There are occasions when professional golf's big winners seem to act like giant one-man corporations, gobbling up prize money with the dispassion of a steel mill swallowing pig iron. Last weekend's television extravaganza, the 36-hole $75,000 World Series of Golf, looked initially as if it would be one of those times.
Three of the sport's biggest and most muscular corporate types, Masters and PGA Champion Jack Nicklaus, U.S. Open Champion Julius Boros and leading money winner Arnold Palmer, rolled into the industrial city of Akron to compete for the $50,000 first prize, the biggest payoff for two days' work that the game offers. Also along was that tall, skinny and noncorporate left-hander, Bob Charles, the British Open champion whose chances seemed slimmer than his build. The assignment for the three corporate types was a simple one: go out and win and get home. But by the time the weekend drew to a close late Sunday afternoon and Jack Nicklaus had pocketed the winner's check, there had been a kind of excitement on and off the golf course that was distinctly unbusinesslike.
First of all, Arnold Palmer, whose closely cropped brown hair is now sprinkled with wisps of gray, had a very human problem, bursitis. Every time he tried to launch an especially long or hard shot, a sore muscle in his right shoulder sent out a stab of pain. Palmer's soreness was almost certainly temporary, but the situation was hardly soothed by a wire-service story which proclaimed that Arnold's career was in dire jeopardy and compared the tragedy that was striking Palmer at the height of his powers to the early demise of Alexander the Great.
"This is ridiculous," said Palmer when he read the story in an Akron paper on Friday. "I had a similar pain in my left shoulder back in 1955 that was even worse. I had to stop playing completely then. This is something that golfers get all the time, along with sore hands and bad backs—an occupational hazard. It goes away with a little rest. Ready to retire? My answer to that is a very emphatic no."
This matter had hardly been set straight when Nicklaus came up with a tremendous pain in his public image. It both upset his composure and raised his score, and it may last a great while longer than the ache in Palmer's shoulder.
Nicklaus is certainly one of the finest golfers the game has seen. But on the golf course his personality and play are both stolid and phlegmatic. Consequently, he has never earned his true share of public affection. Yet he is actually one of the friendliest and best-humored of pro golfers, enjoying victory and accepting defeat with the same good grace. And far from being a stone Buddha, he likes exchanging jokes and jibes with his fellow golfers. This got him into trouble at Akron.
Following their first practice round with Charles and Boros over the arduous Firestone Country Club course, Nicklaus and Palmer sat in the press tent answering questions and kidding each other lightly as they have often done, both in public and in private.
"If this is supposed to be a contest for champions only, then Arnold doesn't belong here," needled Jack, referring to the fact that Palmer had joined the three major tournament champions on the show only after winning a qualifying playoff to round out the foursome. "Arnie's strictly an also-ran in the major events. The World Series should have winners, not also-rans. Isn't that right, Arnie?"
Palmer had time to mumble only a good-natured assent before hurrying to his private plane for the 40-minute commuting trip he was making daily between Akron and his home in Latrobe, Pa. Nicklaus, assuming that he had engaged in nothing more than light badinage with his friend, strolled out to the practice tee to hit some shots.
The fact that Nicklaus' remarks were meant strictly as a friendly rib was apparently understood by everybody except United Press International. The story it sent out did not have the trace of a smile in it. Picking it up, the Akron Beacon Journal ran a bold headline that shrieked JACK LABELS ARNIE AN "ALSO RAN."
How many Beacon Journal readers were on the course when the foursome began play Saturday morning is anybody's guess, but it is a fact that the gallery of some 4,000 people looked on in chill silence as Nicklaus birdied the first two holes. Jack survived some mighty and gutsy scrambling by aching Arnie, who one-putted seven of the first nine greens to reach the turn in even par 35, and eventually Nicklaus held a three-shot lead over Palmer and Charles and four strokes over Boros as they moved into the 18th hole. There Nicklaus hit a nine-iron approach shot that bounced toward a greenside sand trap. "Get into the trap," called a scattering of voices, no doubt belonging to those who by now had decided Nicklaus was nothing but a pudgy pop-off. The ball ended up just off the green, from where Nicklaus chipped up about four feet past the hole for a makable par. But he missed the four-footer, then jabbed at and missed holing the one-foot putt he still had remaining. In those seconds Nicklaus threw away his entire afternoon's work. He and Charles were tied at 70. Palmer was at 71 and Boros at 72. It seemed completely inexplicable. But it wasn't.
"When I heard people yelling for my ball to get in that trap I was really upset," Nicklaus said later. "I know a lot of people don't want to cheer for me, but this is the first time that I have ever heard them cheer against me. They even cheered when I missed that first putt. I was shook by it. That story in the paper was about the most foolish I've ever read, but I guess a lot of people believed it."
This drew sympathetic amens from Palmer. "Good Lord," he said, "it was just plain, good-natured needling. I was calling him Ohio Fats, needling him on the course. We just did a little more needling off the course."
Sunday brought back into focus an aspect of this unique golf event that had been almost forgotten in the swirl of other developments: each of the contestants had a different reason for wanting to win.
For Bob Charles the incentive was, of course, the $50,000. "The money means a great deal more to me than to the others," he explained. "So I guess you could say there should be more pressure on me. But, actually, I feel very good about my position. I'm the underdog. No one expects me really to do much of anything."
For Boros the challenge was to demonstrate there was no such thing as a Big Three of golf—Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player. "Look, my job is to beat three other guys," he said in his soft voice. "I don't care whether we're playing for $50,000 or $1,000. I'm playing well now, and when I'm playing well I feel I can beat anyone. I guess I'm glad I have the chance to play a couple of them here. When you win you want to have beaten the best."
For Palmer the incentive was obvious. For the first time since 1959 he has gone without a major championship. This represented a chance to defeat the three who had deprived him of the titles he relishes.
For Nicklaus the object was to show that he was the best.
"The incentive?" he said. "You know me. It's to win. Though $50,000 is nice to have—and what do I have after taxes?—I'd want to win just as badly if we were playing for nothing."
His was the incentive that was to prevail on Sunday afternoon—this and a residue of anger caused by the off-course byplay. Nicklaus teed off, determined to win the show as quickly as possible. After only six holes he was four strokes ahead of his nearest rival, Charles. Then Palmer put on one of his great spurts, hitting each shot beautifully and cheering the hearts of bursitis sufferers everywhere. By the 12th he had overtaken a faltering Nicklaus, only to fall back immediately again when he smashed a two-iron shot smack into the middle of a tree trunk. Now it was Boros' turn, and in his unspectacular way Big Jay came up with four spectacular birdies on the last six holes. It was all Nicklaus could do on the 18th to slap his way out from a group of trees, get down in two putts from 75 feet away and end up with a one-stroke victory. He was even par for the 36 holes. Boros finished second, Palmer two strokes behind him, and Charles four more back.
"I think I was choking a bit at the end," confessed Nicklaus afterward. It had been a hard week for Jack Nicklaus, Inc., both in and out of the office. He earned his $50,000.