Jack Nicklaus, comma. Having a bad year by his own standards, comma. Bored when there isn't a major championship on the line, comma. Disinterested in money earnings, comma. Well, there's only one thing wrong with all of that. How do you explain the fact that every time they think up a golf tournament of special significance, Nicklaus goes out and hammers everyone so deeply into the bunkers that they think they must be living in a tent in the Sahara?
Jack did it again last week. Professional golf had dreamed up this thing called the World Series of Golf, a new version of it at least, and to make it more important they qualified only the elitest of the elite and decided to give the winner a modest check of $100,000. The hope was that the 20 guests would fight it out to a tie over 72 holes at Firestone Country Club in Akron. But of course there were two things wrong with that.
First, Nicklaus plays the South Course at Firestone from memory better than any tire worker. And, second, with more than a casual eye on the history books, Nicklaus seems to take the precaution of winning any new championship that might someday earn the label of "major" and thus add to the luster of the Nicklaus legend.
For example, they invented the Tournament Players Championship three years ago, and although it has yet to achieve a status above the "mini-major" level, Nicklaus has won it twice. One of those occasions was this year, and as bored with prize money as Jack claims to be, the TPC was worth $60,000.
When Nicklaus arrived in Akron last week, he insisted his game was not very sharp, and he even went so far as to say, "This is a major tournament, but it isn't a major championship."
Nevertheless, Nicklaus was there, and everybody in the field knew what that meant. Firestone was where Jack had won four "old" World Series of Golf, one American Golf Classic and last year's National PGA, and when you totaled it up Akron was also where Nicklaus had earned almost as much money as the Firestone family. In fact, with the $100,000 he took home last week, Nicklaus has now won close to half a million dollars in Akron during his career, and if you look it up, that bundle alone would place him 41st on golf's alltime money list.
There was a certain amount of fooling around with Jack's turf over the first two rounds; Dave Hill and Japan's Takashi Murakami tied for the first-round lead at 67, and Hubert Green fired a 65 the second day to take over. But they were just kidding themselves. As Hill said, "Jack has to win. For a hundred thou', my Adam's apple might beat my brains out, and I'll hit it outside the ropes so many times I'll have to buy a gallery ticket."
Green, always a fighter, tried to pretend they all had a chance, even though Nicklaus assumed the lead after 54 holes and was two strokes ahead of Hubie and Murakami with Sunday's round yet to come. "Jack puts his polyesters on the same way the rest of us do," Green said hopefully.
As it turned out, what Nicklaus did not do was hit his irons and roll his putts like the rest of the field. In both Saturday's and Sunday's rounds, Nicklaus stuck some of the deadliest irons anyone had ever seen him hit into Firestone's greens, and it seemed impossible for him to miss a putt. If he hit a wild tee shot into the trees or rough, which he occasionally did, out would come a remarkable iron shot and down would go a putt to save his par or give him birdie.
So when the tournament was over, Nicklaus had rounds of 68-70-69-68—275 on a course where only one other player, Hale Irwin, closing with 67, managed to break par of 280. Nicklaus won the World by four strokes, and when you stopped to think about it, how could anything be called the world championship of golf, in this day and age, without Jack Nicklaus winning it?
The only other question last week was what had Nicklaus won? As the week began, no one around Firestone knew exactly what to think of this "new" World Series. With only 20 players in the field—good as they were—the tournament had the atmosphere of an exhibition, and the sparse crowds on Thursday and Friday contributed to this feeling. The old World Series was certainly an exhibition of sorts, a weekend affair of only 36 holes, limited to four competitors—the winners of the year's major championships—and it generally wound up being televised against several dozen college and pro football games. First place was worth $50,000 and wasn't included in official earnings. In short, it was a dog.
Commissioner Deane Beman's grand plan was to add a snappy season-ender to the PGA tour, not a fifth, sixth or eighth major championship, as he kept putting it, but a special event that would—ahem—"transcend" the Masters and the U.S. Open and the British Open and the National PGA. He got Firestone to host it and help bankroll it, along with the PGA of America, which is that society of club pros who won't give you a discount on your new Hogan irons.
Beman labored over a format that would assure the best field possible. Guys qualified by winning one of the four major championships or by winning more than once on the regular tour or by accumulating enough points in a series of events falling into categories christened by Beman as the Winter, Spring and Summer Tours. As far as the World Series was concerned, the 1976 tour ended two weeks ago, and the 1977 Winter Tour begins this week in Pinehurst. Except for one thing. Official money earnings for 1976 continue through the calendar year. Clear? Certainly. The golf tour was either over or not over in Akron.
Through much of the tournament, the chitchat was about two things: the rules of golf and how they had taken Johnny Miller out of contention, and curious little Murakami, who singlehandedly put the World in Deane Beman's Series.
Miller came to Firestone with his usual armload of kids and every expectation of playing well. His year has been a good one—three victories including the British Open. He said he was up for the event even though he chose not to wear a coat for the flag-raising ceremony, and he was only one over par through the first 14 holes. But he learned on the 15th tee that he had an extra club in his bag, a little sawed-off putter that belonged to his son John. The penalty was four strokes, which probably had something to do with Miller's taking a double bogey on the 16th hole and finishing with 76. From there on he played with the casual attitude of a man who gets very bored when he isn't shooting 61.
"If it had been a plastic toy, there would have been no penalty," said Jack Tuthill, the PGA's tournament director. "It was a club with a grip, a shaft and a blade—the cutest little Bullseye you ever saw."
Later into the opening round the saga of Takashi Murakami began. He was a genial man who could only say "Good morning" and "Good evening" in English, and he qualified by virtue of leading the Japan PGA Order of Merit. Murakami had flown about 14 hours to reach Akron barely in time for one practice round, but he sank every putt he looked at on Thursday and astonished everyone when he was tied for the first-round lead. He was still tied for the lead after a few holes on Sunday, but he finally gave way, finishing ninth.
Through an interpreter, Murakami took an hour and a half to describe his 26 first-round putts and say he admired Sam Snead and Jack Nicklaus.
Well, if Murakami was suffering any jet lag after crossing the dateline backward, the 67 cured it. And if that didn't do it, then his four-wood did on Friday. At Firestone's 16th hole, a long, narrow par-5 on which Lee Trevino was later to make a nine and Ben Crenshaw an 11, Murakami tried to play himself off the leader board by hitting the four-wood straight at the pond on the front right of the green.
It was not a screamer, the kind of shot one might expect to skip across the water if the golfer was a churchgoer. It sailed high and it looked to be plunging straight into the pond. Which, in fact, it did. Except that the ball bounced off the water and up onto the green as if it had struck a cart path.
There was no explaining how a golf ball could do this. All anyone could do was bow. On the other hand, if it had been Johnny Miller, the officials might have checked his ball for a balsa center.
So it wasn't until Sunday afternoon that everything became normal again. It was then that Jack Nicklaus arose from the crowd to coast along, smiling at the gallery and his putter simultaneously, and winning again.