They are willing enough to duel, but one of them always forgets to bring a sword. It may be surprising, but that is the most accurate way to describe the often baffling rivalry between professional golf's two dominant figures, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus (see cover). There is no disputing that this pair is solidly entrenched at the very top. Nor is there any arguing that Arnold, with his aggressive boldness, and Jack, with his crushing power, have provided a fierce competitive ingredient not seen in golf since the Hogan-Snead struggles of more than a decade ago. But when reduced to its most dramatic moments, the epic competition between the two seems to thrive on expectation instead of actuality. Palmer and Nicklaus have played in 11 major championships since Nicklaus became a touring pro in 1962. Between them, they have won six of these. Yet in only one, the 1962 U.S. Open, where Nicklaus defeated Palmer in a playoff, have the two had a genuine head-to-head fight. At other times, in the intense setting of a big tournament, their games have not jelled simultaneously. While one marched to victory, the other was apt to be finishing 32nd (Nicklaus in the 1962 British Open) or 40th (Palmer in the '63 PGA) or second but a hopeless six strokes back (Nicklaus in the '64 Masters).
But now, for some noteworthy reasons, this drama drought is likely to end, very possibly in next week's Masters. First, this looks like a Masters that almost nobody else can win. U.S. Open Champion Ken Venturi says only six golfers have a chance. The advantage that the Augusta National course gives long hitters always limits the likely winners, and this year the erratic performances of some of those who do have the shots for Augusta reduces the list of favorites even further. Second, Nicklaus and Palmer have both drastically altered their methods of preparing for Augusta, and have changed in the same way. If using similar plans produces similar results, the two will duel at last.
Why are the men who finished 1-2 last year changing their Masters preparations?
"I have been too eager in the past," says Nicklaus. Last year he spent two months modifying his game to suit the Masters course, and he got himself so emotionally wound up that when he finished a distant second he went into a state of competitive paralysis that lasted for months. This year Nicklaus' approach is completely casual.
"I have been too tired in the past," says Palmer. Last year he played much of the winter tour and when the time came to get ready for Augusta he felt wrung out. This year he has ducked many of the winter tournaments. He feels rested and says his desire to practice and compete has never been greater. "I am looking at the Masters as the opening of the serious golf season," he says, and the key word is opening. "In getting my game in shape for the Masters, I am also getting it in shape for the whole summer, because to score at Augusta you have to be hitting every shot pretty well. I have been working gradually since about the first of the year, but in the last three or four weeks I have really started to concentrate, especially on my irons."
At the competitive level where Palmer must survive, good golf shots are only half the story. To perform well in the big events a golfer must also be ready for four days of intense mental and emotional strain. Palmer excels at this. "I have come to feel that the mental preparation is just about as important as the physical work," he says. "In the weeks before Augusta I start thinking about the shots I might have to play there, planning them in my mind under all conditions. I consider all the adverse things that could happen and all the good things, so that when they happen suddenly, as they inevitably do, I will be ready for them."
Not since 1959 has Palmer come into a Masters with a worse winter record and never has he played so little (five tournaments). But nonetheless he expects to be better than ever.
Jack Nicklaus' philosophy this winter has been to worry about the Masters later. In the past he worked on such things as hooking tee shots, even to the extent of hitting hooks in tournaments where a fade was actually more suitable. Last year his unsuccessful all-out attempt to become the first man to win two Masters in a row left him unsettled for the entire summer. "I can't complain about how the year worked out," says Jack, "but it was more luck than skill that let me score well. I tried as hard as I could, but after Augusta I just could not get my desire back. This year I have been concentrating on the tournament I am playing in. I will think about the Masters at Masters time. The week after that I will be thinking about the Houston Classic. Maybe this way I'll at least be someone my family can live with."
Nicklaus has played extraordinarily so far this season, even though he has yet to win. In his 25 tournament rounds he has been over par only three times, and he has not finished worse than eighth. He has not been hitting his woods too accurately, but his chipping and sand play have been very good. "Best of all," he says, "my putting has improved. I have completely changed my style. I am using the technique that George Low [SI, July 6] taught me last year. I open the face of the putter on the backswing, and then close it going through the ball."
So Nicklaus feels he is ready with a sound game and a new attitude, but it will be interesting to see if he can manage to stand on the first tee at Augusta and convince himself that the Masters is only a classy version of the Nuthin' Open.
Palmer and Nicklaus do, of course, have to contend with more than each other at Augusta, and their strongest challenges are likely to come from the six golfers at right. For various reasons, some other seemingly strong contenders must be given little chance. Bobby Nichols and Mason Rudolph seem too far off form. Ken Venturi is still hampered with a circulatory ailment, and Chi Chi Rodriguez must wear a leather brace on his right thumb. Julius Boros, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan no longer putt skillfully enough to handle Augusta's immense greens.
Thus, if Arnold and Jack are to engage in a long-awaited shot-by-shot battle, they will have few opportunities better than next week's. Palmer is prepared to set the pace and play against the course. Jack—up to a point—is more likely to play against Palmer.
"If you start worrying about other individuals, you forget that your prime purpose is to win," says Arnold. "What I try to shoot is a score that I think no one else—Jack or Gary or whoever—can beat. If the weather is good, four 68s is the figure to aim at."
"My first concern is to win, of course," says Nicklaus, "but I also try awfully hard to beat Arnold. If he finishes 50th in a tournament, then I darn sure want to finish at least 49th."
The odds are that to beat Palmer, who has proved himself to be the master of the Masters, Jack Nicklaus will have to finish better than second.