The 53rd PGA Championship belonged to Jack Nicklaus from the moment it was scheduled on a tough but dreary sort of course down off the turnpike near his Florida home. Who else but Nicklaus could have ignored the constantly annoying wind and even overpowered it? Who else knew that most of the putts broke toward the turnpike? Who else had his major adversary, Gary Player, staying in the guest room so he could keep an eye on him? And, anyhow, who else is the greatest golfer of our age and should have won?
One of the interesting things about the way Nicklaus goes about this these days—things like winning another major title in his historical jog through the record books—is that he seems to take the shape of the real Jack Nicklaus only at the big events, like last week's.
If one had made book on who was ready and who was not for the championship at the PGA National Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Nicklaus would have been among those who could not possibly have been ready. There had been seven tournaments on the calendar in 1971. Jack had appeared in only three, and he had played decently in only one.
Although he certainly was familiar with what the playing conditions of the area would be—the wind and slow greens—and although he lived only 10 minutes away, there was also the fact that Nicklaus had not practiced at all on the championship course until less than a week before the PGA began. Well, who would choose to play Palm Beach Gardens when he could play Seminole, or Pine Tree, or some of the better layouts around—or go fishing?
March 8, 1971
The fact of the matter is that Nicklaus, having been so successful already in his chosen field at so young an age, has nothing much to get up for now except the big ones. When he's ready, when he's relaxed and emotionally right, there's nothing much anyone else can do about it. It was that way with Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan, and perhaps one or two others. Last week he was ready. His game was not especially sharp, but his concentration was rigid, his desire immense and the surroundings familiar. The combination was unbeatable.
Technically, it started being unbeatable in Thursday's first round when Jack had an atrocious afternoon of shotmaking and still took the lead in the tournament, when he turned what easily might have been a 76 into a 69 by staying within himself, keeping his confidence and knowing the greens. When he one-putted eight of the last 10 holes of that round, it was a signal that it had to be Jack's week. He had the turnpike touch. Now that he had scored well on a bad day, what would he do if he played well?
He would never lose the lead again, that's what. His second-round 69 and third-round 70 put him four strokes ahead of everybody on a course that was too long and windy to relinquish many scorching scores. Jack's problem on the last day, Sunday, was only to keep from giving away the championship, as Arnold Palmer had once given away the U.S. Open and as Billy Casper had lost his grip on the Masters a couple of years ago.
"I've been pointing to this with the way I've conducted my life," Jack said later. "I worked on my game at home instead of on the tour, and I relaxed a lot. You build up a mental attitude about a major championship. Mine was good. It wasn't important that I played the course a lot, because I knew the course.
"I felt like it was my tournament all along after Thursday," he added. "I wanted to avoid only one thing. I didn't want to have to make a 4 at 18 on Sunday to win it. That's a hard hole."
A few guys crept into the act when Jack started off badly in the last round. It wasn't that he played badly—"I wasn't getting the results on some shots into the wind that I'd been getting," he explained—but he bogeyed three of the first five holes. This allowed for some mild drama in the closing hour. Out of nowhere came people like Player, who was a very real threat on Sunday until he ran into a string of misfortune; Gibby Gilbert, who stayed surprisingly close; the 52-year-old Tommy Bolt, who closed with successive 69s; and, ultimately, Casper, who was playing in Florida for the first time in two years (he doesn't like the pesticides). Casper made a couple of 30-foot putts, blew a couple of short ones and then closed with good birdies on 17 and 18, where he danced an uncharacteristic jig when his long putt dropped. Lo and behold, there was Casper with a 68 and a five-under total of 283. Nicklaus, six under, was only a stroke ahead as he drove on the 17th.
By that time, everyone else was out of it—chiefly Player, who struck a terrible drive at the 15th hole that bounced on a cart path and over a fence. Out of bounds, out of contention. Just like that.
"I hadn't thought of Casper all day," Nicklaus said. "Now I'm on the 17th with a one-shot lead. If I don't birdie the 17th, I'm in exactly the situation I don't want to be in. I'll have to make 4 on 18 to win."
Nicklaus played the long 17th with a spoon off the tee ("If I'd known about Casper's birdie at 18 in time, I'd have used a driver"), a one-iron perfectly down the middle and a wedge to the green, about five feet from the cup.
"When you point for something so long, you want it to end up sweet," Jack said. "The birdie putt on 17, I felt, was it. I said to myself, 'Work hard on this one and you've got it.' "
He waited, concentrated and rammed it in. Now he could afford the luxury of driving off the long 18th with a one-iron to avoid a water hazard. Nicklaus, in fact, is about the only guy anywhere who could have driven off 18 into that wind with a one-iron and still have been able to get near the green with a succeeding two-iron. Earlier, he had used a one-iron into the wind on the 232-yard, par-3 11th and had driven the green. Actually, he went off the left edge of it and ended up with a bogey 4, but the point is he drove it with an iron. On that same hole Billy Casper used a driver "in an attempt to reach the green and later said, "It was the hardest drive I ever hit in my life."
