This was to have been the Masters in which Jack Nicklaus did battle with the Youth of America, the mop-haired crew that has been winning all those golf tournaments over the past year, even stealing away some that Nicklaus wanted most, like the U.S. Open and the British Open. You had the feeling he was letting the kids have their fun for a while. Now, after practicing hard on the course the week before, out he stormed over the fairways of Augusta, shooting subpar rounds of 69 and 71 the first two days, good enough to move comfortably away from young bucks like Johnny Miller, Ben Crenshaw and Lanny Wadkins. He was ready to take on the challenge of Dave Stockton, Hale Irwin, Jim Colbert and Tom Weiskopf, all younger if not part of the mod squad, all in contention to win the tournament. And then, midway through the third round, as his attention was riveted on them, he was caught and passed on his blind side by an old foe, 37 years old as a matter of fact, a man who won his first major championship while Nicklaus was still an amateur and who spent the week of the 1973 Masters recovering from the second of two operations. Now fit and, as he likes to say, "playing the best golf of my life," Gary Player startled Nicklaus and the rest of the field on Saturday afternoon with a string of five straight birdies that vaulted him into second place, one stroke from the lead. On Sunday he grabbed the lead at the 9th hole, and while he was often forced to share it with a small army of contenders, Player refused to back off. One by one the others did, Nicklaus included, and when it was over, Wee Gary had won the Masters. He shot 71-71-66-70—278, 10 under par, to beat Weiskopf and Stockton by two strokes, Nicklaus, Colbert and Irwin by three.
The last few holes are where a tournament is generally won and lost, and this was no exception. From minute to minute on Sunday it would look like Nicklaus' tournament, then Player's, then Weiskopf's, all of which would make sense, and then it would look like Stockton's again, or Irwin's, or Colbert's, perhaps, and there were even remote chances that it might wind up belonging to Frank Beard or Phil Rodgers or Bobby Nichols.
Two things brought an end to the hysteria: Gary Player, and his inherent belief that this tournament belonged to him. He was playing the best golf. He had been all week. Why wouldn't he win?
Essentially, Gary waded through all the confusion and pressure to put it away with a couple of stifling putts that he had to squeeze into the cups—a pair of nasty six-footers—and then with a string of nothing but superb golf shots over the last six holes, the kind he'd been hitting for four days.
April 21, 1974
When just about everyone else was looking for a way to lose, even the normally implacable Nicklaus and the pure-swinging Weiskopf, Player gave you the feeling that he was coolly and deadly determined to win. Sure, he usually does. This time he also played the last six holes in two under par with shots that looked glued to the flags, and these were the shots that the others could not produce. They brought Player home to his second Masters championship and his first in 13 years.
If a single blow did it while the Augusta sky was darkening, it was a nine-iron Player hit to the 17th green, on the next to last hole. The moment the ball left the clubhead and was hanging in the humid air, Gary turned away, pitched the club politely to his caddie and started up the fairway, comforted by the knowledge that he couldn't strike a golf shot any better. In that instant he said to the caddie, "We are not going to putt this one."
He must have walked six or seven yards toward the green with his head down before the ball came to rest about eight inches from the cup, accompanied by one of those Masters roars that make the clubhouse totter and the pine trees tremble.
"I knew I was going to win on the 1st tee. It's the best golf I've ever played in a major championship, all the way," Player said later. "I derive a lot of strength from my belief in God. I'm a Bible puncher. When I work for something, I expect it to happen. No one works as hard at golf as I do. No athlete has ever traveled so much as I have. I say all this only to try to make everybody understand what it means to me to win. There's no way to properly describe the gratification from working so hard, and then being rewarded for it."
There is hardly any way to describe the help Player got from Nicklaus and Weiskopf, either. If anyone played as well as Gary did from tee to green throughout the four rounds it was Weiskopf, but he sank only one putt over 10 feet all week. And then in the final, crucial moment of Sunday's chaos, he couldn't get out of his own way.
