SWINGING ON A STAR

It takes a telescope to spot Jack Nicklaus, whose fourth PGA win and 16th major title put him light years above mere earthlings
August 17, 1975

He is a known Communist. He kidnapped the Lindbergh baby. He attacked Pearl Harbor. He peddles dope and he—what? Oh, sorry. We were all just sitting around out here in Akron trying to think up something new to say about Jack Nicklaus.

It is getting rather difficult, for last week Nicklaus did that thing again. He won another major golf championship, which is like saying the sun always sets in the West. This time it was the National PGA at the Firestone Country Club. The PGA is a tournament Jack tends to win a lot, and Firestone has contributed its part to keeping him solvent over the years, thank you.

This PGA has already been billed as Sweet Sixteen, which means that it is Nicklaus' 16th major title, and, quickly now, before everyone nods off, let's total them up one more time for posterity. It's four PGAs, five Masters, three U.S. Opens, two British Opens and those two U.S. Amateurs he won way back before he started amassing twice as many majors as Arnold Palmer or any of his contemporaries.

The final round of this PGA had a chance to be suspenseful only if Nicklaus played poorly. On Saturday he had taken command with a 67. He had a four-stroke lead over Bruce Crampton, and the only other competitors with a chance were Hale Irwin and Tom Weiskopf, but they each needed to shoot so low they were out bets. Everything really hinged on Jack's occasional flair for getting lazy, or going daft, as he had in June at the U.S. Open at Medinah.

For about 30 minutes on Sunday it looked as if Jack might accommodate everyone. He drove poorly and bogeyed the 1st hole. He salvaged a birdie at the easy 2nd only by dropping a 12-foot putt. He found himself forced to use his trusty pitching wedge at the 3rd and almost hit it in the water, taking another bogey. Thus, he was one over par and sliding backward as his pursuers licked their chops.

But Nicklaus brought an immediate halt to his slide as he began to play very solid golf. When he ran off a stretch of pars, it became evident that only some birdie shooting on the part of Crampton and the others would provide a dramatic ending. Nothing like this occurred. In fact, it was Jack himself who rapped in the birdies, at the 11th and 15th holes, so he could finish with a laugher of a double bogey on the final hole and still beat Crampton by two strokes.

In winning for the sixth time at Firestone (he has taken the World Series there four times and the American Golf Classic once) and in adding $45,000 to the near-$330,000 he had won in Akron previously, thus bringing him up to second place behind Raymond Firestone in local earnings, Jack calmly and not so calmly shot rounds of 70, 68, 67 and 71 for a total of 276. The most fascinating statistic involved poor Crampton, who finished second in a major championship for the fourth time in his career, and each time Nicklaus was the winner.

Much will be said about how close Nicklaus came to the Grand Slam in 1975. He won the Masters and the PGA, and he lost the U.S. and British Opens by a total of only three strokes, but maybe it can be argued that he did not actually come so close. His play at Medinah was deplorable all the way, and he was never emotionally involved in the championship. The fact that the field backed up far enough to give him a chance to win on the last day caught him by surprise, and perhaps this is why he couldn't deliver the shots he needed when the opportunity presented itself. In Jack's mind he had already lost the tournament. To a lesser degree the same thing happened at Carnoustie.

The mere suggestion annoys him, but it may well be true that Jack's indifferent performances at Medinah and Carnoustie can be traced to some of the difficulties he has had in getting his new Columbus golf course and real-estate development and next year's tournament on a smooth path and getting much of his high finance under firmer control. Earlier in the year he put golf ahead of business to remind Johnny Miller who the boss was. When he returned to business, his golf suffered. Well, it sagged, shall we say.

But that is one of the amazing things about him. Just let him hear it whispered that he's 35, after all, and he can't go on making those shots and those putts forever, and look how he kind of fell apart at Medinah and Carnoustie—and then here comes Nicklaus again.

He could have been had last Sunday, but he wasn't. The putts simply refused to drop for Weiskopf or Crampton, and the shots Jack needed were right there when he had to have them. Who else can win with a double bogey on 18?

Crampton said it pretty well. "We all suffer from human deficiencies. Jack just suffers from fewer of them. He wouldn't have made a six at the last hole, if he had needed something better."

Jack was asked if that were true. "I wouldn't have," he said, winking.

The Firestone course, for all of the drama it has been host to, has never been regarded by the players as one which deserves to rank among the country's most cherished or intriguing layouts. The reason is that it is so relentlessly dull. More drivers and spoons have been worn out on Firestone than on any other tournament course in the U.S. The two par 5s are sort of O.K. There is one you can reach and one you can't. But the par 4s and the par 3s, one after the other, seem to be the same hole. Long and longer.

This was a course that Robert Trent Jones redesigned, and every time the players sit around and try to name their favorite hole, someone will say, "I guess I like the 12th. It's the only one Trent didn't change." Accurate or not, it is meant to be a joke. Golfers like to joke about Trent Jones the way they like to joke about incurable disease. Actually, Firestone has a very exciting and certainly more scenic course right across the street, Firestone North. It has no fewer than 10 water holes, a number of devilish options. Trent Jones designed this one, too, and it happens to be one of his very best. And the only reason the Firestone people, who have given so much to golf and who happen to know how to run a tournament about as well as anybody, have never staged the American Golf Classic or World Series of Golf—or even a National PGA—on Firestone North is that they are sentimental about the older premises.

