In a normally insignificant and ignored Cajun-country tournament, the battle to be golf's leading money winner for 1964 goes down to the last precarious putt before Nicklaus slips past Palmer by $81.13
November 30, 1964

There are a limited number of reasons for a millionaire to go to Lafayette, La. He might go there to strike oil, or buy a sugar cane plantation, or eat the world's finest oysters, or maybe just to listen to hot lips Lionel Hebert play the trumpet. But last week two millionaires, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, flew into Lafayette, and the only reason they were there was pride. This twosome of ultrastars had come to play in golf's Cajun Classic, an event so mundane that in ordinary times Palmer and Nicklaus would hardly have bothered reading about it in the newspapers. They found themselves competing against what was essentially the ragtag end of pro golf's chorus line. They had to slog their way through rain, then try to stay warm in temperatures that might be zesty by Aspen standards but were frigid by Louisiana's, and finally they had to play a trying 36 holes on Sunday. It all seemed like a comical mistake, as if the Army-Navy game had been scheduled in a high school gym. Yet circumstances were forcing Palmer and Nicklaus to compete in the Cajun Classic with the same kind of concentration and resolve they bring to a Masters or a U.S. Open. How humiliating; how delightful!

What brought golf's plutocrats out to play for pennies was actually a matter of $318.87. The $25,000 ($3,300 to the winner) Cajun is the final official PGA tournament of the year. Going into last week, Palmer was leading the 1964 official money winners' race with $111,703.37, but Nicklaus was right behind him at $111,384.50. The title of leading money winner is a thing to be coveted, and both Nicklaus and Palmer have been doing a lot of secret coveting—and calculating—for more than a month.

It was really all Arnold's fault that he and Jack found themselves in this peculiar fix. Five weeks earlier, during the Sahara Invitation in Las Vegas, Palmer had the money-winning crown all but glued to his graying—yes, graying—head. Then he blew it. With only 18 holes to go at the Sahara he led Nicklaus by two shots and more than $3,000 in official money won. Then Arnold stumbled to a 76, and fell into a tie for 19th. Meanwhile, Nicklaus shot a hot 67 and tied for third. That closed the money gap to little more than pocket change.

For both players this sudden reawakening of their year's rivalry created embarrassing complications. Both were leaving immediately after the Sahara for an extended tour in Australia, so there was precious little time to spare and decisions had to be made. Jack, who finished his last round ahead of Arnold, packed, and then sought out the PGA tournament supervisor, Joe Black.

"If I'm behind Arnold on the money list enter me at Lafayette," he told Black. "If I'm ahead of him and he doesn't enter, don't enter" me either. If I'm ahead of him and he enters, then enter me too."

This is not exactly the solid sort of commitment the PGA likes to pass on to its tournament sponsors. Black, slightly confused by all the alternatives, told Nicklaus to wait until he got back from Australia to make up his mind. Exit Nicklaus for the airport.

A few minutes later Palmer, thoroughly disgusted with himself and his 76, came hurrying off the course with not much time to make the plane. But first some business. He sought out Black and gave him the identical instructions that Nicklaus had delivered earlier.

"Wait until Jack decides, and then let me know," said Black. Exit Palmer for the airport.

During the long flight to Australia there was little doubt in either one's mind about the necessity of being in Lafayette a month later, but they were not going to admit it. "I doubt if I'll be able to make it, Jack," Arnold remembers saying, trying very hard to sound sincere.

"No, I probably won't either, Arnie," Jack recalls answering, doubtless pursing his lips and frowning. "It's too much of a mess."

It was hardly an Academy Award performance by either. "I knew that if I entered he would, too," says Jack. "We were just trying to psych each other out."

But Arnold was ever so slightly hopeful he could still avoid the not-so-classic Cajun as he left Nicklaus behind in Australia and went on to Japan, where the Arnold Palmer Company was opening sales offices. After all, November is the hunting season in Pennsylvania, Palmer wanted to rest, and he had business engagements, too. But when he got back home to Latrobe two weeks ago, Joe Black was on the telephone with the bad news. "He's entered," said Black.

"That s.o.b.," said Palmer. And everybody packed for Lafayette, La.

Loyal Cajuns claim that Lafayette is the fastest-growing town in the whole U.S. Its proximity to both the oil fields of East Texas and the Louisiana Gulf Coast makes it an ideal nesting place for the sales and administrative offices of oil companies. More than 600 of them hold space in a sprawling, 65-building complex that is aptly called the Oil Center. In addition, Lafayette is the hub of a thriving agricultural area. The town's population in the last dozen years has nearly doubled—from 40,000 to 70,000.

"There's a lot of money in Lafayette," says the owner of one of its most expensive clothing shops. "It's not just millionaire money, either. It's mostly $25,000-a-year money that likes to spend $35,000 a year."

