AN IMPERTINENT SPEEDUP IN THE CYCLES OF GOLF
Thanks to an early Georgia springtime, the Augusta National golf course was at its pink-and-white loveliest last week, with the azaleas and dogwood gaily blooming. It seemed a most inappropriate place to use a bludgeon, yet that is what big, smart Jack Nicklaus did as he became, at 23, the youngest golfer ever to win the most cherished tournament of them all. The blows that made the Masters his were struck on Friday when he shot a 66 that has to rank as one of the finest single rounds ever played at Augusta National. It put the course at his feet and the tournament in his palm, and gave him the edge he needed to coolly survive the last-round histrionics which have become as much a part of the Masters championship as Bobby Jones and the green coats given to the winners. After that 66, nobody really thought Jack Nicklaus could lose the Masters, and that includes Nicklaus himself.
Now he has won, and it seems the cycles of golf are moving ever more rapidly. As the eras have succeeded one another—from Jones and Hagen to Nelson to Hogan and Snead to Palmer—each has followed the next more closely. With his Masters win, Nicklaus apparently has resolved to start a new era before that of Palmer (and to a lesser extent, Player) has even begun to ebb. If you did that in show business, they would murder you for stepping on the other fellow's lines. But Jack may get away with it.
For a few minutes on the last day, however, it looked as if Nicklaus was not going to get away with anything, least of all the Masters championship. It was a time of testing, and a time of rare excitement, and it began as Nicklaus stepped to the 10th tee at 3:30 p.m. He had just made the turn in 37, losing half of the two-stroke advantage over par he had held when the day began. By that time Sam Snead, who was playing the 13th hole, was trailing Jack by only a stroke, having had an excellent first nine of 35. Gary Player, who was on the 14th hole and playing better than anyone else in contention, was tied with Snead. So was Tony Lema, who was on the 11th fairway, a couple of twosomes in front of Nicklaus. And steady, phlegmatic Julius Boros, Nicklaus' playing partner for the day, was casually swinging along only two strokes behind Jack—or one over par for the tournament.
For the next hour and more, the respective positions of these five players were scrambled and rescrambled so rapidly that one might have thought the scoreboards around the course were being operated by the dealer in a five-card monte game. The first important change came after Lema got a bogey 5 on the 11th hole, his first major lapse of the afternoon. He hit his second shot fat, barely reaching the front edge of the long green, and it took him three putts to get down from a good 100 feet away. Shortly thereafter Snead sank a dizzily winding 35-foot putt at the treacherous 14th green to go one under par. So at 3:50 in the afternoon, the five contenders stood:
Nicklaus, on 12—one under
Snead, on 15—one under
Player, on 15—even
Boros, on 12—one over
Lema, on 13—one over.
Now it was Player's turn to arouse the enormous galleries that had rushed to the far southwestern corner of the course where most of the action was in progress. Gary's drive was too short on the 520-yard 15th to risk trying to carry the pond in front of the green with his second, although there was hardly a breath of wind. Instead he hit a safe shot short of the water with an iron. Then he pitched his third just 15 feet from the pin and sank the putt for a birdie. The victory that had seemed so remote to him throughout the tournament suddenly appeared within reach, and Gary did a little dance on the green, waved his white cap in the air and replaced it at a cockeyed angle.
Snead, following in the next twosome, hit a good drive and then carried the pond with as hard a three-wood as he could muster, leaving his ball eight feet short of the green and only 30 feet from the hole. He was easily down in two for his birdie, and now was two under par.
Meanwhile, Nicklaus was having his miseries on 12, a 155-yard hole that involves shooting across a swale and a pond to a narrow green. "Just about that time, Snead had birdied a couple of holes in a row and the crowd was cheering. It probably bothered me," Nicklaus said later. "I came off a seven-iron a little and hit it into the trap in front of the green."
He hit his shot out of the wet bunker well across the green, and his third shot was still eight feet from the hole. "I knew I'd better not miss that putt," he said. "Sinking it made a tremendous amount of difference." Still, the bogey dropped him to even par, while Boros was getting his birdie 2 and Lema was sinking a putt for a birdie 4 on 13. So at 4 o'clock they stood:
Snead, on 16—two under
Player, on 16—one under
Nicklaus, on 13—even
Boros, on 13—even
Lema, on 14—even.
