Trying to pick the winner of a golf tournament is about as easy as finding the vermouth in the martini of a suburban housewife. Week to week on the PGA tour there must be at least 100 players capable of outscoring each other. For instance, who in the office pool had the gray-haired club pro Paul Harney at San Diego? Who had Bob Rosburg, with the baseball grip and the 11-year drought, at the Hope? Who had Grier Jones in Hawaii? Who had Jerry Heard in the Citrus? Who is Jerry Heard, anyhow? And though a lot of people pick Jeanne Weiskopf every week, how many seriously went for Tom in the Gleason at Fort Lauderdale? The answer to all these questions is a knowing, agreeable sigh. There are times, however, when a prediction seems somehow possible, whether it eventually comes true or not. And one of these occasions is upon us: Masters week. While there is a body of evidence that the Masters has become as hard to forecast as any other tournament, that evidence being the past five winners—Charles Coody, Billy Casper, George Archer, Bob Goalby and Gay Brewer—this has nothing to do with telling whoever will listen who ought to win.
Who ought to win every year, of course, is Jack Nicklaus. Who used to ought to win every year was Arnold Palmer. And who nearly ought to win every year was, and still is, Gary Player.
The reason Jack Nicklaus is supposed to win the Masters each April is because his game is particularly suited to the Augusta National course, a place of unlevel lies. Downhills, uphills, sidehills and such. At least it is for the normal human being. Nicklaus, however, can hit the tee shot far enough down into the valleys and up onto the plateaus that he can avoid many of the tilts and slants. This means his second shots are far easier to handle.
Also, Nicklaus' strength combined with the accuracy that has helped him become golf's alltime leading money winner has a tendency to make Augusta's par-5 holes more like long par-4s. There are four of them, the 2nd, 8th, 13th and 15th. Unless there happens to be a gale, or the course is soggy, Nicklaus can usually reach all four holes with his second shot, turning them into likely birdies and turning the course into a par 68—for him. At least it would seem to be a par 68. That he has birdied these par-5s only half the time since he last won the Masters suggests that they still present something of a challenge.
Beyond this apparent advantage, there is Nicklaus' competitive drive. Not since Ben Hogan has there been a golfer so consumed with winning major championships. He wants to win more big ones than Bobby Jones did, which means at least 14. To date, he has 11—three Masters, two U.S. Opens, two British Opens, two PGAs and two U.S. Amateurs.
It is appalling to consider how easily Nicklaus might already have reached his quota. Take last season. After he began the year by winning the PGA Championship, and leveled his sights on another modest project—taking the modern Grand Slam, or all four big ones in the same calendar year—he finished second in the Masters, second in the U.S. Open and fourth in the British Open.
In two of the last three he looked like a winner. In each case he was certain he would win. His game had been primed and polished for those events, and his attitude and concentration were perfect. Somehow, nevertheless, he lost. And, ironically, he lost on the very holes where he was expected to win, the par-5s.
Over the final nine holes at the Masters Nicklaus could have tied Coody with birdies at 13 and 15, which he reached in two that Sunday with four-irons. What would the odds be on Jack hitting a four-iron to a par-5 and not getting a birdie? Twice?
Then came the U.S. Open at Merion and the playoff with Lee Trevino. The par-5 that got him there was the 2nd hole. After taking a one-stroke lead on the 1st hole, he smashed a good drive, but he hit his second into a bunker and then left the third shot in there for a bogey. He was so stunned he promptly double-bogeyed the next hole, a par-3, Trevino. perhaps the best of the head-to-head competitors, was not about to let Nicklaus up, psychologically or any other way after that.
"He's the greatest player in the world," Trevino has said. "But I always like my chances one-on-one."
Nicklaus found his trouble in the British Open early, the first day at Birkdale, when he had a good chance to take a two-stroke lead on the field. He was tied for first with two holes to play, both of them birdie holes—eagle holes, almost, depending on the wind—for Nicklaus. He bogeyed them both, hurling himself back into the heap and killing his confidence for the week.
