MOST OF the other professional golfers had gone fishing or to lunch, but one of them stayed behind. Tall, lean and blond (where have we seen that face before?), he stood on the driving range at Thanksgiving Point Monday afternoon, driving ball after ball deep into the blue vault of the sky. Whhh-ack!
"Sure looks like his father," said one onlooker to another.Mike Nicklaus was hitting a bucket of balls side by side with weekend hackers. Guys lobbing divots the size of door mats onto the range. Guys in basketball sneakers and shorts, sneaking peeks at the golden kid ripping shots into tomorrow. Over and over, Nicklaus stepped to the tee, rolled the club in his hand like dice, and launched a drive some 300 yards, then stepped back to analyze the shot with Phil Rogers, the famous shot doctor.
"He's got some talent!" Rogers yelled to a short, dark-haired young man in a black shirt and gray slacks who was practicing nearby. A guy by the name of Wayne Player, if the name on the caddy means anything.
"He just needs some direction!" joked Player.
Wait a minute. The mind reels. Nicklaus and Player. Young and hungry again. Honing their games on the range with the duffers. Meet Nicklaus and Player, The Next Generation. The sons of Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player, the legends, winners of 24 majors between them. They spent the morning playing in a pro-am event with their fathers in the Champions Challenge, but now their old men are gone. Like most of the golfers, they accepted invitations to go fly fishing or to meet in the clubhouse for lunch, but Nicklaus and Player - Part Deux - declined.
"I wanted to go," said Nicklaus, "but I need to spend a little time working on some things."
Nicklaus had hit the last of the balls and was slipping his clubs into his bag when The Question came. How was it, this playing his father's game?
"There are more benefits than there are negatives," he said. But moments later, he adds, "It bothers me sometimes. It bothers me just how pure he hits the ball. I keep putting in the work, but I don't hit it like that."
This is the way of it. If somebody else isn't comparing himself to the old man, he's doing it himself. At least on this account, he has company this week. Somebody turned the Champions Challenge into a father-son outing, which seemed fitting coming the day after Father's Day. Five legendary pros brought their sons to play in the tournament. Jack and Mike. Gary and Wayne Player. Hale and Steve Irwin. Johnny Miller and Johnny Jr. Billy and Bobby Casper.
Except for Player, none of the sons has even made the PGA Tour yet, but they are trying. They could have made it easier on themselves. They could have chosen another profession. They could have become, say, plumbers. Or architects. Sequels don't play well in theaters or on golf courses. How many sons have surpassed their fathers in golf or even succeeded on the pro tour. Only a handful earned a living at it - Raymond Floyd, Dave Stockton and Al Geiberger - but that doesn't keep others from trying.
"If every son (of a tour golfer) was successful and you weren't, that would be pressure," said Johnny Miller Jr. "It is hard to follow Dad into anything. I hope someone will break the ice."
There is no escaping the shadow of their famous fathers and the pressure that brings, and none of them seem to want to. Player seems to invite comparison. He even dresses like his father did. Johnny Jr. proudly gushes about his father on demand and says things like, "I wouldn't even be here if it weren't for my father." Irwin, a Nike Tour player, served as a caddy for his father at the U.S. Open.
Nicklaus, whose father casts the biggest shadow, wears a hat with a Golden Bear emblem on it. He even looks like a longer version of his father, 30 years ago. He plays on the Golden Bear Tour. He tried once to give up the game, but now he wants to follow in his father's spike marks.
"I didn't ever give golf a chance," he says.
In high school, he played football - and blew out his knee - and basketball. He went on to become a fine golfer for Georgia Tech, but after leaving school he dropped the game and never intended to take it up again. In truth, he was irritated at the game because he hadn't played as well as he hoped. For four months he worked in his dad's golf course design company and didn't pick up a club until his anger subsided. After serving as a caddy for his brother Jackie in a European qualifying school and sizing up the competition, he decided he could play with them. He took up the game again about a year ago with renewed vigor.
"I've only worked hard on golf for a year," he says.
At 24, he plays his father's tour - a PGA prep tour based in Palm Beach that consists of about 186 players - then he plans to attend the PGA qualifying school and hopes to follow his father onto the tour. Today, he will join his father in a foursome (with the Millers) and study again with the master, the Golden Kid and the Golden Bear.
"The older I get, the more I enjoy how good he is," says Mike. "I think he's the greatest player ever."
And that, he'll tell you, is lot to measure up to.