It seemed that no matter how far young Bobby Nichols would hit a shot in the wrong direction during the PGA Championship at Columbus, Ohio last week his very next one would come zooming out of the trees or the trouble and right to the hole. By the end of four days of this sort of necromantic dipsy doo Nichols had hit the ball only 271 times—though admittedly from every conceivable spot on the country-club premises—and this was a total good enough to make him the new PGA champion. A full three strokes behind him were his closest pursuers, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, but they had made the drab mistake of keeping the ball on the golf course, and they never had a chance. "You aren't going to believe this, but I have witnesses," said Nichols when asked for the details of one of his rounds, and he is right. Nobody believes it yet.
The PGA was the fourth tournament in recent weeks in which the prize money came to $100,000 or more. It followed the British Open by one week and the U.S. Open by only four. With just about the same people cast in the leading roles, it hardly seemed possible that there was any more emotion to spend on golf, but Bobby Nichols showed how wrong that notion was when for the second time in his five-year pro career he sent sports-writers thumbing through their reference books to find out exactly who he is. The other occasion was at the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont, where he finished in a tie for third behind Nicklaus and Palmer. Witnesses to that event will remember the galleries going through a kind of Abbott and Costello routine trying to find out who was ahead of whom as Nicklaus, Nichols and Palmer seesawed in and out of the lead. Ever since, the writers have thought of Nichols as a promising golfer who almost died in an automobile accident in his home town of Louisville at the age of 16. Bobby Nichols? people would say. Oh, yes, he's the nice golfer that almost got killed once.
Actually, Robert Herman Nichols has been one of the more threatening of the young Turks in professional golf for some time. A big, handsome man of 28, he is 6 feet 2 inches tall and a broad-shouldered 200 pounds. He has a smooth Snead-like swing and power that puts him out with all but the longest hitters. He won both the St. Petersburg and Houston opens in early 1962 prior to his fine showing at Oakmont. But after that his record was more consistent than awesome. Last year he finished 10th on the list of money winners, but his lone victory did not come until September in the Seattle Open. There has been talk that there was not enough tiger in this gentle, soft-spoken man who has no real flair for attracting the limelight. He seemed to hide his talents like a well-dressed woman who only wears her prettiest clothes at home, for fear of being stared at. By way of emphasis, some of Bobby's colleagues—among whom he is that rare exception, a universally popular player—pointed out that he is an intensely religious fellow. The implication was that his devotion to the Golden Rule prevented him from trying to beat the stuffing out of the opposition and was depriving him of the winner's share of some purses.
Well, Bobby Nichols went to Mass every morning last week and still managed to lead the tournament every afternoon. The first day he did it with a 64, a new single-round record in a PGA Championship and a competitive course record for the Columbus Country Club. He had eight birdies and only two bogeys in that round and after it he modestly attributed his success to a recently acquired (for $5) second-hand putter with a polished brass blade. He sank one putt from 30 feet, two from 20, one from 15 feet and bundles from 10 feet or so. If necessary, he most likely would have sunk one from the Columbus Plaza hotel.
July 26, 1964
The second day he slipped slightly to a one-over-par 71, but he still maintained a one-stroke lead over Palmer, who had resolutely brought in his second consecutive 68. On the third day (playing in relative solitude directly behind Arnie and his massive Army), Bobby continued to hold his lead over Palmer as the two players shot matching 69s.
If it is true, as the Scots insist, that the glory of golf is the manner in which it tests a man's character in adversity, then the character of Bobby Nichols was gloriously tested during that third round. He drove into the rough on nine of the 18 holes, and the rough that bordered the Columbus fairways was long enough to separate wandering children from their parents. The divots that were sailing off Bobby's clubs as he dug the ball out of this grass were the size of Beatle wigs. When you could no longer see the wigs flying, it was because he was playing a shot from some even more remote location deep in the Ohio backwoods. But through the first nine holes of this soul-trying Saturday, he yielded only one stroke to par. He regained that and an extra stroke with birdies on the 10th and 11th and so stood one under par on the 14th green, which he three-putted. Shaken, he spent the next three holes thrashing his way out of still deeper trouble than before—and scoring two pars and a birdie. It was so improbable a round of golf that even Nichols joked about it. But if it was true that he was lucky, it was also true that a great deal of courage was a major clement in his success.
