Down among the moss and live oaks of a South Carolina retreat the Masters juices were starting to flow like the channel bass in Calibogue Sound. It was still two weeks before Augusta and the year's first major tournament, but there was little else on the minds of the golfing heroes who have been marching toward Georgia since 1975 began. For a while in the marshes of Hilton Head Island it looked as if Jack Nicklaus had broken into a dead run and everyone else was mired in the swamp. But by late Sunday afternoon, when things had settled down and the Heritage Classic had been decided as much by the diabolical hazards of the Harbour Town course as by Nicklaus' varied adventures on it, all that was proved is that coming up is the kind of Masters that will stir your grits, Miss Scarlett, ma'am.
Harbour Town was important as an Augusta trial run for several reasons. First, it is among the narrowest, toughest and most fascinating courses in the country. They not only can put the flags where only an alligator can find them, they can hide the fairways. Second, the Heritage had the strongest field of the year, what with Gary Player's arrival from South Africa, with Lee Trevino having won recently, with Johnny Miller supposedly rested and seriously primping for the magnolias and azaleas, with Tom Weiskopf looking as poised and inspired as he had back in '73, with Hale Irwin beginning to show the form he had when he won the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, and with Jack Nicklaus hard at work on his game—thanks in part to all this Johnny Miller business.
What first occurred at Harbour Town in that atmosphere—marvelous course, top field, the Masters approaching—was one of the most audacious outbursts of golf that Nicklaus has ever produced. On Thursday, in a gusty wind that made the course's multiple hazards even more dangerous, Jack fired a five-under 66, led by three, and said it was "one of my best rounds in two years." This was just the hors d'oeuvre.
The next day Nicklaus jolted the place with an eight-under 63 that was so gorgeous he had to wonder whether he had ever played a better round. He hit every shot exactly as he wished, and when the wind took two of them into bunkers, he nearly holed out from the sand. He looked at no putt longer than 20 feet, and most of them were closer. Three of his birdies were "stiff," and he even blew one at the 16th from two feet, which would have given him a 62. The round might easily have looked like a typo. Something in the 50s.
Jack was seen laughing uproariously out there after he had birdied the 12th to go seven under for the round and 12 under for the tournament. The woman who was carrying his scoring standard had apologized to him, "I'm sorry, Mr. Nicklaus. I don't have any red numbers beyond 11."
After 36 holes the Heritage appeared to be over. Jack had a six-stroke lead on Weiskopf, who had shot a 65 and lost ground. He was 11 shots ahead of Trevino, who said he was playing as well as he could play. There were 12 strokes between him and Player, who, considering his recent arrival, had played beautifully. And he was 22 strokes in front of Johnny Miller, who had in fact missed the cut with 78-73 and perhaps was wondering if he had played too good too soon in January and February.
Player, who as Nicklaus' playing partner had seen the 66-63 from front row center, shook his head at a cocktail party Friday evening and said, "That is only the best golf Jack has ever played."
Nicklaus himself compared the 63 to some of his other treasures. It was better than his 64 at Augusta in 1965, he said. Better than his 65 at Baltusrol in 1967. Maybe not as good as the first 15 holes of his last-round 66 at Muirfield in 1972. "I can't think of a bad shot I hit," he said.
It wasn't until the 46th hole of the tournament on Saturday that Jack produced a bad shot, and this was what made it a contest after all. He hit a drive at the 10th hole that didn't have to go into a lagoon, but it did. Double bogey. He struck two more bad drives thereafter, flubbed a chip shot and posted a human 74 while Weiskopf was carving out a 68 to put them in a tie for the lead.
They were still tied through the first nine holes of the final round, with Jack moving along one hole in front of Weiskopf. But when Nicklaus reached the same back side where the magic had escaped him for a few brief holes on Saturday, he resumed his race toward Augusta. He jarred the pins out of the cups with his irons, shot three under for a closing 68, and won as comfortably as he had started off the week.
