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NICKLAUS TO CLOSE OUT STORIED OPEN CAREER

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No one has cast a longer or broader shadow over the world of golf than Jack Nicklaus. No one.

That bear-like shape imposed its indisputable outline across four decades of the game and reached 20 major championships wide. In all likelihood, two quite remarkable aspects of Nicklaus' incredible career come to a close at this week's U.S. Open at Oakland Hills.This will be the 138th consecutive major championship in which Nicklaus has played, a streak dating back to 1962, when John Kennedy was president and Nick Faldo was 5 years old.

It will also be the 40th consecutive U.S. Open for Nicklaus, a streak that dates back to President Eisenhower and when Greg Norman was 1. Both of those streaks likely end this week.

Nicklaus is in this Open on a special exemption and he won't come back unless he earns his way in, he said. He could do that by winning the Senior Open, a real possibility.

Much less possible is Nicklaus playing in the British Open next month at Royal Lytham and St. Annes. Unless he plays very well in this tournament, he'll skip the British and end one of sports' incredible streaks.

"I sort of felt like somewhere along the line I have got to be realistic with my ability to compete at major championship level," Nicklaus said earlier this year. "I've never just played. I've always felt like if I want to play I want to be able to compete for the top prize, and there's a lot of young fellows out there that I think are better than I am now."

For anyone who has followed golf for the last 40 years it is a sobering realization that the chubby kid with the blond crewcut is now 56 years old and no longer competitive at the highest levels of the game.

Recognition of true greatness - actual genius - occasionally does come while someone is at the height of their creative powers. And it did with Nicklaus.

But sometimes the accomplishments of someone are of such a magnitude that it is not until years after they have left the scene that they are truly appreciated.

Nicklaus is one who will grow in stature as the years pass, just as Bobby Jones did and just as Ben Hogan did.

For as remarkable as Nicklaus's career is in sheer numbers - 18 professional major championships and two U.S. Amateur titles, 70 PGA Tour victories, major championships 24 years apart - statistics alone do not adequately measure his greatness.

There is something deeper.

One of the lasting images of Nicklaus is him hunched over a putt, freezing over it, seeming like he would never take the putter back. Then finally stroking the ball purely, perfectly into the hole.

Think back and try to remember one time - just one time - when Nicklaus had an 8-foot putt that mattered and missed it.

Think back to Turnberry in 1977 when he and Tom Watson waged that brilliant duel in the British Open. Remember the impossible 8-iron Nicklaus hit from the rough on the last hole of the tournament - a shot so brilliant there's a plaque there commemorating it. Then remember the 40-foot birdie putt he rolled in to force Watson to make his 30-incher to win.

Think back to that glorious back nine on Sunday of the 1986 Masters, when he shot 30 at treacherous Augusta National to win what would be his last tournament on the regular tour.

Think of how many times Nicklaus hit exactly the right shot at exactly the right time. Now try to remember how many times he didn't come through.

When Nicklaus lost, it was because Arnold Palmer or Gary Player or Lee Trevino or Tom Watson was better - better for that day, for that tournament.

If magic made it possible, wouldn't it be wonderful to see Harry Vardon, Jones, Hogan and Nicklaus play?

Vardon was great from 1896, when he won his first major, to 1914, when he won his last. Jones had an eight-year run from 1923 to '30. And Hogan's was from 1946 through 1953, when he won nine majors.

For the period of time they dominated, you could argue that any one of those three was the greatest golfer ever.

At their absolute peak, Vardon, Jones, Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead, Palmer, Player, Watson, Trevino, Faldo and Norman were as good as anyone who ever played the game.

At their absolute best, anyone of them could have beaten Nicklaus.

But none of them were as great as Nicklaus for as long as Nicklaus.

Nicklaus won his first major championship at the U.S. Open in 1962 when he was 22 years old and won his last at the Masters in 1986 when he was 46.

No one in any sport maintained that level of excellence for that many years. A quarter of a century at the top of his game.

And now he steps down.

This is a time for tears, but it is also a time to cherish.

Yes, it is sad that Jack Nicklaus is fading from the golfing picture.

But unlike some of the other greats, we get to say good-bye to Nicklaus. And that is good.