Bobby doesn't make an effort to be a nice guy. He just is one." That is how a member of the Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio feels about his club pro, Bobby Nichols. And just about everybody who ever met Bobby Nichols agrees, including the other pros on the PGA tour, which is a good thing, because if he were not so likable he could be the cause of a serious case of the envies among his peers. Besides being rich, good looking and not in the least self-absorbed, Nichols hits his drives 300 yards when he wants to, sinks 25-foot putts when he has to and holds down the best club job in golf.
But when the game's elite—the winners of the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA—gather at Firestone's South Course for the World Series of Golf and a chance to win 550,000 for 36 holes labor, Bobby Nichols, the host pro for the last six years, has been on the outside looking in, a wistful observer from a no-man's land, somewhere between touring pro and Firestone executive.
Nichols customarily devotes the week of the World Series to helping entertain his employer's hundreds of guests. He makes ceremonial appearances at cocktail parties for the press and delivers speeches of welcome at dinners for the sponsors of the NBC telecast. At the same time he supervises the operation of a sizable golfing business from an office just off the floor of his spacious well-stocked pro shop.
Last week, though, for the first time since he won the PGA in 1964, Nichols was back out on the course with the champions. In the midst of his best year since joining the tour in 1960 he had won the Canadian Open, and since Gary Player had won both the Masters and the British Open, the Canadian Open champion became the fourth member of the Series foursome. Instead of shaking hands in the grill room, Nichols was gripping irons on the practice tee and grinning at the hundreds of non-VIPs who wished him well wherever he went.
It would be pleasant to report that the nice guy from Firestone won. He didn't, but he didn't finish last either. That was left to U.S. Open winner Hale Irwin, who floundered around the 7,180-yard course in 76-72=148, eight overpar. Nichols, with 71-72=143, was third.
The rest of the field finished first. Player and Lee Trevino, those fierce competitors, put on a show the folks in Akron will not soon forget. They completed the regulation 36 holes tied at 139, played another five of sudden-death still even, and quit only when Jack Tuthill of the PGA decided that darkness had fallen for both players and TV. So they went at it again at 10 o'clock Monday morning, Trevino nailing down the win when Player bogeyed the—let's see—43rd hole.
Both Player and Trevino were moaning when they came to Firestone, a dangerous sign. Player was coming off what he himself called three weeks of terrible golf, a tie for 52nd at Hartford, a tic for 35th at Westchester and a missed cut at the TPD championship in Atlanta. Total winnings: $1,666. Poor Gary.
Trevino, the PGA champion, arrived saying he was going to "take my $5,000 and run." Five thousand is last-place money in the World Series and last was where Trevino had finished in two of his previous appearances. Poor Lee.
Then, with the ground work laid, the fight began. Player opened with a nifty 67 to take a three-stroke lead over Trevino, and by the 5th hole Sunday he had increased his margin to six. But within the space of the next nine holes Trevino picked up seven shots and with only four holes left had the lead. A Trevino bogey at the 16th put them even. On 17 Trevino sank a 12-footer for a birdie and Player answered it with a 10-footer of his own. Player was in trouble on 18 but a magnificent fairway bunker shot saved his par.
So it was back out to 14 and sudden-death. Trevino had to sink three ugly putts for pars, one of them following a remarkable recovery from a thorny barberry bush. Player, too, had his escapes, including a final Sunday putt of four feet.
"I wish we could call it a tie and not come back tomorrow," Player said. Trevino agreed, but the next morning both of them were ready. Starting again on 14 both of them birdied, Trevino with a 30-foot putt, Player with a 10-footer. But Gary bunkered his tee shot at the par-3 15th and when he failed to get down in two from there it was finally over.