It was during the next half hour that the final scrambling took place, and the tournament was decided. Player, who was the first to finish, took bogey 5s on both the 17th and 18th holes, a depressing ending to his fine bid. Snead, while still in the lead, hit his four-iron tee shot badly at the 16th. It stopped on the front part of the green, 50 feet from the cup, and from there Snead three-putted for a bogey. Moments later he bogeyed the 18th after a poor second shot to play himself out of contention.
Lema was the next to finish, and he arrived at the 18th still even with par after his birdie on the 13th. Tony hit his second shot on 18 some 25 feet above the pin and to the right, leaving himself a terrifying downhill putt over the hump of the green with a sharp break to the right. His only hope for a tie was to sink it, for Nicklaus was again two under.
Lema looked over this scary putt with a poise that denied the torment inside him. For all one could tell, he might have been playing a $2 Nassau on Wednesday afternoon back home in San Leandro. Then he addressed the ball and barely moved it with his putter. Down the hill it rolled—curving, curving, always seeming on the verge of stopping, until, just as Tony leaped into the air, it dropped solidly into the middle of the cup.
But Nicklaus was not to be denied. At the par-5 13th he had gotten back the stroke he had lost to par. He continued without incident until the 16th, an ominous par-3 over a big pond. "I really wasn't nervous there," he said later. "It wasn't until after I'd made my birdie putt on the 16th that I began to get nervous." The putt was a 12-footer from the back of the green that curled into the hole. It put him two under par and allowed him to arrive at the 18th green needing only two putts from 25 feet for his victory. The first putt slid three feet past the hole, and he was surprised that it didn't go in. "Then I was surprised when the second one did," he said.
Surprised? He threw his cap in the air, and a grin came over his cherubic face that won't go away for a month.
It was evident at Augusta, as it was at last year's U.S. Open and at the World Series of Golf exhibition last fall with Palmer and Player, that Nicklaus has become as overwhelming and inevitable as nightfall. The very best competitors in golf may seek to avert him, as they have during the brief 15 months he has been competing as a pro, but he is obviously too strong, too determined, too skillful to be sidetracked or delayed.
The manner in which he tramples a golf course and the opposition was emphatically demonstrated on Friday, when he shot his 66 and caught the entire field except the surprising two-day leader, Mike Souchak. With a gusty wind blowing as much as 30 miles an hour, the course was resisting the golfers as stubbornly as it ever can. A long drought had hardened the sub-surface of the greens, and even the best-played approach shots refused to dig into the turf.
"Those balls wouldn't stop if they had spines on them," is the way Snead described the situation. Other complaining golfers put it far more succinctly but with far less humor.
Nicklaus started his Friday round tied for 16th place after a so-so 74 on Thursday. En route to the six-under-par performance that he delivered that afternoon he had six birdies and 12 pars. The 18th was the only green he failed to hit in par, and after overshooting it he chipped back to within 18 inches of the cup for his 4. What is more, on every one of the first six holes, his putts for birdies hit the cup, but stayed out. "I don't think I ever played a better round of golf in my life," he said later while most of the others in the field were bemoaning their bogeys and blaming their troubles on the golf course and the elements.
The delicate giant
Perhaps the moment that most distinctly showed the force of Nicklaus' play that day came at the 15th. The big hitters expect to reach this green in two when the wind is absent or following, as it was on Friday, and many of them did, only to find that their long approach shots refused to hold on the putting surface. Nicklaus used a five-iron for his second that day—a drive and a five-iron, mind you, on a 520-yard hole—and the ball floated in as if it were being gently transported by a friendly robin, stopping within a few feet of where it struck. It was a prodigious, yet delicate shot—visual testimony that along with Jack's enormous strength goes the touch of a golfing artist.
Equally vital to Nicklaus' success is his attitude. Before or after a match he will be as friendly and considerate as an airline hostess, but once on the golf course he is as determined as Palmer at his grimmest. Just before Nicklaus left the clubhouse for his final round on Sunday, he paused to say hello to a friend who asked him, "How do you feel today, Jack, big and strong?"
Nicklaus laughed and said, "Yeah, big and strong and tough and mean." He was laughing, but that is exactly how he did feel the moment he addressed his ball on the first tee. It was an attitude that served him well during the high winds of Thursday and Friday and Saturday's drenching rain.
The idea of the Big Three of golf—Nicklaus plus Palmer and Player—has begun to stick in the craw of quite a few touring pros, particularly the old-timers like Snead, Bolt and Demaret, whose instincts and experience tell them that these three men cannot be as much better than the rest of the field as the press insists. Demarct, for instance, gave an interview to the Associated Press before the tournament started, in which he said the whole idea of the Big Three was hogwash. "Where are your Big Three now?" he asked late Thursday afternoon when Player was tied for sixth with a 71 and Palmer and Nicklaus for 16th with 74s.