Losing a tournament that one wants badly to win, and thinks he is winning, is not the most fun thing in an athlete's life. But another of Jack Nicklaus' weapons is his reaction to disappointment. Buoyed by youth and ability, and honestly gracious, he somehow seems able to laugh, even when he loses, because he knows that he has another time coming.
Recently Nicklaus was asked what it feels like to hear constantly that he is the best player in the world.
"If I believed it, I wouldn't be able to achieve anything," he said. "I don't think I'm the golfer yet that I'm capable of becoming. If I ever do win more major championships than Bobby Jones, I don't think I'll be satisfied with myself if I know I have more competitive years ahead of me. I'll know I still have room for improvement."
What if he were able to win the Masters, U.S. and British Opens and the PGA all in the same year?
"That's obviously one of my goals but it's a pretty high one," he says. "I think it's possible, and not just for me but for a lot of players. But I also think it's improbable. Some of us have come close. I suppose I came close last year. All I know is this. If I happened to do it now or next year or anytime in the immediate future, I wouldn't say O.K., that's it, and quit. I'd think up something else for a goal. Everybody wants to be the best. And there's nothing wrong with trying."
There could hardly be a better year for Jack to try for the Slam than 1972. The courses must look tempting to him. Augusta, where he's won three times. The U.S. Open at Pebble Beach, where he won the Amateur and also this year's Crosby. Muirfield, near Edinburgh, where he won his first British Open in 1966. And Oakland Hills for the PGA. Nicklaus has not won at Oakland Hills, but it is a classic layout where he played well as an amateur in the 1961 Open, finishing fourth.
"It's silly to say I'm going after the Grand Slam," he observes. "What I'm going after is the Masters, the first of the big four. You can only say you're going after the Slam when you've won the first three, and no one has done that. But you're always concentrating and working and thinking, getting your game ready for the major championships."
If Nicklaus' game is not ready for this year's Masters, it has never been. He goes to Augusta as the first man ever to win more than $100,000 so early in the season, as the winner, already, of two tournaments on the tour and nearly the winner of two more, the Gleason and last week's New Orleans Open. He goes with tremendous respect for his main challengers—Palmer, Player, Trevino—and golfers he holds much respect for, like Johnny Miller, Larry Hinson, George Archer, Tony Jacklin, Tom Weiskopf.
"Arnold's a better golfer now than he ever was," says Nicklaus. "He's a better driver and shotmaker. Gary's always a threat in a major tournament because he comes ready and he's a terrific competitor. Trevino's a great player and Archer's very underrated. And guys like Miller and Hinson and Weiskopf have everything it takes. There are lots of others who can win anytime, anywhere. The difference in winning and losing a golf tournament is so thin it's almost foolish."
Nicklaus enjoys his new image, which is that of a man who has taken on the look of a celebrity. His dress is neat yet individualistic, at times even colorfully mod. His hair is long now and golden. And he's trim. As his wife Barbara has said, "He's getting too cute."
With it all, Nicklaus has emerged as friendly, immensely articulate, at times very humorous. In effect, a true statesman of the game.
"Yeah, I like whatever my so-called image is now," he grins. "I guess you could say I like myself better. What was I coming out 10 years ago? A fat kid with a crew cut who beat Arnold when nobody wanted him to lose."
If Jack Nicklaus is ripe to win the Masters, it could be for no better reason than the simple fact that he has not won it for five years. The only man ever to win it back to back, and the man who co-holds the course record (64), and holds the 72-hole record (271), has not taken the Masters since 1966. And that is too long, on his course, with his game, with his desire.
What saves the Masters, as well as the sport itself, are all of those Charlie Coodys who are waiting to pounce when Nicklaus mysteriously fails. For like Jones and Hogan and Palmer, Jack Nicklaus has finally arrived at a point in history when his losing makes almost as much news as his winning.
And that, as somebody surely must have said before now, is true fame.