Jack Nicklaus'victory in the 62nd National Collegiate golf championship last week may nothave been over the strongest field he has ever played against, but emotionallyand physically it was one of his toughest tournaments. The 21-year-old OhioState junior had just spent an exhausting and disappointing week at theNational Open in Detroit, where he finished in a tie for fourth, three shotsback of Champion Gene Littler. When he arrived at the Purdue University golfcourse in West Lafayette, Ind. on the eve of the NCAA tournament, his massiveframe drooped with fatigue. He trudged over to a putting green and shook handswith Houston's defending champion Dick Crawford.
"After goingthrough the Open," Nicklaus told Crawford, "this is going to be like aSunday school picnic. Except that I just can't get up for it. The last thing Iwant to see for a while is a golf course. I feel, you know, blah."
No one could blameNicklaus for feeling the way he did, for it is a difficult malaise of mind andbody to shrug off. And it can prove disastrous in a golf tournament asvigorously competitive as the NCAA. Last year, for example, a week after hismagnificent second-place finish to Arnold Palmer in the Open at Cherry Hills,Nicklaus was bumped out in the third round, 4 and 3, by Stanford's SteveSmith.
However, it iswell known to the collegians who had to meet Nicklaus head to head in the NCAAthat he is a better golfer than all but a few of the top touring pros. Even so,he had to overcome a four-hole deficit to win his 36-hole semifinal match fromMichigan State's Gene Hunt, and anything but sub-par golf would have lost himhis final-round victory over his resolute Ohio State teammate, 22-year-old MikePodolski.
July 2, 1961
He tramped throughhis 36-hole qualifying round and the early rounds of match play like a serenepolar bear. He emerged as low medalist with a 3 under par qualifying score of140. He thus joined a distinguished list of NCAA medalists that includesPalmer, Earl Stewart, Gardner Dickinson, Paul Harney, Johnny Pott, Rex Baxterand Jacky Cupit. Then, in match play, he crushed a series of undergraduatenonentities and was never in any kind of difficulty until the semifinals. Theonly fear Nicklaus had was Nicklaus himself.
"I try toconcentrate and play hard," he said, "but I just can't. Sometimes onthe first tee I'll take a look at my opponent's first swing and figure there'sno way I can lose to this guy. You can get beaten that way."
This kind ofthinking may have affected Nicklaus in his semifinal against Hunt. Hunt is aMichigan public links champion, but he was No. 3 and 4 all this year on theMichigan State golf team. He puts his right hand so far underneath the clubwhen he takes his grip that you are convinced he will sprain his wrist swingingit back. But he is a long hitter, and he has a resilient short game. Eventhough Nicklaus shot a par 71 in the morning round, he didn't win the matchuntil the 35th green, 2 and 1.
TheNicklaus-Podolski match paired teammates against each other in the final forthe first time since Tom Nieporte defeated Don Johnson in the all-Ohio Statefinal of 1951. Podolski, whose father runs a punch press for the Columbus Boltand Forge Company, is another Michigan public links product. He is an extremelytough and efficient player but not as good as Nicklaus. Nicklaus birdied two ofthe first three holes in the morning round and was 6 under par for the day. Hepolished off the match on the 33rd hole, 5 and 3.
If Nicklaus'triumph was not unexpected, Purdue's in the team race certainly was. TheBoilermakers had finished second to Houston in both 1959 and '60, but this wassupposedly the weakest team Purdue Golf Coach Sam Voinoff had put on the coursein years. It had finished fourth in this year's Big Ten championship, andHouston, as usual, was loaded.
"This is oneof the strongest teams I've ever had," Houston Coach Dave Williams admittedon the eve of the tournament. He has recruited so skillfully since taking overas coach in 1951 that first-rate young golfers from Kentucky, Pennsylvania,California, Oregon, Iowa and Minnesota, not to mention the Southwest, keepturning up on the Houston campus. Williams refuses to let his charges play inthe National Open, and he brought his team up to the Purdue course almost aweek before the NCAA tournament started. This thoroughness had given Williamsfive NCAA championships in a row and earned him the displeasure of his fellowcoaches. Houston golfers had won four successive individual titles, andCrawford, a senior from Jacksonville, Ark., was seeking his third straightchampionship.
The teamchampionship is determined during the first two days of the tournament, whenthe field of 190 golfers is scrambling through the 36-hole qualifying round,this year played alternately on Purdue's North and South courses. Each schoolis allowed to enter five players in the qualifying round, but only its fourlowest 36-hole totals are counted toward the final team score.
The team contestwas barely four hours old when Houston stumbled. Lanky Ron Weber stood on the18th tee of the North Course needing only a par 4 to finish with a solid 73.Then he hooked two drives out of bounds, put another shot into the creekfronting the green and finished with a 12 on the hole. When Crawford could dono better than a 75 on the South Course, Houston was eight shots back of Purdueat the halfway point.
The next dayHouston was eliminated early. Tall, scholarly-looking Joel Gold-strand had justfinished the 8th hole of the South Course and was one under par, apparentlyleading a Houston resurgence. Then he discovered he had 15 clubs in his bag,one over the legal maximum. The automatic two-strokes-per-hole penalty uppedGoldstrand in an instant from one under par to 15 over. As the bad news reachedthe rest of the Houston team they collapsed like Chinese lanterns in adownpour. Defending Champion Crawford blew to a 43 on the last nine holes andmissed qualifying by two strokes. Only one of Houston's five excellentplayers—Homero Blancas—even made it into the match play, and he was crushed inthe first round by Michigan State's Hunt, 5 and 4. Houston finished tied for11th with a 610 total, 26 shots back of Purdue. It was a black two days forCoach Williams, but there were no wet eyes among his coaching brethren."Just between you, me and the lamppost," said one, "it couldn'thave been sweeter."
Houston will beback next year, when the NCAA is held on the Duke University course in Durham,N.C., hot for revenge and probably stronger than ever. Jack Nicklaus, thougheligible, probably will not defend his title. "There are only two importanttournaments as far as I'm concerned," he said, peering intently at alistener with steady blue eyes, "the Masters and the Open. I plan to dropout of school for the spring term so that I can get ready for them. I justdon't have the time to combine school, my insurance business and golf. I'llfinish up school later."