Actually, only Arnold Palmer of the Big Three was constantly out of real contention. Much as he wanted this one, and he probably wanted it as badly as he ever wanted any tournament, Palmer could never develop the momentum he needed to win. From the time he arrived at Augusta his frame of mind appeared to be un-Palmerish. One day he said, "It seems everybody is playing better than last year, and I'm not playing as well." People have been outdriving him, of late, and it bothers him. "I must be getting old," he said. "I don't seem to be getting the distance I used to."
As the tournament began, Palmer was driving erratically, and his wedge play, which has never been the game's best, would have made a duffer squirm at times. "I'm the worst wedge player in the world," he said Friday afternoon.
Helped by a hand mashie
To the very end, nonetheless, Arnie's Army had faith, and when faith wasn't enough they took matters into their own hands. On the 10th hole on Sunday, Palmer hooked his drive into the rough at the base of a large pine tree, and one of his still-huge gallery picked it up and chucked it out to the fairway. Naturally, the Rules Committee made him drop the ball where it had first come to rest. A few moments later, when Palmer reached the 11th green, the young men who were operating the scoreboard had posted a message for him. "Go Arnie," it read in big black letters. But this time Arnie couldn't go, and he wound up in a tic for ninth at 291.
Of all the Big Three, Gary Player showed the steadiest golf throughout the tournament, never brilliant but never dismal. His successive rounds of 71, 74, 74 and 70 left him, respectively, in a tie for sixth, two ties for ninth and finally in a tie for fifth only a stroke over par for the 72 holes. It was nothing Gary could explain, and when it was all over he offered no excuses.
"I felt just fine when I arrived," he said Sunday, "but I played poorly the first three rounds. I wasn't hitting the ball at all well. I really had to work to get it around in the scores I made. Yet today I played so well I could hardly believe it. Really, I could just as well have had a 63. I missed seven putts inside seven feet and didn't hole one over six feet. I've been told I'm not a good eight-foot putter, and I'm beginning to realize it. But it was a great win for Jack."
Certainly nothing else in the tournament gave the sentimentalists the pleasure that they got from the marvelous performance of 50-year-old Sam Snead. Playing on a sore foot that has bothered him for several weeks and competing in only his third tournament of the year, Sam was never more than one over par, and never stood worse than sixth. Probably nothing in his entire career—save the victory that always eluded him in the U.S. Open—would have given him as much pleasure as winning his fourth Masters, and beating Nicklaus, too. Ever since their thrilling head-to-head television match at Pebble Beach last fall, old Sam has nursed a deep grudge against Nicklaus for cavalierly keeping him waiting on the first tee. Jack, it seems, had arrived late the night before and insisted on a long practice session before the cameras could turn. When the match finally started, Snead almost blew it on the first few holes while he was getting his temper under control. But his revenge was not to be at the Masters, where his tired old limbs made him bogey the 70th and 72nd holes after he had struggled into his momentary lead.
The Big Three, however, may very well have felt a chill wind on the back of their necks after the performance of Champagne Tony Lema. He arrived at Augusta trailing Nicklaus, the lowest of the trio on the money list, by only a couple of thousand dollars. After a perfectly adequate 74 through the gales of Thursday, he shot a superb 69 on Friday, one of the best rounds of the tournament, excepting Nicklaus' 66.
Even if the Big Three may not welcome a Big Fourth among them, everyone else would, for Tony is a decidedly refreshing addition to the celebrities of golf. Before he went out on the course for the final round on Sunday he was standing on the second floor of the Augusta National clubhouse talking with Dan Sikes, another young touring pro. When Sikes mentioned that Tony had a chance to win, Lema replied, "I tell you I'm so charged up right now I could walk right out that door and through the balcony railing and out over the air to the first tee." Tony talks like that, and the things he says will doubtless be entertaining everyone for a long time to come.
With his purse at the Masters, Lema has now pushed Arnold Palmer into fourth place on the list of money winners and left himself less than $700 behind second-place Gary Player.
He still has a long way to go to catch Jack Nicklaus, however, for Big Jack is fast becoming the mighty man of golf. Masters officials have to get his measurements now for that green winner's coat. The size is 44 regular, and they may as well file it where it will be handy. Jack may earn a few more of those coats in the future.