BOCA RATON, FLORIDA | At 11:47 a.m. Friday, golf saw something it hadn’t seen in almost two decades: The name “Nicklaus” alone atop a leader board.
But not Jack.
Gary Nicklaus, Jack’s third-oldest son, birdied four consecutive holes on the front nine to take the early Oasis Championship lead at 4-under.
With his dad quietly watching from outside the ropes, blending in as much as a GOAT can, Gary added a birdie at No. 11 on The Old Course at Broken Sound to regain the lead at 5-under.
Could the Golden Cub win his first PGA Tour Champions event?
OK, maybe we’re getting a little ahead of ourselves here.
Playing on a major tour for the first time since he walked away from the sport in 2003, Gary was even-par on his last seven holes and scored a first-round 67, four shots behind leader Jesper Parnevik.
A day after saying he was not nervous, Gary admitted he was “shaking like a leaf” on the first tee. His drive on the second hole was 40 yards right of the fairway.
“I was out of my element,” Nicklaus said. “But I was able to par 2, birdie 3 and I was off to the races.”
Gary’s lone career highlight had been a playoff loss to Phil Mickelson at the 2000 BellSouth Classic when the final round was rained out. The closest Gary came to victory was when he lipped out a putt on the final hole on Saturday.
It was his only top-10 showing in 122 career starts on the PGA Tour. Gary was tired of the grind and the scrutiny that began when he appeared on a Sports Illustrated cover at 16 (March 11, 1985) under the caption “The Next Nicklaus.”
“If I didn’t think I could compete at that level, I wouldn’t go out there. If I play well, I should be able to win a tournament.” – Gary Nicklaus
Gary regained his amateur status, got a job with his dad’s business and his only connection to golf was as the chairman of the Nicklaus Children’s Health Care Foundation – the primary beneficiary of the PGA Tour’s Honda Classic.
“He didn’t think he gave himself a great shot at it the first time around he played the tour,” Jack Nicklaus said. “He didn’t have a lot of confidence. I think he’s a much better player now than he was then.”
A few years ago, Gary started getting the bug to compete again. He was playing occasional rounds with his father and son GT – he of the hole-in-one fame at last year’s Par 3 Tournament at the Masters – and saw his game had matured.
“Dad, you’re good enough to play out there,” GT would say.
As the day grew closer, Gary became more motivated to try. Normally he doesn’t celebrate his birthdays, but he threw a big bash for his 50th.
He was ready to write the next chapter in his golf career, one that had a happier ending.
Gary knew he couldn’t expect to receive as many sponsor exemptions on the PGA Tour Champions as he did on the PGA Tour. He realized some of his peers had grown weary of his free passes.
“If I didn’t think I could compete at that level, I wouldn’t go out there,” he said before the first round. “If I play well, I should be able to win a tournament.
He wouldn’t be the only winner if that happened.
“You see ‘Nicklaus’ on the board at one of our tournaments and it’s going to put a lot of eyes on us,” Olin Browne said. “I’m all for it.”
It had been almost two decades since Gary Nicklaus walked into a media room as a professional golfer. Much has changed.
“What, no cheering?” he said, smiling. “When my dad walks in, people applaud.”
Gary Nicklaus will have to make his own noise.
Gary Nicklaus plays his shot from the second tee during Friday’s first round of the Oasis Championship at The Old Course at Broken Sound in Boca Raton, Fla. Photo: Michael Reaves, Getty Images
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