Weiskopf fell asleep on an iron shot to the 16th hole just when he was tied with Player for the lead, jerking it into the pond. He didn't hang around the hole as long as poor Frank Beard, who made a seven, but Weiskopf's shot led to a bogey and badly damaged his chances, and for the third time in the last six years he had to settle for second place. He shared that with Stockton, who finally ran out of magic but played a gutty Masters, nonetheless.
Nicklaus had one of those weeks in which he started driving badly, and then missed short putts at the worst times. Each day he would seem to get a round going, then something dreadful would happen, either a wild shot or a tiny putt that would rim the cup. He was so angry on Saturday night, when he was five strokes and eight players behind, that he went to the practice area, and with his wife Barbara sitting there watching he hit about 40 balls off the property and into Washington Road, slashing at them as hard as he could.
It looked briefly as if his labors were going to pay off on Sunday. When he danced a 50-foot eagle putt into the hole on 13 to trail Player by only a stroke, it was pretty natural for everyone to say uh, oh, here comes the man, despite everything. But he promptly bogeyed the 14th, blowing another short putt.
Then came more dramatics, Nicklaus style. He hit his usual lousy shot to the 15th, which is slowly driving him goofy. This one stuck in the grime at the edge of the pond, and Jack had to undress his right foot to get at it. He was obliged to remove his sock, put the shoe back on, and roll up the trouser leg to take his stance. But he popped the ball out and nearly holed it. Another birdie. Jack was still coming.
Not quite. His game had been rotten by his own admission. "I'd gotten into a hook pattern all week," he said. "I'm too smart to do that."
So he had one more hook left, the iron to the 16th, which was saved from the water by a bunker. Still, he hit a miserable sand shot and there was the bogey that ended another of his comebacks, which have a growing habit of falling short.
What annoyed Nicklaus the most was that the Masters course had never played easier. The tip-off that the place might be a pushover this year came early during practice rounds when the players talked about how "fair" it was. Fair to a touring pro usually means slow greens—and both rain and a new strain of grass had made those at Augusta just that—wide fairways and no rough to speak of. He can kill it, in other words. And this is exactly what kept happening all during the week, ending with a course-record-tying 64 on Sunday by an obscure English pro named Maurice Bembridge.
The assault began on Thursday, and the leaderboards soon had so much red on them—red numbers signifying below-par figures—they looked like the eyes of the hungover revelers on the clubhouse veranda. It was a grand mixture of personalities who ripped into the course, as a total of 21 players shot themselves under par. There were the usual names, like Nicklaus, Player and Weiskopf, but they were mingled in with the Colberts, Greens, Irwins, Beards, Stocktons, Iversons and Hiskeys, who quickly furnished the proof that unless the greens hardened and the wind blew almost anyone would be capable of winning the tournament.
"A 72 out there feels like an 80," Nicklaus said.
The course was first exposed by Art Wall in the opening round. On the 4th, 5th and 6th holes, not exactly the best places to expect miracles, Wall went 2-2-2 with a birdie, an eagle and a birdie. No one could recall if anyone had ever put up such consecutive numbers in a major championship. Wall did it by sinking a 40-foot putt on the 4th green, by holing out a 220-yard 4-wood shot at the 5th and by dropping a five-foot putt on the 6th. He even added another deuce on the 16th, making four in one round. In his lifetime Wall has made 41 holes in one. It's what he does. Some people get good bridge hands, Art Wall makes aces. But none of them had ever traveled as much distance as the eagle shot on Augusta's 5th hole, which is among the hardest on the course.
All sorts of shots started going into the cups after that, and continued to do so for hours, even days. Thursday was the day in which Beard made four straight birdies—and five birdies in the last six holes. And it was also the day Irwin made five birdies in a row from the 12th through the 16th holes, merely one of the most dangerous stretches on the whole premises. If anyone thought Irwin had set a Masters record that would stand for a while, they didn't have long to think about it. Two days later Player birdied the same five holes when he shot the 66 that gave the tournament some of its old-fashioned excitement.
When the first day was over, however, it belonged to the unlikely Jim Colbert. He was so casual that if you only glanced at him occasionally on Thursday you might have thought he was picking up trash off the course instead of shooting a 67.