It was Nicklaus' second win in a row; he had taken Doral two weeks earlier. Obviously, Jack has been working harder on his game and attitude than at any time since 1972, when he fully expected to score a Grand Slam. The results are evident and he admitted, "My swing pattern is better than it's been in a long, long time." It is just as obvious that Johnny Miller's success has contributed to Jack's renewed dedication.
As for Miller, it seemed strange that he would select last week's event to perform so poorly, to blow a cut for the first time since the summer of 1973. He was not swinging well, driving all over the ferns and marshes, and simply not looking like a fellow honing up for the Masters. And all of this happening on a course where he had twice won.
"I'm experimenting," Miller said, pretty much unconcerned about his play. "You need a high hook at Augusta, and I'm working on one."
Miller's theory about how to play the Augusta National may turn out to be the correct one for him, but it had a few historians amused. If you need a high hook to win the Masters, then a lot of green jackets will have to be sent back to Clifford Roberts by such low-ball hitters as Arnold Palmer, Jimmy Demaret and Byron Nelson, not to mention a fader named Ben Hogan.
Of more than routine interest at Harbour Town was Gary Player, his mood and his thoughts. Here was the real golfer of the year in 1974, despite Miller's eight PGA tour victories and nine hundred billion in earnings. It was scarcely broadcast all over America, but Gary had quite a season, too, last year. Aside from winning two major titles, the Masters and British Open, he finished eighth and seventh in the U.S. Open and PGA, captured eight other 72-hole tournaments, and, as sort of an exclamation point, one 36-hole tournament. That's 11 victories, gang. And in so doing Player managed to win on no less than five different continents.
"Yes, I've been keeping up with the exploits of Mr. Miller," Gary said last week. "But I think the people who know the game realize what my career represents. We will all be judged on our careers when it's over. My ambition has always been to be the greatest golfer in the world. That means competing all over the world. This is still what I'm trying to do."
In one stretch last fall Player won the Australian Open, then traveled 52 hours nonstop counting layovers, naps and a lot of standing around, trying to reach La Manga on the southern coast of Spain. He got there barely in time to tee off in the La Manga International Pro-Am—a European-type Crosby—and four rounds later he had won it. The following day he went up to Madrid and outshot a select field over 36 holes in a thing called the Ibergolf tournament. That's just a typical example of what Player sometimes goes through, and he has done it for the past 20 years in his relentless effort to play golf around the globe.
Despite the strain of travel, he keeps on firing unbelievable scores. Down in Australia he shot a 63 in a howling wind and when he won the Brazilian Open in a place where you can't eat, he scorched the tournament with a 59. He wound up the year winning five of his last 10 tournaments and he finished second in the others.
So where has he been in 1975?
Well, until the Heritage Classic, Player had been home on his ranch near Johannesburg for six weeks, hanging around with his immense stable of race horses. He had entered only one tournament before the Heritage, this being the South African Open and, naturally, he won it. During this recent rest period he played only one 18-hole round of golf and not too many nine-hole rounds.
At the Heritage, Player said he went through the whole tournament mainly trying to adjust to the six-hour time change. Still he played superbly. He shot rounds of 71-70-70-74, winding up tied for 13th. He then pronounced himself right on schedule for Augusta.
"I don't think about the Masters in the way some of the other fellows do," Player said. "All I'm concerned about is getting my swing in shape the way I want it. You can talk about all the Masters strategy you want to, the type of shots you need and so forth, but that isn't how you win the Masters. You win the Masters, or any of the other major championships, with nerves. You've got to have the nerves on the last six or seven holes on Sunday."
Fine, so how does one practice nerves?
"I know how to do that, too, but I don't think I want to reveal it," he said, retaining some of the mystery that accompanies many of his worldly triumphs. Still, there doesn't seem to be too much Gary could say that Jack Nicklaus doesn't already know.