Of all the scenes I can picture in my mind — and with an imagination like mine, that’s a pretty nasty collection — I cannot envision anyone throwing a rat at Jack Nicklaus.

But it happened. Not a real rat. A toy rat. The kind they throw at Florida Panthers hockey games. In fact, this was at a Florida Panthers hockey game, last week, in the Stanley Cup finals. (We pause here for all the Red Wings fans who had finally forgotten about the Stanley Cup, and who now, thanks to my lousy reminder, have gone into a frothy-mouthed rage about Claude Lemieux that will subside in a moment, when they begin weeping.)

Anyhow, here was Nicklaus, at a Panthers game, with rats raining down as the sold-out crowd celebrated a goal. And given what you know about Nicklaus, the proud, blond, windswept golfing legend, you might think him upset. At his age, 56, he is above such childish behavior, right?

Wrong. He loved it. He laughed at all the rats, and his wife, Barbara, scooped some up for their grandchildren, and Jack picked up a few himself and threw them onto the ice and yelled, “Yeeeah!”

The Golden Rat?

“I thought it was great,” he said. “Heck, we painted our faces and everything. Didn’t you see us?”

OK, the face-painting part was a joke. But even if it weren’t, you’d have trouble with the whole image — Jack and the Rats — because Nicklaus has become such an American snapshot, you simply can’t see him doing certain things. You can’t picture Jack anchoring a 100-meter relay, for example. You can’t picture Jack dancing to Pearl Jam.

Yet we have no problem seeing him out there Thursday at the U.S. Open, playing shot-for-shot with golfers 30 years younger. Such is the cruel benevolence of golf; it lets you age on stage. You drag your show on, week after week, and try to pull that rabbit from the hat. Golf does not send you packing, too slow and too broken down, the way basketball, football and hockey often do.

And so Rat Man was out there Thursday, with the kids, and for all the noise about Tiger Woods’ round, and Greg Norman’s putting, and Payne Stewart’s lead, there was not a soul Thursday who, at some point during the day, didn’t ask, “What’d Nicklaus shoot?” or “Is Jack in the running?”

The Bear still gets his kicks

He stood now beneath a large oak tree off the 18th hole, a short toss from the players’ locker rooms. Other stars had shimmied past, aiming for those lockers like cruise missiles. The young Scottish sensation, Colin Montgomerie, pushed away reporters despite a nice par score. “No thanks, no thanks,” he kept saying. Nick Faldo, the dashing Masters champion, marched through, waving but never stopping, like a presidential candidate.

Nicklaus, who has won everything there is to win in golf, relaxed against the tree — perhaps because compared to that tree, he was a kid — and answered questions in his scratchy tenor voice. He spoke, as he often does, about how much longer he would do this, about hoping to at least stay competitive, about how things had changed since the days when his skill prompted the great Bobby Jones to say, “Jack’s playing a game I’m not even familiar with.”

None of this is new material. But in the middle of a thought he said something that jolted me, and I don’t believe I’ve ever heard it from an active athlete.

“My time has probably come and gone,” he said.

When the crowd had thinned, I asked him about that sentence. How hard was that for a competitor to say? My time has come and gone?

“It’s hard,” he admitted. “It’s taken me a few years to finally be able to say it. But I probably should have said it two or three years ago. Realistically, it’s the truth.

“We all have our time. And we all pass on. That doesn’t mean I’m not gonna go down kicking.”

He laughed. “I have been going down kicking for a while now, haven’t I?”

Jack Nicklaus, sports fan

He looked down at his white shoes. He had shot a very respectable 72, parring 16 of the 18 holes. Somehow, despite the muddy course, the shoes were still clean. Does that surprise you?

He spoke about watching other sports now — he has had season tickets to the Dolphins, the Heat, the Marlins and the Panthers, and has almost never gone — and he said he enjoys guys like Patrick Roy and Michael Jordan, skill players, at the top of their form. Wednesday, on the eve of his 40th U.S. Open, Nicklaus watched the Bulls-Sonics game.

“What other sport would you have chosen if you could have the same talent level as you have in golf?” I asked him.

“Tennis,” he said. “I guess I like the individual sports. Golf, tennis, you don’t need anyone to throw you the ball, don’t need anyone to guard you to learn how to play. I liked baseball as a kid, but I got tired of standing around a dusty field waiting for the other kids to show up.”

Baseball? Tennis? Call me crazy, but I can’t imagine Nicklaus playing any of these things. Then again, I couldn’t imagine him tossing toys during a hockey game (although, just once, I’d like to see him yell “YEEAH!” only to have the goalie turn around and say “Shhhh!” — but that’s just my sick imagination).

I guess the point is, no matter what the year, no matter what the season, you see Jack Nicklaus the way you saw him Thursday, walking up the fairway, lips pursed, a small wave to the endless river of fans. This might be his last U.S. Open, and he is no longer the story, but he is still the picture. All the rats in the world won’t change that.

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