While Firestone's members would have preferred a Nichols victory, they were not disheartened. "It's very hard for Bobby to play well here," said Dale Antram who, like all but 38 of the club's 1,600 members, is a Firestone employee. "There are too many distractions. When Bobby is concentrating well he won't even recognize his good friends. He gets in a fog, like the one he was in last year at Westchester." Nichols won the 1973 Westchester Classic, one of the three richest tournaments of the year, with an 18-foot eagle putt on the last hole that tied Bob Murphy, followed by a 25-foot birdie putt on the first hole of sudden death. In 1970 Nichols won the $300,000 Dow Jones Classic in much the same way, with a 10-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole that beat Jack Nicklaus out of the $60,000 first-place money. In other words, Bobby Nichols is not a journeyman pro who is likely to faint if he should find himself leading the U.S. Open by a stroke with three holes to go.
"I'm not capable of being the best player in the world, but by maintaining a decent level of performance I've done what I want to do," said Nichols last week, looking back over his 1974 season. "The top players are more talented and more dedicated than I am. I could never maintain their pace."
At 38, an age when the winnings of most touring pros are beginning to tail off, Nichols' career earnings are moving rapidly upward toward the $1 million mark. A large part of his recent success must be attributed to his unique position at Firestone. He is, among other things, a salaried employee of the advertising department of the Firestone Tire and Rubber Co. and is entitled to the same fringe benefits as any other of Firestone's 9,500 Akron employees. Firestone, which operates the 36-hole Country Club as a recreational facility for its Akron employees, charging them only $18 a month dues and no initiation fee, considers Nichols its resident pro, but allows him to play as many tour events as he chooses and tailors its requests for his services as guest celebrity at sales conventions and the like to his schedule.
Yet like any full-time resident professional, Nichols runs and is entitled to the proceeds from the pro shop, golfcarts, driving range, bag storage, everything—and at Firestone, with its huge membership and 15,000 guest rounds a season on the South Course alone, those proceeds are formidable. "I'd say we do very well," says Nichols. A friend guesses that between salary and pro shop Nichols makes around $70,000 a year.
As if all this were not enough, Firestone has recently agreed to let Nichols live in Florida in the winter. Scotty Brubaker, the Firestone vice president for advertising and public relations who hired Nichols says, "There's not much activity here in the winter anyway and there's no reason why Bobby can't fly out of Florida when we need him, just as well as from Akron."
Firestone's understanding in this matter resolved the last of Nichols' uncertainties. His wife Nancy and their three young children were unhappy and, according to Bobby, "climbing the walls when they couldn't get outside" during northeastern Ohio's long winter. "The move has been good for me too," he says. "If you live in the North and you don't play any tournaments for two or three months, you get sluggish. I would always gain 10 or 15 pounds. I need to play every day, and that's what I did all last winter."
There's something about Bobby Nichols that makes people want to help him out. When he was a high school golfer in Louisville, K.y., the son of a worker at the Ford Motor Co. plant there, he was involved in an automobile accident that left him unconscious for 13 days and in traction for 96 more. During that time someone persuaded Ben Hogan to write Nichols a letter of encouragement that was probably crucial to his determination to recover. Then later, with a Kentucky junior golf championship to his credit but no money available for college, someone at Louisville's Xavier High told Bear Bryant, then the coach at Texas A&M, about him and Bryant arranged for a full athletic scholarship to A&M, even though such scholarships were not given to golfers in those days.
After college, when Nichols was working as a roustabout and welder's helper in the oil fields near Midland, Texas, and becoming more convinced with each scorching day that he did not want to earn his living there, he was rescued by a group of men from the Midland Country Club. "Forty or 50 of them put up $200 apiece to send me out on the tour," says Nichols, "more as a kind gesture than out of any expectation of getting their money back." Now, 14 years later, he is 12th on the alltime money list, with nearly $860,000.
Last year Firestone made a film about its golf courses and during his narration Nichols described Arnold Palmer as "still an ordinary guy, even if he does fly over in a jet. He's still like a guy who carries his lunch pail to work." The quality that Nichols saw in Palmer is in part what Nichols is himself, and people seem to sense it in him and like him for it.
Lee Trevino won the World Series and $50,000, but the pro from Firestone, who had thousands pulling for him even when he was five strokes down with four holes to play, was hardly a loser.