The Grand Slam almost went slumbering with the abalone in Carmel Bay last week, or soaring with the winds above it, or hiding with the wildlife in the forests beside it. But the right man was on call all along and Jack Nicklaus kept a personal rendezvous by winning the prettiest—and in some ways the most important—U.S. Open Championship ever played. On the toughest course there ever was, he beat the best there are, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino, plus a few of the usual lurkers who would have had to wire their sixth-grade English teachers for a suitable quote had they finished first. He won when he simply had to win, he won spectacularly and he won at Pebble Beach, a golf course which on this particular week was as mind swerving as the serpentine 17-Mile Drive that leads to it.
Pebble Beach, in fact, almost played too great a role. For a while it appeared that the winner wasn't going to be a man, but the course. Pebble—good old monstrous Pebble, Double-Bogey-by-the-Sea-Pebble—won every battle, one-on-one, even with Nicklaus. It was absolutely the ruggedest course of recent years for all four rounds, and the scores that it wrought in the 72nd Open from the very best players in the world more closely resembled those out of the early 1900s, when men used hickory shafts and swung in tweed coats, than anything in this broad-belt era.
Was that George Archer shooting 87 or Horace Rawlins? Was that Frank Beard shooting 85 or Old Tom Morris? Who are those guys? Where are we?
On the last day, Sunday, when a ripping wind produced the ultimate horrors, only Nicklaus could summon the patience and the game to cope with the place. It seemed he had saved his best golf for the final round, when the course and the elements almost eliminated golfing skills in more normal men. And while that closing 74 of his for the funny old total of 290 will not look so dazzling in the record books one day, it should be stated here and now that under the circumstances it was as brilliant as any man ever shot.
June 25, 1972
Par is what the course and the weather dictate, to borrow from our Scottish ancestors, and the truth of the matter is that par at Pebble Beach on Open Sunday was 76.6. That was the average score of the 20 low finishers in the championship, of the men who were even remotely in contention. And of the actual nine men Nicklaus had to beat, or all of those within five strokes of him after three days, his 74 was the best.
All this came from the player who had already won the Masters and was supposed to win the Open in his quest for a modern Slam, taking the Big Four all in one year. This was step two in what his old Columbus, Ohio pals, who follow him around as faithfully as other Columbus citizens dog the OSU football team, have begun calling the Fan Slam, meaning they get to go to all these places like Augusta, Pebble Beach and now Muirfield in Scotland for the British Open and Detroit for the PGA, and rent all these hotel rooms and houses and buy up all the good beef in town.
Jack, as is his habit these days, got a lot of history on the record at Pebble. It was his third Open title, but more important it was his 13th major championship, tying him with Bobby Jones. Here we go counting them one more time: three U.S. Opens, four Masters, two British Opens, two PGAs and two U.S. Amateurs. In his two championships this year, the Masters and Open, he has led or shared the lead in every round. Nobody ever did that.
Does this then mean that Jack Nicklaus not only is going to accomplish the Slam but do so by leading every single round of all four championships? Well, no achievement seems beyond his grasp. He was immensely ready for Pebble Beach, and even though golf is such a delicate game and the odds of winning are so overpowering against one human being out there, Jack accomplished exactly what he set out to do.
Before Sunday, however, some wondered whether he had not been propped up by fate for a dismal disappointment. He had shared the lead on Thursday with five other players who no longer mattered. He had shared the halfway lead with Kermit Zarley (one of the five) and four new guys. He had emerged with a tiny lead of one stroke by Saturday night but there were a lot of people near him. For glamour, there were Trevino and Palmer, and for nuisance value there were Bruce Crampton and Zarley.
No one actually expected Zarley to win; he never has won much. And pitifully few hoped Crampton would win, for he carries, rightly or wrongly, the reputation of a grump despite his fine style and the money he has won. As one competitor joked about poor Bruce, "He's only done three things wrong in his life. Get born, come to America—and stay."
Obviously, the press and most of the fans were rooting for either Nicklaus, Trevino or Palmer, so everyone could call this the greatest Open ever played, which it was close to being. Sunday's pairings, strictly luck, put Lee in with Jack, which meant that Nicklaus was in a spot to be voodooed again by Trevino, who had whipped him at Merion last year in a classic head-to-head playoff. That was the day Trevino pulled out the toy snake and practically talked Jack out of the title, or so it seemed. And Lee was joking again at Pebble all week, even though he was in ill health for real, recovering from near pneumonia.
"The Bear thinks my pneumonia is a trick," Trevino laughed. Did Jack? Somebody asked him Sunday morning, "You think Trevino might throw a rubber bronchitis at you today?"
Nicklaus smiled. And with the confidence that only he has, he said quietly, "The only thing I'm going to throw at these guys today is my golf game."
No tricks worked for Trevino, although on the practice tee he tried, nevertheless. He kept hollering at Palmer, "Is your airline on strike? Your pilot told me he was tired of being hijacked to Tijuana."
And when Nicklaus came out to hit a few balls before the final round right next to Lee, the defending champion immediately started intentionally topping three-woods, trick shot style.