However great its charms, golf's two biggest money earners were still understandably reluctant about the whole business. As a golf tournament, the Cajun Classic was created for losers. It struggled to life in 1958 as a poor relative of the Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas. The T of C, as its name implies, invites only tournament winners to its annual May event. Overwhelmed by compassion for the non-winners, who had nothing to do the same week, the Las Vegas sponsors offered a $5,000 purse to anyone who would run an alternate tournament. A small group of businessmen in Lafayette, backed and pushed by PGA champions and PGA politicians Jay and Lionel Hebert, finally agreed to put on a tournament of nonchampions at the Oakbourne Country Club. It ran opposite the Las Vegas show for a year, then was switched into November to fill an open date on the PGA tour. The switch made it possible for champions to enter—if they felt like it.

The tournament is well enough run, and Jay and Lionel are worthy hosts, especially when Lionel starts an evening jam session with his trumpet. But it cannot escape its Endsville feel. On the day of last week's pro-am, a visitor asked a PGA official why there were no signs showing how to get to the golf course.

"Signs for who?" the official asked, looking around at the 100 or so people who roamed the 18 holes. "The crowd they've got here now is as big as they usually get for a final round. Anyone who wants to come knows where it is." And he was right, of course.

In view of what it was doing to their long-made and complicated schedules, why did Palmer and Nicklaus feel that the money-winner title was worth the trip to the Cajun Classic? A superficial reason is that the title pays about $20,000 in bonuses from their affiliated companies, but the real reason is the thing that has kept the Nicklaus-Palmer rivalry such a vigorous one.

"It's a matter of personal pride," said Jack before climbing into his new $225,000 twin-engine Aero Commander for the flight from his home in Columbus, Ohio to Lafayette. "It's a real measure of accomplishment, the next best thing to winning a major championship."

To Palmer, an old stag protecting his position as head of the herd, Nicklaus' fresh challenge was simply another he was determined to fight off. Palmer's earning record has been phenomenal—he was the leading money winner in 1958, 1960, 1962 and 1963, but he plans a drastic curtailment of his tournament activities next year.

"This is the last year I'll even be in the chase," he said shortly after arriving at Lafayette in his own Aero Commander. "From now on, 15 tournaments a year is all I'm going to play."

What is more, the money title would salvage something from a year that has essentially been a disappointment for both Palmer and Nicklaus. Palmer won the Masters last April, starting what he felt would be one of his best seasons, then won only a single tournament thereafter, the Oklahoma City Open. Nicklaus won four tournaments, but not one of them a major championship. The year has been dominated by these two more in the expectation of what they would do each week than in what they actually did. Nicklaus finished second in three big ones: to Palmer in the Masters, to Tony Lema in the British Open and to Bobby Nichols in the PGA. Palmer crossed his frustration threshold during midsummer when he finished second five times and third twice.

"Actually, I played the best golf I've ever played," Palmer said the other day, "but I didn't make the short putts I always made when I was winning. Because of the Masters it was a good year, but only winning another one of the big four events would have made it a great one."

The top of the ladder in pro golf is a wobbly perch, and it is not surprising that the Big Two have, temporarily at least, slipped a little. There are many good players crowding their way up from the bottom, chiefly because the inducements are so great. This year total prize money came to approximately $2.3 million. Next year, the prize money will be higher, especially if a big PGA television contract that is now being negotiated with a network goes through.

"We are being swamped with fine young golfers," says Joe Black. "Four or five years ago we had only about 70 regulars playing the tour week to week. Now we have more than 160."

Palmer noticed the change when he put his bag down at the Cajun Classic and took a look around. "Wow," he exclaimed, "I bet I don't know 20 guys here." The prospect of spending the week in Lafayette, virtually friendless, seemed to envelop the usually amiable Arnie in gloom. ("Doesn't he ever smile?" asked a tournament official.) He had a cold and, besides, there was not much to smile about. He came off the 18th green after his final practice round at least moderately pleased with a five-under-par 67. Then he ran into Nicklaus.

"What did you shoot?" asked Jack.

"I had 67 and played lousy," said Arnold. "What did you have?"

"Sixty-seven," said Jack.

"Sixty-seven, eh? And how did you play?" asked Arnold.

"Miserably," said Jack, and they both started laughing and pummeling each other. Then Arnold leaned over toward Jack. "That's too damn low," he whispered, and now he was half serious.