By comparison Sunday, the day of victory, was a breeze. Midway through his round he ran into difficulties of a sort and found himself tied with both Palmer and the fast-closing Mason Rudolph as he started his second nine. At the 10th hole, a long par-5, he met this challenge by sinking a 35-foot putt for an eagle 3. "I never was really confident of winning until then," he said afterward. "I had something in the back of my mind. I felt that something was going to go wrong. But when I made that eagle at 10, I knew I had to win. All week I have been praying to St. Jude, the patron saint of the impossible, and it must have helped."
It must have kept helping, too, for he went on to sink putts of 18, 15 and 51 feet on the 15th, 16th and 17th holes. These proved to be his margin of victory, for directly ahead of him both Palmer and Nicklaus, playing together, were bringing thunderous roars from their gallery with birdies.
Once again, as in the U.S. Open that Ken Venturi won so surprisingly last month, the hot trio of Palmer, Nicklaus and Tony Lema was thwarted by an outsider. Of the three, Palmer appeared the most serious contender throughout the tournament. With two 68s and two 69s, he was under par all the way and showed a more consistent pattern of good play than any of the 162 pros in the field.
Palmer had spent the previous week at home, practicing by the hour and thinking of little but the PGA, the only major championship he has never won. By the time he arrived in Columbus at the beginning of the week he was shaking his head in despair. "I've never played so badly," he was saying. "I just can't hit anything right. About the only shots I can hit at all are the short irons, but even they aren't very good. It's awful." That kind of talk from Palmer is like a fire siren to those who understand the determination of this fiercest of golfers.
As always, Palmer's game was thrillingly erratic, but his sense of humor remained intact. Some night celebrants had pounded on his door at 2:30 Saturday morning, and he told of answering their summons with a putter in his hand. "I knew that club was good for something," he said.
In sum, Palmer's golf was close to superb, but he could never quite produce the string of birdies that would give him a lead. The very nature of the Columbus course was largely responsible. For the modern professional golfer, it was little more than a short stroll of 6,851 yards. To save its prize event the embarrassment of a deluge of ridiculously low scores, the PGA tournament committee narrowed the fairways and let the rough grow to the point where the contestants—a majority of them simply teaching pros who were making their only serious tournament attempt of the year—felt as if they were blazing trails through the rain forests of the Andes. To make doubly sure that their preparations were not in vain, the committee set the pin positions with sadistic intent.
On the first day only 13 golfers were under par on a course that most of the touring pros could normally play with a driver, a wedge and a putter. By the end of the second day this number had been reduced to eight, and it was down to four by Saturday night. The long Ohio grass had done its work, taking most of the pow out of power golf. The scoreboard was alive with an explosion of birdies and bogeys, nerve-wracking for the players, perhaps, but exciting to watch.
Even Jack Nicklaus, the local hero and defending champion, could not find the right combination to the course until Sunday afternoon, when his last-gasp 64 tied Nichols' new record, and Lema, who finished 10 strokes back, never did find it. But Nicklaus may have had other things on his mind, such as entertaining Gary Player in the new house he has just built and furnished. On Wednesday afternoon Jack won the traditional PGA driving contest with an enormous shot of 320 yards. He said he had to win the $100 prize because Gary was eating so much.
The home-town gallery got its chance to roar on Sunday at Jack's fine 64, but it roared, too, when happy Bobby Nichols sank his last putt on 18. When the ball dropped, the new champion swept off his hat and tried to throw it into the gallery. It fell into a trap instead, just like his golf shots had all week. "Don't worry," somebody said. "He'll get it down in two from there."