"Look at that," Trevino chirped. "I can't get 'em up, Jack."
Nicklaus did giggle appreciatively, but he was not to be too distracted from the thing he had come to the Monterey Peninsula a week early to do. Like win.
For a while on Sunday, it looked as if it might be laughingly easy. Very quickly, everybody started making bogeys and double bogeys. And when Nicklaus made his only really long putt of the week at the 7th green on Sunday, a 25-footer for a birdie, he' was even par and two strokes ahead of the field.
One of the reasons Nicklaus was up there at that point was that he had managed to avoid the quick catastrophe, the double bogey, even the triple bogey, or albatross, throughout. A man like Homero Blancas, for example, would have been up there, too, if it hadn't been for such things. Blancas made more birdies than anybody, even Nicklaus, but for the 72 holes of the championship Homero could look back on just four holes and see nine whopping strokes lost to par. He made three double bogeys and one triple, and wound up only five shots back of Nicklaus.
But now it was Jack's turn. Suddenly, midway in the last round, Pebble Beach finally and brutally got to him. A gust of wind lashed at him as he drove from the 10th tee, now with a four-stroke lead, and there went the ball, the Open, the Grand Slam, all the preparation soaring out to sea—or so it seemed. There Jack stood in wind-whipped splendor, exposed as mortal. He dropped another ball, mortal fashion, and fired his next shot. It was gale-tossed and oceanward again, ending up on the edge of a cliff, but playable. He went to fetch it, and at this point Pebble Beach had backed him to the sea. It added up to a double bogey. Palmer had a chance if a putt would drop. And Crampton was hanging in there. Even Trevino could rally.
It was then at the 12th hole, a par-3, that Nicklaus demonstrated his relentless courage. He hit what he thought was a perfect three-iron right at the flag. It struck the green 10 feet in front of the hole but simply zoomed past it, and then bore relentlessly down a steep slope and out of sight in thick ground cover.
As Jack walked onto the 12th green, he scowled at P. J. Boatwright Jr., the USGA's executive director who was refereeing, and said, "What'd you do with all the grass?"
Nicklaus was referring to the fact that on top of everything else that makes Pebble Beach so dangerous, the USGA, for the final round, had seen fit to roll and triple-cut the small, wind-dried greens, making them next-to-impossible to hold or putt.
Later Jack would say, "I went to bed Saturday night thinking I had to shoot at least 70 to win. But this morning when I saw the first green and the wind, I knew it would be a tough son of a gun and I'd have to have patience."
Nicklaus found his ball in a dreadful lie on the 12th. He gouged at it, moving it slightly up the hill. He gouged again and sent it eight feet past the cup. That left him with a super character-builder, as they call it, to avoid another double bogey that might destroy his confidence totally. And although he could not know it, he was in danger of losing his lead altogether. At this moment two holes ahead, Palmer was lining up a makeable birdie putt which, combined with a Nicklaus miss on 12, would put Arnold a stroke ahead. As Palmer said later: "It certainly would have given me a more personal interest in the Open."
Indeed, this had been an extraordinary Open for Palmer. He began it with three straight bogeys and a 77, but exploded back into contention on Friday with a magnificent 68, a score nobody bettered in the tournament. A 73 on Saturday kept him two strokes behind Nicklaus.
For a while on Sunday it seemed possible that Palmer might catch his old rival. On the 1st hole, to shouts of "Go Arnie," he hit his approach seven feet from the flag. Thunderous cheers. Then he left the putt short. Short. Thunderous groan. He missed another birdie putt on two, but rolled in a 40-footer on the third, which put him just one stroke back. After that it was a struggle—he made no more birdies and finished with a 76—but then everyone was struggling out there, Nicklaus included, so that if Palmer could just sink his birdie putt on the 14th.... It didn't happen. Palmer missed. And Nicklaus did not miss.
If this single pressure stroke did not wrap up the championship for Nicklaus, then his classic one-iron to the 17th green most certainly did. Here is one of the killer par-3s in the whole world, and here was Nicklaus needing a safe par Nothing more. Just a par.
He stood there for a moment, trying to stare down the wind, Bobby Jones, the Open, the Slam and none other than Bruce Crampton, who was still lurking. And then he hit a shot that made him look like a fighter who didn't want to win on points; he wanted a knockout. He hit the damnedest one-iron in history and nearly made a hole in one as the ball screamed into the gale, cleared the ghastly bunker fronting the green, crashed down right at the flagstick and simply sat there, two inches from the cup—and two championships away from what could be one of the most astounding accomplishments in the annals of game playing. So ended Jack Nicklaus vs. Pebble Beach. Crampton finished second at 293, Palmer third at 294. Trevino and Blancas had 295s.
In addition to the course, there were other hazards at Pebble during Open week. One was a thing called the 17-Mile Drive cocktail party. At various points along the Drive, there were affairs going on in private homes bordering the course. Some of them began at midmorning and when contestants stood over putts that demanded a certain concentration here would come—out of the woods—the cackling, clinking sounds of Bloody Marys being poured into the minds of the peninsula's mindless. One could only assume the parties were being given by tennis or horseback riding fans. They were no fans of golf.
