For the moment at least, Gary Player has a right to feel he is the best golfer in the world. Last week just outside of London, Player and the only three other golfers with a claim to the title—Jack Nicklaus, Billy Casper and Arnold Palmer—came face to face, and Gary won. Moreover, he won clearly and decisively in golf's most complete test: 36-hole match play. On Friday, Gary beat Palmer 2 and 1 while Nicklaus was beating Casper by the same margin. On Saturday, Gary beat Nicklaus by an overwhelming 6 and 4. Any questions?
The reason for this blue-ribbon showdown was a relatively new event on the golf calendar called the Piccadilly World Match Play Tournament, which has been staged at the Wentworth Golf Club for the last three years. Piccadilly got into the title because that is the brand name of the cigarette company whose ¬£16,000—give or take a few shillings—makes the whole thing possible. Piccadilly's grand design is to invite eight topnotch golfers to compete in a three-day knockout to find out which one will survive. The truth is, of course, that the promoters would have just as soon limited the invitation list to the big four—Player, Nicklaus, Palmer and Casper—but that would have been too obviously a box-office setup. And so, Peter Thomson of Australia, Britishers Neil Coles and Dave Thomas and Argentina's Roberto de Vicenzo were added to the list.
Obviously, the script called for Thomson, Thomas, Coles and De Vicenzo to slip quietly from the scene on Thursday, and for the most part they did. Palmer, Nicklaus and Casper dispatched De Vicenzo, Thomas and Thomson easily enough, but Coles refused to play patsy for Player. Although Gary zipped around in 69 during the morning, Coles had him 1 down. It took another 69 in the afternoon before Player finally finished off Coles on the 36th green.
Now the tournament was ready for the showdown that everyone had been awaiting, and the atmosphere could not have been more prickly if you had had four society matrons at the same ball wearing the same $3,000 dress. None of the remaining four was more determined than Bill Casper, who has smarted for some time in the shadow of the well-publicized Big Three. Week in and week out over the past few years, Casper has been the most subtle, the most deft golfer among U.S. pros. Since starting on the tour in 1955, he has won more money than anyone except Palmer. This June he became the U.S. Open champion for the second time, something none of the Big Three has ever achieved. Yet Casper's workmanlike, unflamboyant manner has never attracted the applause and the excitement that surrounds Nicklaus, Palmer and Player. This year, having won not only the Open but also tens of thousands of dollars more than second-ranking Nicklaus, Casper was nonetheless passed over as one of the two players to represent the U.S. in the Canada Cup matches to be played in Japan in November. The selection was made by the Japanese hosts, but the oversight was still rankling.
And so Casper arrived at "The Dilly," as he called it, with vindication on his mind. Unfortunately for his hopes, he ran into a very good Jack Nicklaus in the semifinal on Friday. After several indifferent weeks on the U.S. tour, Jack's game came together at Wentworth. The only explanation he could give was that "I always play better on courses that are in good condition."
Jack, who is probably as uncomplicated an individual as a superathlete can be, was the only one of the remaining four who did not have something important to prove to himself and the world. On this particular week he was just swinging with youthful abandon, confident that every shot would go directly to its target. Almost every one did. Nicklaus fired a 67 at Casper on Friday morning, not losing a single hole and going to lunch 6 up. In the afternoon, Casper rallied but Nicklaus' lead was too great, Jack winning 2 and 1.
Up ahead of Casper and Nicklaus was a match that had a somewhat less obvious drama of its own. Ever since his apparent victory in the Open at San Francisco evaporated in the closing holes, Arnold Palmer has thought of little else but his own redemption. Where better to achieve it than against Casper, Nicklaus and Player? Passing up recent tournaments in the Far West, Palmer arrived in London with his golf game brightly polished and the remnants of a cold in his head. But a slightly incapacitated Palmer is a dangerous thing.
Player, on the other hand, was brimming with euphoria. He had just finished spending five weeks on his farm in South Africa, which has become the principal preoccupation of his life. "If I had to choose between farming and golf," he said last week, "I wouldn't have to think twice, although I would miss golf." During all those weeks Gary had played only two rounds of golf, but he practiced for a week before the Piccadilly. Then he explained his new philosophy. "You've got to have some interest in life besides golf if you're going to play this game well. The week-to-week strain is just too much. Jack Nicklaus is smart. He has his fishing to get him away from golf for a few weeks. I have my farm." The implication was that Arnold Palmer had no hobby to take his mind off the game.