At the 12th hole he was confronted with a chip shot that could easily glide across the green and go into the water, but Colbert's went into the cup for a birdie. At the 13th he drove down into the trees, then hit his next shot sideways into the 14th fairway. But he pitched over the creek and dropped another birdie putt. All sorts of terrible possibilities were in store for him on the 15th when his second shot over the water hit a television stand. But the ball landed safely and he escaped with a par.
Colbert's round the next day was even more bizarre, as he turned from birdies and an eagle—six under par—to a routine 72. After which he adjusted the unlikely-looking hat he wears and began issuing quotes like, "The scoreboard will tell you who wins on Sunday."
Friday was the day Stockton began to occupy everyone's mind. He did it the way he frequently does, with a lot of scrambling and celestial putting and plain old determination. Recovering from the woods several times and posting the first of his eagles, this one on the 13th, Stockton shot the 66 that sent him into the tournament lead he would be forced to try and hold against half of Georgia.
"I don't play boring golf," he said. "I turn up in some funny places, but I think this makes the game interesting."
The thing everybody might have kept in mind about Stockton was that he had turned up in such funny places as on top of the PGA back in 1970, and he had a reputation for going out every so often and winning on a tough and highly reputable course—Southern Hills, for example, where he took that PGA, and Colonial one year, and Riviera this winter when he won the Los Angeles Open.
The summing up of Dave Stockton and his impact on the 1974 Masters was best offered by Miller Barber. Sitting in the upstairs men's grill one morning, Barber looked at the indoor leaderboard and said, "Dave Stockton. I'll tell you one thing. When that dude gets in one of his moods, he don't tend to disappear."
Stockton was more than visible on Saturday when he promptly pitched in for an eagle at the 2nd hole. This was the shot that did much to get him to his 70 and a safe enough distance in front of the field to withstand the closing rush by Gary Player and all the others who were chasing him. Here again, Stockton's eagle on the 2nd hole dramatized the difference in how the course played last week and how it usually played in the past. Dave was far to the left of the green, and had the putting surface been as slick as it once was his wedge shot probably would not have stopped short of a suburban neighborhood down the hill, much less trickled into the cup.
When Player came out of nowhere on Saturday it was with a burst of the most splendid shotmaking of the tournament. At the wicked 12th he calmly stuck a seven-iron one foot from the cup. He rolled in a 15-footer for a birdie at the 13th. At the 14th he hit a wedge just seven feet from the flag and made it. He laid up at the 15th, hit a safe wedge within 20 feet and sank it. He hit a five-iron to the 16th right at the hole, and jammed that six-foot putt in for his fifth birdie in succession.
Then Gary, or rather "the Aferkin," as he's known around the Augusta caddie yard, thanked everybody in the world for his good fortune. Everybody from the Lord to the greens superintendent to his five children who were with him—a sixth was left in South Africa—to himself for having discovered a "secret" about his golf swing that he refused to reveal to anyone unless they bought his latest book.
While all of this was going on the first three days of the Masters, the guy who was convinced he would win it, Johnny Miller, hero of the year with his four tour victories, revealed something altogether different. His human side. Miller was tense before the tournament started, plainly feeling the pressure of his success, and not about to play a good tournament. He didn't.
"I'd been talking about it publicly too much," Johnny said. "I'd been thinking about it too much as well. I'll profit from this experience." Miller wound up tied for 15th. Creditable, of course, but a disappointment for a man with big plans.
It is amazing how Gary Player keeps coming back to remind us that he still ranks among the game's greatest golfers. This Masters gave him his seventh major championship. He won the British Open as far back as 1959, and he has now taken the Masters 13 years apart, sliding a few more British Opens and U.S. Opens and PGAs in between them. Few golfers have won major championships in three separate decades and often Gary has seemed to win them with little more than tenacity and grit and sheer hard work. No one ever argued that he was not the best competitor of them all; he had to be.
Late last Sunday afternoon he was all of that, plus a shotmaker of infinite skill and class, one who has circled the globe seeking the polish and knowledge and experience to become what he is, and a man who has learned that it pays off to give much of himself back to the sport. The new Masters winner is a man of considerable quality.