokes. So what? This was Nicklaus. Who had personally asked me to “move back.” Someone else? Come on, now.
I followed him the rest of the morning. And it was everything I hoped it would be.