- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 4, 2000

NEW ORLEANS The Bear's Golden Boy finally has found his father's tracks.

Fifteen years ago, Sports Illustrated put Gary Nicklaus on its cover. Of Jack's four boys, Gary looked the most like Papa's prodigy. He had the same dirty blond hair, determined blue eyes, stubby fingers and mammoth forearms as the prototype. He had the same early growth spurt, reaching 5-foot-10 by his 13th birthday. And in an era before the sports world became accustomed to the exploits of youngsters like Tiger Woods, Gary showed incredible focus.

"Somebody asked me once how old a kid should be when they start playing golf," Jack said yesterday. "I used to say if they can play three holes without chasing a frog, then they've got enough attention span to start learning. From about 6 years old, Gary could go out and play 18 holes and keep his mind on what he was doing… . He played very well very young."

Gary played well enough to break 80 at age 11. He played well enough to win the Palm Beach County (Fla.) men's tournament at 13, beating older brother Jackie, who was attending North Carolina on a golf scholarship, by 24 strokes. His high school teammates nicknamed him "Garilla" for his booming drives. He beat his father for the first time at 15, shooting a 2-under-par 70 to edge the old man by one stroke at a course next to the family's West Palm Beach estate.

A year later, Sports Illustrated showed up, devoted 10 pages to Gary's potential and put the words "The Next Nicklaus" beneath his picture.

"That was at a time when I was a very good player at 13, 14, 15," Gary said yesterday. "But I wasn't as good as the attention I was getting. And I just sort of lost interest and did some other things I enjoyed… .

"I've never really been exactly sure why, whether I just didn't want it bad enough or whether I was scared of not living up to expectations. But it took a while for me to really figure out what it was I wanted to do and how hard I was willing to work at it."

To be exact, it took most of the last 15 years for Gary Nicklaus to commit himself to the game he seemed destined to play for a living. The son who showed such a wealth of early promise is now a 31-year-old PGA Tour rookie. This week he joins his legendary father as a competitor at the Compaq Classic at English Turn Golf and Country Club in New Orleans. And perhaps Gary's own accomplishments at the game's highest level have allowed him to finally feel comfortable in his father's formidable shadow.

Dark days

Make no mistake, Gary Nicklaus wanted to please his father. He tried desperately to emulate his career path. In 1987, he accepted a golf scholarship to Ohio State, becoming a Buckeye just like Dad. He pledged Phi Gamma Delta, the same fraternity Jack had joined some 30 years earlier.

On the course, Gary couldn't mimic his father's magic. Jack dominated layouts off the tee with a towering, gentle fade; Gary seemed cursed by an unpredictable snap hook. Jack amassed 18 major championship victories with an unorthodox putting stroke that never seemed to fail in the clutch; Gary had a nasty knack for missing meaningful putts. Though he was named an honorable mention All-American in his senior year (1991), Gary never won a tournament in college.

His teammates noticed he escaped from the game at every opportunity, taking extended vacations to go hunting, fishing or skiing while they practiced. Because unlike his father indeed, because of his father money was not a concern for Gary. His future didn't rely on his ability to play the game that alternately absorbed and repulsed him.

"Gary was a grinder during the season, but he would disappear after that and we wouldn't see him much again until school started," said Ted Tryba, a fellow Tour pro who was two years ahead of Gary at Ohio State. "It just seemed like he was interested in a lot of things other than golf."

Paramount among those other things was Jill Moffitt, his high school sweetheart. They married just months after Gary's graduation from Ohio State. After the first of his eight unsuccessful trips to PGA Tour Qualifying School in 1991, he agreed to move to Manhattan, where Moffitt could pursue her career as a professional dancer. By 1993, Moffitt had earned a spot as a dancer on Madonna's "Girlie Show" tour, a break that would later lead to a role in the long-running Broadway musical "Cats." But while Moffitt flourished in New York, Gary floundered.

"It was very tough because I was traveling all over the world and there was no consistency in my playing schedule," Gary said. "I'd play eight tournaments in Asia and then five in Europe and then come back and play some mini-tours and hope maybe along the way I'd get a couple of invites on the PGA or Nike tours. Obviously, you're working and you're dreaming. But I've found through experience that in order to steadily improve, you need to have a year on the same playing field competing against a certain group of people. I think then, you can start to rise to their level."

Gary's work ethic suffered from his constant shuttling back and forth to New York and his chaotic international competitive schedule. Each year, he would go to Q-School hoping to earn his card and the chance to play among the world's best for a full season. Each year, he failed, leaving him no home tour for the next season.

In 1997, his strained relationship with Moffitt ended in divorce, and he went to Europe committed to golf and resolved to end his cycle of failure.

The new Nicklaus

In 1998, he made it through the European PGA Tour Q-School. For the first time, he had both a home tour and time to focus on his game.

"When I became more serious was basically when I qualified for the European Tour in 1998," he said. "It was very late as far as my age compared to other people to get to that point, but that's when I really started improving. And when I saw improvement, I guess my focus changed and I spent a lot more time working on my game."

Europe was followed by his eighth unsuccessful trip to the PGA Tour Q-School. He earned exempt status on the Nike Tour for 1999, where he made a modest $37,700 with two top-10 finishes. Finally, he broke through the Q-School barrier last fall, shooting a final-round 63 at Doral (Miami) to finish tied for 12th and earn full-time PGA Tour playing privileges.

"Barbara and I were up in Latrobe [Pa.] for Winnie Palmer's memorial service, so we weren't down there watching his final round," Jack said. "I can tell you, I was a mess. Honestly, I think it gave Arnold [Palmer] a much-needed distraction, as well. He kept coming over to me and saying, 'Go ahead, call and see what's happening.' So we kept getting updates, and I was just thrilled for Gary… . I cried with joy."

Typically, Gary struggled in his first nine starts on tour this season, making just four cuts and $45,000. But in his 10th start at the BellSouth Classic in Atlanta, Gary staged his official coming-out party, fighting Phil Mickelson and the elements through three rounds of the rain-shortened event before succumbing on the first hole of a playoff. Still, the second-place finish earned Gary $302,400, virtually guaranteeing his place on tour next season. The top 125 players on the money list retain their cards, and Gary comes to New Orleans ranked 48th ($355,260).

"I think more important than the money, Gary proved in Atlanta that he belongs out here," Jack said. "That's a huge psychological step for any player."

Perhaps it's even a bigger psychological stride for a man who has spent his life saddled with an awesome subtitle: son of the greatest golfer in history.

"For the first time, I don't feel the burden of pressure because of who I am," Gary said. "I still idolize Dad. How could you not idolize him? Every golfer idolizes him to some extent, and every son idolizes his father to some extent. So that was doubled in my situation. He never put any pressure on me, but maybe deep down I was a little worried about letting him down.

"Now I don't feel like I have to worry about that. I've succeeded at some level… . Now, the only pressures and expectations I'm worried about are the ones I put on myself. I've got pretty high expectations, and if I can satisfy those, I think I can satisfy other people as well."

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