Last week the evidence was that they had made the right decision in using the same old course. It produced a unique PGA, one that drew some thrilling golf from the bigger names, one that produced the usual unsung heroes and one that even had some record scoring.

The first round got off to the kind of start that so many major championships do. A Mark Hayes led with a 67, a Bob Benson had a 68 and a Bob Wynn had a 69, as did an Ed Dougherty. These were the more unfamiliar of the names that hovered under or around Firestone's par of 70. Surprisingly enough, it was Dougherty's name that would linger the longest among the elite who took over control of the tournament. After three rounds Dougherty was still among the leaders, and played in the Sunday threesome with Nicklaus and Irwin. And by then the golfing community had learned considerable about him. He had become, in a sense, the comic relief of the week.

Dougherty, it turned out, is a 27-year-old rookie who has been playing the game for only six years. He had got into the PGA by finishing 12th in the club pro's championship. He had made the cut in only four tournaments. He has not been through the PGA's qualifying school, and he had become a Class A player only through his labors in the golf shop. He is one of those Monday qualifiers.

When he first wandered into the press tent at Firestone with his mustache, shaggy hair and grin, however, he became a charmer because of his honesty and wide-eyed wit. Someone asked if he had ever been on a leader board before, and he said, "Yeah, at Westchester I made four birdies in a row, but then I started going bad, so while one guy was still putting up the Y, another guy was taking down the D."

Once, he said, he'd had a sponsor who loaned him $2,500, but the guy was caddying for him, and they started arguing about club selections. "It's my shot," Dougherty would say. "It's my money," the guy would reply. Dougherty fired him.

The biggest thrill of Dougherty's week, aside from the way he played, was being introduced to ABC-TV's effusive Jim McKay. McKay stuck out his hand to congratulate the unknown after his 69, and Dougherty lit up.

"My God," Dougherty said, "You're...you're the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat...I've watched you all my life."

The first two days of the tournament were blessed with glorious weather, and this no doubt had something to do with the shocking scores that came flooding in. It appeared on Friday that between them Bruce Crampton and Hale Irwin would fire a low ball of 19.

First, Irwin came along with a 65, highlighted by a hole in one on the 12th. The ball was struck with a five-iron, for the record, and it took only one hop before disappearing into the cup. "It wasn't a fluke," Irwin said. "It was a hell of a good shot. It felt good, it looked good all the way and it went in."

Not long after, Crampton came along with a record 63, a round of good playing as well as good putting. He even had a bogey and missed a couple of short birdie putts, but still he shot seven under at Firestone. The round had given him a three-stroke lead in the tournament, but then came Saturday, which changed everything.

In the span of the first seven holes on that third round the championship had a new leader, because Nicklaus was making birdies and Crampton was making bogeys. Crampton had said he wouldn't be noticing Nicklaus on Saturday; he would only be trying to whip "that fellow named p-a-r." Well, the guy named p-a-r flattened Crampton with a 75 while Nicklaus was firing a 67 and taking a four-stroke lead, or what seemed to be a stranglehold on his 16th major title. Nicklaus bogeyed the last hole by three-putting or he would have had an even bigger lead, but then Jack couldn't very well complain after getting away with murder, armed robbery and kidnapping on Firestone's 16th hole.

What Nicklaus did on that long par-five hole was to turn a 20 into a remarkable five, and indeed it was the single hole that won him the championship. Jack played the 16th, or half of it at least, as wretchedly as he is capable of playing. On Firestone's 16th you can drive anywhere to the right and be safe. You can even hit it six fairways to the right and still be safe. Jack, naturally, drove to the left, up, down and over some trees and into a ravine even Firestone didn't know existed. Penalty. Shooting three and he is still 7,000 yards from the green.

In order to get any kind of shot whatsoever he walked about 50 yards behind the hazard to drop the ball. Whereupon he hit something that soared as far to the right as he had driven to the left. Now, playing four, he was almost directly behind a huge tree. His only hope was to hit the world's highest and longest nine-iron toward the green, and pray that it cleared the tree. It did, with inches to spare. He had reached the green in four, but he still was 30 feet from the pin, and in a place where half of the population of the United States has three-putted. Nicklaus, of course, made the putt for his par.

It is safe to say that from where Nicklaus was on Saturday with that tee shot on the 16th, no other golfer who ever lived could have rescued a par five—and the tournament. But of course Jack hasn't been a mortal for several years now.

PHOTOSending up a shower of sand, Nicklaus uses his muscle to explode from an imbedded lie. THREE PHOTOSEarly heroes included the breezy Ed Dougherty, a former baseball pitcher; Mark Hayes, first-round leader; and Bob Wynn, who went 69-69-pffft. PHOTOCrampton's record brought a smile. Briefly.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)