Then there was the wildlife. On the very first day a spectator got trampled by a frightened deer at the 2nd hole. The graceful animal leaped out of the woods, took fright at the sight of people, if not the USGA rough, whirled and pranced right over a poor man. It is said the deer in his confusion did a little dance step on the man's head and then found his way back into the trees. The man was not seriously hurt.
Overall, Pebble Beach as an Open venue combined two atmospheres. There on the sea with the wind and changing weather and the high rough, it had much the character of the British Open. But at the same time, being so close to Carmel's Dutch doors and overquaint restaurants and bars and galleries, there was a sense of a championship being staged at a rich man's Disney World.
At the course itself, the Del Monte Lodge had a stately look, one that it never has during the Crosby. There were candy-striped tents and little white picket fences sealing off the insiders—the committeemen, contestants, press and sponsors—from the hordes. The USGA must have loved Pebble for a number of reasons. Not many Opens have been held where the committee people could stroll out their front doors and see the 18th fairway by an ocean; and where, also, they could take a short drive and play golf themselves at Cypress Point or Spyglass Hill.
For all of the setting's advantages, though, Pebble Beach turned out to be a not-so-wonderful place at which to watch a championship. By the very nature of its design, Pebble Beach is fine for TV—two dozen well-placed cameras can cover virtually the whole course—but a pretty awful spot for spectators. No fewer than 12 holes could be galleried only on one side of the fairway because of oceans and private homes and such things. Also, because Pebble's greens for the most part are slightly elevated, only the first arrivals behind the ropes could see the roll of a putt. Next time—and there will certainly be more Opens at Pebble Beach—the USGA will probably relent and erect bleachers around the course so that everyone can better view all of those double bogeys and albatrosses.
There were specific reasons for some of the funniest scores ever posted in a major championship. The four basic ones were water, sand, grass and wind. Water, or rather the Pacific Ocean, was a factor on seven holes—the 6th through the 10th and then the 17th and 18th. Sand and the rough and the wind were factors on all 18.
The reason sand was such a problem is that the USGA filled the bunkers with loads of the stuff from Monterey beaches and then fluffed it all up. Shots dropping down into the bunkers plugged in. It was a miracle when anybody was able to get down from a trap in two.
The rough was not the most brutal the pros have ever encountered in an Open, but it might have been the toughest since Olympic back in 1955, again in northern California, where the grass in the rough is thick and lends to "cover" the ball. What the USGA did for—or against—Pebble Beach was take away a lot of driving areas the pros had been used to in the Crosby, forcing them to be more accurate.
Then there was the wind. It never blew wildly, as it sometimes does on, say, one day of the Crosby each year, but it swirled consistently throughout the four days—and from a totally different direction than in January. What this did was make Pebble a new course to the pros. For example, the Open wind helped on the rugged water holes, Pebble's own Amen Corner of the 8th, 9th and 10th, except for that odd moment Nicklaus suffered through on Sunday, but it hurt on the inland "coming home" holes of the 13th through the 16th.
The primary example was the 555-yard par-5 14th, normally a birdie hole during the Crosby. It was a monster at the Open. A double dogleg to the right with a roguishly bunkered green and a tee shot into the wind, it became not only a nonbirdie hole but practically a nonpar hole. Any pro who hit a Crosby-type tee shot would have needed two slashing sand wedges just to get back to the fairway.
All of these things turned Pebble Beach's back nine into the orneriest challenge most of the pros had ever seen. Their scoring reflected the fact. Players of high reputation were absolutely embarrassed. There were more nines in the 40s than there were in the 30s.
A book of case histories could be written about Pebble's atrocities that would make Edgar Allan Poe read like Nancy Drew. There were men who made birdies on Thursday around the early holes and got on the leader board and even held the lead who didn't make the 36-hole cut—because of the back side.
In the first round, Bunky Henry was one under par through four holes but finished the day 16 over with an 88. Frank Beard—a steady, tested player, right?—cooled Pebble in a swift 85-80. Archer's 87 was mind-boggling. And on and on it went, reducing touring pros to weekend hackers.
If all of this is a way of saying Pebble Beach was the real star of the Open, that's true. After all, only 10 men broke 300. Considering that Merion is maybe too short and Pine Valley is too tormentingly special, Pebble Beach might have proved that when it is in good condition, as it was for the Open, it is America's greatest championship test.
And it no doubt is a bit arrogant to say so, but Pebble did separate the ordinaries from the absolute best players there are today in both name and pocketbook. Isn't that what a superb course and a big championship are supposed to do?
Now the burden grows for Jack Nicklaus. He goes next to Scotland, amid more pressure, more talk of the Slam, more intense preparation. Another rendezvous with who knows what. When it was all over at Pebble Beach Sunday night, it was left to that noble ex-king, Arnold Palmer, to say best what lies ahead for Nicklaus. "From now on," said Arnold, "he's going to have trouble even breathing."