Even a fine stroke of luck on what should have been the first day of the tournament did not appreciably raise Palmer's lagging spirits. He had shot a two-over-par 74 and Nicklaus was four under par after eight holes when a sudden rain squall lashed the golf course and washed out all first-round scores. Palmer went quietly off to his motel, had a drink, had dinner and was in bed by 10 o'clock. Nicklaus, meanwhile, drove down the road from his motel to Poor Boy's Riverside Inn and, with Touring Pros Gordon Jones, Al Kelley and Dave Ragan as witnesses, ate four dozen of Lafayette's best oysters.

The next two days were dry, at least, but they were windy, cold and getting colder. The temperature fell to 44° on Friday and half the field teed off wearing knitted ski caps. For Palmer, his dour face topped by a dapper snap-brim seersucker hat and his figure padded out by layers of sweaters, things went from good to bad to splash. He shot a 68 during the new first round, but spoiled the day by hitting into the water in front of the last hole and taking a double-bogey 5. On Saturday he bogeyed five straight holes ("I can't remember when I last did that," he said) early, and only a resolute recovery produced a two-over-par 74.

Nicklaus, meanwhile, could have been bleeding from the heart. First, his six-shot advantage over Palmer had been washed out on Thursday. His Friday score, like Palmer's, was a 68. But on Saturday he had more trouble. On the third hole he and Butch Baird, playing together, managed to hit each other's MacGregor Tourney golf balls (they learned of the mistake when they got to the green and checked the ball numbers) and each was penalized two strokes. Jack still had a good 71 and led Arnold by three shots, but could he give away eight shots to Palmer—through rain and through carelessness—and still stay far enough ahead of him to gain $318.87?

Nicklaus seemed unperturbed. While Palmer was still on the course, working out his own private problems with his irons and his putter, Jack's Aero Commander kept appearing in the overcast sky to the west. Its owner was practicing touch-and-goes at the nearby airport.

The final day was a bitter collection of all the reasons any golfer might have for passing up the Cajun Classic. To complete 36 holes the golfers had to start by dawn's earliest light. The weather would have been fine for the Dartmouth Winter Carnival or for pheasant hunting in Latrobe, Pa., but it was not fine for golf. When he teed off at 8:12 for his morning round, Nicklaus looked more like a polar bear than the Golden Bear he uses as a trademark; he was wearing three sweaters, a knitted yellow dickey and a rain suit. The official temperature was slightly above freezing, but out on the course a 20-mph wind was blowing and nobody knew how cold it was. Jack could guess, though. By the time he reached the 3rd hole—followed by a gallery of 18—the damp towel that hung from his golf bag was frozen stiff.

The morning frostbite regatta was somehow completed but it did not drastically affect the standings, though Miller Barber, a 33-year-old often present but rarely noted touring pro, shot a remarkable 68 to take a one-stroke lead in the tournament over Nicklaus. Palmer, with a 71, was tied for fourth, two shots back of Jack. As the next 18 progressed—and galleries grew to 400—Nicklaus increased his lead to four strokes over Palmer. Then Arnold played a stretch of five holes in four under par and looked to have a chance again, only to fall into one of those strange bogey spells that has so unsettled him lately. When, on the 15th hole, he missed a two-foot putt he assumed he was beaten. He stubbed the toe of his putter into the green in dismay, and then sheepishly set about repairing the damage.

But 30 minutes later, while warming himself in the clubhouse, Palmer found he still had a chance. Miller Barber had won the tournament handsomely by five strokes, but now Gay Brewer, who was finishing with a rush, had a 16-foot putt on 18 that could earn him second place. If he made the putt Jack would finish third, and Palmer would be leading money winner. If he missed, Jack would be tied for second, and be the leading money winner by $81.13. Brewer walked over to Nicklaus, and Jack jokingly slipped a money clip into Brewer's hand. Then Nicklaus turned his back to the green. "It was the first putt I couldn't bring myself to watch since the six-footer Palmer missed that would have beaten me in the 1962 Open," said Jack later. The putt stopped short, and Nicklaus breathed again. Thanks to a trip to Lafayette, he was leading money winner of 1964, with a total of $113,284.50.

"This is the eighth time I have finished second this year," said Nicklaus, "but it is the first time in my life I felt happy about it."

Nobody noticed, but Miller Barber was pretty happy, too. He had just won his first official tournament—which put him in 36th place on the money list. Palmer and Nicklaus may not return to Lafayette, but you will never convince Miller Barber that the Cajun Classic isn't a great golf tournament.


PHOTOJAMES DRAKEJack has a winner's air as he thrusts his club at his caddie after sinking a putt for an eagle. PHOTOChilled Arnie scowls from beneath his seersucker hat as his icy putter lets him down. PHOTOChagrined Arnie watches a blooped explosion shot during his unprecedented string of bogeys on Saturday. The ball barely cleared the lip of the bunker, and stopped dead in heavy grass PHOTOGolf's biggest winner downs four dozen oysters in his preparation for downing Palmer.