Good friends that they are, the rivalry between Player and Palmer has been sharpened by the dozens and dozens of matches they have played against one another on TV and in exhibitions throughout the world, and each has discovered the most effective method of needling the other. On top of that Player had by no means forgotten the 8 and 6 licking he took from Palmer in the first Piccadilly two years ago, when Palmer was the tournament's first winner. It caused Player to embark on a strenuous body-building program and abandon his theory that he could compete against Palmer and Nicklaus by driving off the tee with a spoon or a four-wood. Last Friday's match was their first head-to-head meeting in a tournament since Palmer's lopsided victory of 1964.
This time Player had a shiny black driver in his bag and intended to use it. The match was close all morning, each winning four holes, halving the rest and finishing with brilliant 68s. A stickler for golfing niceties, Palmer was a bit nettled when Player teed off first on the afternoon round, since Palmer had won the 18th hole of the morning. He was also a little sick of hearing Player say, as they proceeded from hole to hole, "This is a terrible way to make a living, isn't it." Palmer does not think so.
After a few holes of the second round, Palmer's fine edge began to fade, and Player built a three-hole lead. Palmer cut it back to two at the 33rd, but they were running out of holes. When both men took 6s at the 35th, Palmer was beaten. He had arrived in London full of hope and as much confidence as he dared summon, and now 1966 would have to go down as a year of great frustration and disappointment. "I guess the 'friendly enemies' will have to decide it tomorrow" he said afterward, not without bitterness.
Player and Nicklaus are indeed friendly enemies on the golf course. It is doubtful if two rival athletes anywhere in sport are better friends. If either has to lose at golf, there is no one he would prefer to lose to than the other. And so Saturday's final between these two superlative golfers lacked the abrasive undertones that peppered the previous day. In its place, however, there was an incident that made the front-page headlines of the afternoon papers, had the gallery buzzing and set the press to cluck-clucking with remarks like "Bloody tragedy, that."
It happened on the 9th hole of the morning round with Player 1 up in a very well-played match. Nicklaus hooked his drive into a drainage ditch just in bounds. He consulted with Colonel A. A. Duncan, the referee, and was awarded a penalty drop in the thick gorse adjoining the ditch. Having taken the drop, Nicklaus observed that a large billboard advertising Piccadilly cigarettes was close to his line of play about 50 yards ahead. He again summoned Colonel Duncan, a former Walker Cup captain, who is regarded as the most knowledgeable man on the rules of golf in all of Britain. Jack asked for another drop and when Duncan said no, angry words were exchanged. Duncan asked Nicklaus if he would prefer another referee, and Jack replied that he would. After another shot, Nicklaus conceded the hole to Player to go 2 down. When he reached the 10th tee, he spotted Philip Wilson, the genial advertising executive who runs the tournament for Piccadilly, and requested a substitute referee. Moments later, Wilson located Gerald Micklem, the former chairman of the championship committee of the Royal and Ancient, and Micklem agreed to replace Duncan. Player was so unnerved by all this he hit his next shot off into the rough, but Nicklaus, who was still furious, gritted his teeth and tore off two consecutive birdies to even the match. Soon, however, a streak of wildness overcame Nicklaus' golf, and on the last two holes of the morning round he sliced off the tee as Player built a four-hole lead to take in to lunch with him. As Nicklaus was washing up, Duncan visited him in the locker room, and the two made their peace with a handshake.
In the afternoon round, Player refused to let Nicklaus gain the slightest ground on him. At the 31st hole, with the end drawing near they both suddenly started playing like club members, hitting their balls deep into the woods where the huge gallery could no longer see them. Every now and then peals of laughter emerged from the unseen golfers and those who were helping to find Nicklaus' lost ball, and the gallery wondered, of course, what in the world could be happening back there in the forest. Mostly, the laughter came from the banter of the two players and Gerald Micklem, capped by Gary's advice to Jack that he tee up a ball that Jack found embedded in some mud. It was not Nicklaus' ball, though, and having failed to find it, Jack conceded the hole. When Player birdied the next hole, it was all over. Needless to say, Player was ecstatic. It was his first major victory of the year, but it was over the only players he really cares about beating. "It was by far the best golf I've ever played in my life," Gary explained afterward. "Until now, I thought I would never play as well as I did when I won the U.S. Open [in 1965], but this week I played twice as well. I can't explain it really." What Gary Player had proved, perhaps, is that to prepare for Palmer and Nicklaus there is nothing better than a few weeks down on the farm.