As they walked off the course after the third round of the $250,000 Westchester Classic last Saturday afternoon, Jack Nicklaus patted young Jim Simons on the shoulder. "Try to forget about what happened today," Nicklaus said in a soothing voice. "You're going to discover there will be a lot of days like this on the tour." Then they headed for the locker room—the smiling Nicklaus surrounded by an army of security men, tournament officials, photographers and autograph seekers, while 50 yards behind him the disconsolate Simons shuffled along, his chin down around his knees and with only his caddie for company.
On a day when Nicklaus beat the swirling winds for a two-under-par 70 to take the tournament lead, the 22-year-old Simons, a June graduate of Wake Forest who was playing in only his third tour event as a professional, was paired with the big man and came out a disastrous loser. Tied for third place at the start of play, after superlative rounds of 69 and 66, Simons staggered to a 79 as he suddenly lost his touch in the presence of Nicklaus, much the way he had that last day at Merion a year ago when he led the U.S. Open by two strokes after three rounds but then ballooned to a 76 to finish in a tie for fifth.
"It's all very discouraging," Simons said later. "I guess you'd have to say that the pressure got to me. But believe it or not, I'm not in awe of Nicklaus. I know how good he is. I like to play with him. But I do think I idolize him to a certain extent, and I guess that subconsciously I do press too much when I play with him. What it all comes down to, though, is that my game right now is not yet good enough to win on the tour. Am I depressed? No, not at all. I'm the first to admit that my game is not ready. I've got a lot of work to do."
For three days, or until Nicklaus chased an obscure pro named Dwight Nevil from the lead and then sailed home with the $50,000 first-place check ahead of a late rally by almost-obscure Jim Colbert, Westchester was full of surprises such as Simons. First of all, Billy Casper and Lee Trevino did not even bother to enter the second-richest event on the tour. While Casper claimed that his allergies would Hare up at Westchester, the other pros were saying that Casper had been repeatedly insulted by the galleries a year ago and that he never wanted to go near New York again. Trevino, like most players, was miffed because he could not bring his regular tour caddie with him. So he went fishing instead. Tom Weiskopf went fishing, too, after shooting a 42 on the front nine Thursday and then blaming it all on his caddie. "What do I have here—a caddie?" Weiskopf snarled. "He's a joke!" On one hole the caddie had interrupted Weiskopf to remind him that the wind was blowing from right to left.
Then Arnold Palmer, the defending champion, shanked all kinds of short putts and missed the 36-hole cut by a stroke. "I'm going home for a rest," Palmer said. "I've played in six straight tournaments. I want to take it easy and play a little tennis. Whatever you do, don't tell Jack I'm practicing my tennis." Nicklaus laughed. "That will give us something to do afternoons," he said. Nicklaus has become a tennis nut, and he owns one of the few grass courts in Florida. "Chris Evert calls me all the time and asks if she can use it," Nicklaus said. "Heck, she'd beat me in straight sets."
With Trevino fishing and Palmer flubbing, Nicklaus was the obvious gallery favorite at Westchester, a new situation this year. "Suddenly Jack has gone from the villain to the hero," said Dan Sikes. "I played with him when he won here in 1967, and I think we had a gallery of two every day." The crowds surged around Nicklaus all week, cheering wildly every time he made a shot. "I can't believe it," he said. "Every time I walked after a shot, they cheered."
But they also cheered Nevil and Simons, too, although most of them probably thought Nevil was just some visiting fireman—which, in a sense, he was. In 25 tournaments this year Nevil had made the cut only 10 times, and he had been forced to shoot a 65 in the qualifier on Monday just to play at Westchester. "Nobody knows me because my caddie doesn't have my name tag on his back," Nevil said after his rounds of 66 and 65 led Nicklaus by a stroke after 36 holes. Nevil, 27, turned pro in 1965, did four years in the Air Force and then really did become a fireman "so I could play golf all day."