What Nicklaus was doing on 18 was playing for a cinch bogey and a possible par, since the birdie on 17 had given him the cushion he wanted. So he made a par anyhow, with a nice chip and a short putt. This gave him a closing 73, a two-stroke edge on Casper and victory with a seven-under-par 281.
It was his second PGA title, of course, but it was more than that. It was his 11th major championship when you total it up: two U.S. Opens, three Masters, two British Opens, two U.S. Amateurs and now two PGAs. And he is still only 31 years old. Walter Hagen won as many major titles, but of all the fine golfers in the game's history only Bobby Jones (with 13) has won more.
"I'll be honest about it," said Jack. "I want to win more than Jones. That's what you play for, to separate yourself from the crowd."
Because by Sunday things had narrowed down to what looked for a time like a two-man show between Nicklaus and his house guest, there was naturally a lot of speculation about how the two of them would spend Saturday evening. You know. Would Gary and Jack watch Lawrence Welk, go moonlight swimming, play gin, or what?
Nothing quite so fascinating took place. Player didn't even stay home. He chartered a plane and flew to Miami for dinner with some business associates. Jack cooked steaks for some visitors, the Deane Bemans and a neighboring couple who dropped by. Nicklaus was just beginning to yawn when Gary came back from Miami about 10. They would both have gone to bed then if Mannix, one of their favorite TV shows, hadn't come on. So they stayed up an extra hour watching Mannix, who was saved this time by a bullet-proof pane of glass, and then went to bed.
"The only thing I'm going to be sure of in the morning," Player said, "is that I switch plates with Jack when Barbara serves breakfast. I'm the only one near him, I might get poisoned."
That was a good joke of course, but there were others, like their act the following morning. On Sunday, Player and Nicklaus entered the locker room separately, about a moment apart, as if they were strangers. But since they lockered about five feet from one another, the opportunity was perfect for the kind of exchange that columnists for afternoon papers dearly love, and Jack and Gary made the most of it.
"Gary will answer any of my questions," Jack said, sitting there in his bright yellow shirt, glowing with color next to Player, who was back in his warlike black instead of the lively stripes he had worn on Saturday.
Someone dutifully asked Gary what they had enjoyed for breakfast in the Nicklaus household.
"It doesn't matter," said Jack. "He puts catsup on everything, anyhow."
"Barbara's getting a complex," Nicklaus went on. "She gives him a cheese omelet, he pours catsup all over it. She cooks him a steak, he pours catsup all over it. A couple of fried eggs, catsup all over it."
Player broke in. "So would you if you had a catsup contract."
Room-filling laughter all around.
"I didn't know you had a catsup contract," said Jack.
"I will when these fellows get through writing about it," Player said.
Back breaking laughter.
There were jokes earlier in the week about the course or, at any rate, its location. The PGA National Golf Club is way out there in the middle of nowhere, surrounded by vast reaches of nothing much except an occasional condominium or signboard. From a distance the clubhouse looks like the world's largest roof—it is a dark kind of blue-green and hovers over a massive structure of faded, just-missed pink. The place lacks charm and scenery, and the championship was scheduled there at this time of year only because of a clause in the contract between the PGA and John D. MacArthur, owner of the property and practically the owner of the PGA itself. MacArthur wanted the championship to be played at the course sometime and since hot old Florida certainly couldn't be the site in July or August, traditional time for the PGA, February was elected. Next year the tournament will go back to the old date—and back to clubs with more history and charm. Not to harp too much on the subject, the Palm Beach course was a good, tough test of golf without providing true championship atmosphere or flavor or style.
None of this was very important to persons who wanted only to watch good golf. There was plenty of that, and not just where Nicklaus was. It was all around, way out there in the distance where the course disappeared into a curious blend of emptiness and wind. Bob Murphy, for instance, jolted the place with five birdies in a row on Friday, despite a fever and sore throat.
The other minor characters in the week's drama, the Palmers and Players and Gilberts and Bolts, shot scores that everybody thought would be good enough to make them serious challengers. The course was demanding, and a round of 72 was considered just fine. As a matter of fact, without Nicklaus' strong performance, the championship would have been a dazzling race and probably shot through with suspense. Anything could have happened—Palmer made some moves once he got rid of his habit of missing six-inch putts which he did twice. "And I had both hands on the putter, too," Palmer said. "Both times."
And so what if the course wasn't classy enough? The championship is. Winning it means Jack Nicklaus is the only man in the world with a chance to take all four major championships this year—the PGA now, the Masters at Augusta in April the Open at Merion in June, the British Open at Royal Birkdale in July. Certainly, conditions are right. Nicklaus holds the Masters record with 271, once shot a 269 at Merion in a World Amateur Team Championship and has won two British Opens already. And don't assume the thought is not in his mind. "I can't wait to get to Augusta," he said last Sunday.