The Bing Crosby National Pro-Amateur, which is normally played in spite of wind, sleet, snow and celebrities, is rarely a placid tournament, but it is not likely ever to produce more melodrama than it did last week, when Jack Nicklaus, out to prove this year that he is the ultimate golfer, won a duel with Bill Casper and Arnold Palmer. His victory came at Pebble Beach on a day that saw each of the three contenders play completely in character. Casper had the lead, but when consistent golf wouldn't hold it, he fell back. Palmer had it, but then, in a Palmeresque moment of boldness, tried to reach the par-5 14th hole in two, and by the flick of a tiny tree branch ended up with a 9. And then Nicklaus, playing behind him, showed that Palmer's debacle hardly mattered in the long run as he birdied five of the last seven holes to finish with a 37-31—68, win the Crosby by five strokes and thus achieve the first of many goals he has set for himself this year.
During the preceding days, it had looked as if the Crosby was being played in shifts. With Casper, Nicklaus and Palmer each attacking a different course on the same day, they considerately took turns staging strange streaks of spectacular golf.
The opening act starred Nicklaus, who cruised confidently over Pebble Beach on Thursday with a three-under-par 69. It was not a breathtaking performance, but more the kind of steamroller golf that one expects from Nicklaus. On Friday, however, he stormed far ahead. With the wind now rising into the 40-knot range, he played almost faultless golf on the inland holes at Cypress Point. He was out in 32, five under par, and by the 14th hole he had built up what may well have been the biggest early lead in Crosby history, for on windswept Pebble Beach and the difficult new course, Spyglass Hill, scores were rising as fast as the barometer was falling. The best estimate was that Nicklaus was eight strokes ahead as he stood on the 15th tee at Cypress.
But this is the hole where Cypress, too, comes to meet the wind and sea. A little downhill par-3 of only 113 yards, it is normally nothing more than a punched wedge or nine-iron for Nicklaus, but since he was headed straight into the teeth of a gale, he elected to use a six-iron. It wasn't enough. He thought he hit the shot well, but the wind caught the ball and dropped it into the bunker in front of the green. He ended up with a double bogey. Now faced with the infamous 16th hole at Cypress, Nicklaus wisely decided to take the safe shortcut to the left rather than risk a 210-yard carry across the roaring surf and into the wind. He chose a three-iron for a shot that would be a nine-iron for him in still air. But again the wind caught the ball, dropping it on the edge of a cliff, from where it fell into the sea. This cost another double bogey. Finally, on 17 his long drive was carried some 50 yards off course by the wind blowing in from the ocean to his right. With the helpof several hundred spectators the ball was eventually located under a nest of cypress trees as thick and grasping as a stygian spider web. Another penalty drop was followed by another double bogey—which meant six strokes lost to par in three consecutive holes and an abrupt halt to the Nicklaus runaway. But thanks to his early birdies, he still had a two-stroke lead on the field.
Overnight, Friday's windstorm became Saturday's williwaw. By noontime only two scores had been turned in—both 87. Nine-hole scores sounded like those from a Tuesday ladies' day. Billy Farrell, an early starter, made the turn at Pebble Beach in 55; the next day he played the whole course in 68. About noon Jack Tuthill, the PGA tournament director, was summoned to Pebble Beach's 7th hole, which is out on a promontory. "When I got there," Tuthill said afterward, "the sand was so thick I couldn't find anyone. I figured if I couldn't see the players it was time to quit." Play was suspended, and it was decided to complete the tournament on Sunday and Monday.
Only Nicklaus was unruffled by the tempest as he played an excellent nine holes through it in 39 at Spyglass Hill, and he was giving evidence of more determination than he has ever shown this early in a season.
"Last year, my game never did get to be as sharp as I would like to have had it," he said that evening. "Although I won the Masters, I had played only four tournaments before it. I was often in a position to win, but I didn't. It just seemed as if I could never catch up after falling behind early in the year. This year I'm planning my schedule a lot differently. I'll be playing three tournaments out here in California and then four more down south before the Masters."
He is also starting this season in his best physical condition ever. "I'm six pounds under my usual weight at this time—210 instead of 216—and I expect to play myself down to less than 200," he said. "I watched my diet during the holidays."
But just when it seemed that lean and hungry Jack would have the Crosby all his own way last week, there suddenly arose a specter to haunt the field. Arnold Palmer.
Not since 1962 had Palmer made quite as spectacular a move as he did on Sunday at Cypress Point. A 74 on Thursday followed by a 75 at Pebble Beach on Friday, where he had gone eight over par on a stretch of oceanside holes, had left him far in the ruck, tied for 33rd and seven strokes behind Nicklaus. A friend came up to Palmer Friday evening with the thought of consoling him and said a seven-stroke margin was not insurmountable, considering the bad weather. "You could wipe it out in three holes," he said. Arnold looked at him and said, "Two holes."
Palmer started his round at Cypress Point Sunday morning with two pars. On the 3rd hole he hit his approach 35 feet from the pin, but as he neared the green he told his amateur partner, Mark McCormack, "I have a feeling I am going to play a great round today."
"You mean starting now?" asked McCormack.
"Well, maybe on the next hole," said Palmer. Moments later, however, he sank the 35-footer for a birdie. On the next hole he hit a seven-iron within three feet of the cup for another birdie. On the 5th he sank a five-footer for a birdie, and then he birdied the 7th with a three-footer—four birdies in five holes. He birdied the 9th and 13th, with a bogey in between, and then at the 14th hit one of those spooky Arnold Palmer shots of yesteryear.
His approach to the 14th was far off line, and it bounced down a sodden bank on the right side of the green. He tried to hit a wedge up the bank, did not catch it quite firmly enough and saw the ball roll right back down the hill again and stop at his feet. With his splendid round now collapsing, he again hit the wedge. This time it flew onto the green—and into the cup for a par-4. After that, it was par the rest of the way for a 67 that put him into a tie with Nicklaus, who had struggled to a 74 at Spyglass, which because of its newness was in poor condition and giving all of the golfers trouble.
But, as if one of those rare head-to-head battles between Palmer and Nicklaus in their very first meeting of the year was not rich fare enough, along came quiet Bill Casper late Sunday afternoon to quietly enter the shoot-off. There was nothing startling about his 72-74 on Thursday and Friday, though they kept him nicely in contention. Nor was there anything tempestuous about his 69 at Pebble Beach on Sunday. It was just another display of his impeccable golf—a drive down the middle, a crisp approach shot to the green and down in two putts, or occasionally one. When he sank a 12-footer at 16 for his fourth birdie of the day, Casper took the tournament lead by a stroke over Palmer and Nicklaus, and he held the lead through 18. Thus the dramatic final round was set up, a situation that evoked thoughts of Palmer vs. Casper in last year's U.S. Open, of Palmer vs. Nicklaus in a season opener that both wanted intensely, of Casper vs. The Big Guys, the two players whose fame andsuccess he has openly resented. When it was all over Monday night and Nicklaus had the $16,000 winner's check, which was not really important to him, and the victory, which was very important, even the jaded touring pros were talking about how this Crosby would be remembered for more than one kind of storm.