Last fall he was discovered at a pro-am in the Catskill Mountains by three men from Newburgh, N.Y., and they offered to sponsor him on the tour. "We liked the way he walked and we liked his humble attitude," one of them said. "He has a lot of confidence and no ego." Now they give Nevil an allowance of $500 a week "even if he kicks the ball along the fairway." To celebrate his strong play the first two rounds, Nevil and his wife went to a nearby AS PC A office and picked up two poodles. They named one "West" and the other, predictably, "Chester."
Nevil, like Simons, eventually succumbed to the unrelenting pressure applied by the dogged Nicklaus, but he did finish third to win $17,750, easily his most lucrative week on the tour. "One thing I learned here," he said, "is that I can compete with these players. One week like this means an awful lot mentally when you haven't exactly been a big winner."
Simons, too, faced constant pressure. "I don't think Jimmy realizes how tough it's going to be for him on the tour," said pro Hubert Green. "Right now he's too nice. You have to be pretty mean to win out here. Also, for a few years he has been the head honcho among the amateurs. You know, the kid who did well in the Open and the Masters. Everywhere he went he was the king. Out here it's another world, and it's going to take him a while to adapt to it. I'll tell you something else. All those trophies he has won don't count now. Out here you eat gold—not silver."
The one thing that always has impressed the pros about Simons is his ability to manage his own game. "He knows what he can do and what he can't do," Nicklaus said, "and he never tries to do the impossible." When he sets up over the ball, Simons looks as though he is resting in a chair, his backside protruding sharply, but he has a more solid, more compact swing than most of the other top amateurs who have turned pro recently, including Lanny Wadkins and Steve Melnyk.
Simons normally fades the ball, like Nicklaus, but last week he found that as the pressure increased he began to pull his shots. "I also seemed to lose all sense of touch when the pressure became really tense," he said. "My putts would turn up short, way short, and, even though I'd measure the distance for my chips, I'd hit them way short or way long."
Off the course, Simons was hounded by lawyers and agents who would like to represent his future interests. For a fee, of course. "Right now I don't know anything about their game," Simons said after making dinner arrangements with Ed Barner, who represents Casper, John Miller and Jerry Heard among others. "I'm just going to tell them, 'Draw up your best contract, men, and I'll take my pick.' " Even though Simons made the cut at Westchester and as a rule would be permitted to play in the next event on the tour, he will not play in another PGA-sponsored tournament until at least November.
"I've used up all my three sponsors' exemptions for this year," he said, "and now I've got to go through the PGA schools." The regional will be held at Rockville, Md. the last week of September, and then the final qualifier will be at Napa, Calif. the last week of October. "Some strong players haven't made it through the schools," Simons said. "A whole year rides on them." If he fails? Simons does not like to entertain the question.
While Simons and Nevil worried about Nicklaus most of the time, Jack spent a routine week returning to earth. "You can't believe what it has been like the last four months," he said at dinner Saturday night. "They were talking and writing about the Grand Slam even before I played the Masters. After this tournament I'm going home for two weeks. I've only been home for three days since the beginning of June. Believe me, that won't happen again."
The next day he went out and shot a calm 68, which together with his 65-67-70 gave him a 270, lowest score on the tour this year. Although Nevil trailed by only one stroke through part of the round and Colbert put on his brilliant closing drive—five birdies and two eagles (one of them a hole in one) for a 65—Nicklaus never appeared less than a winner. On the final hole, a par 5, he gave the large gallery at the 18th green a marvelous demonstration of Nicklaus power, hitting two tremendous woods that left him 25 feet from the pin. He missed his eagle putt, but the tap-in birdie gave him the victory over Colbert by a comfortable three strokes.
When he headed for Florida Sunday night, he left with $240,415 in earnings for the year, only $4,075 short of the record $244,490 he amassed last year. Nicklaus has played in 15 U.S. tournaments in 1972, has won five of them and finished second three other times and has averaged roughly $16,000 an event. He plans to play in at least five more tournaments this year and thus has an excellent chance of topping the $300,000 mark.
"The rest of us," said Jim Simons, "just dream of such things."