He actually only got one funeral bouquet," Barbara Nicklaus said last Saturday, standing between a volcano and the deep blue sea. "He got balloons that said 'Prehistoric' and an antique rocking chair autographed by his tennis friends. And Greg Norman gave him a whole case of Metamucil. All the things you'd expect."
The volcano, Mauna Kea, was up in the clouds, inland from Hawaii's Kohala Coast. The earthquake, if you didn't feel it, was Jack Nicklaus's birthday. January 21, 1990. Barbara's husband, a half century and six days old, a man acknowledged as the greatest golfer who ever lived, was minutes away from striking his first official shot as a senior golfer. It was a milestone so feverishly anticipated by the golfing press that the Nicklauses began answering questions about it two years ago.
The birthday itself, Barbara said, had been anticlimactic—a little celebration at the Nicklaus home in North Palm Beach, Fla., with 80 or 90 friends and a reggae band in attendance. "We all wore T-shirts with a globe on the front and the words 'The World Has Survived 50 Years of Jack Nicklaus.' He kind of planned his own party, so I wouldn't do it as a surprise."
A week had passed since then, and here was Jack, under the volcano and under the gun. Would he declare his seniority as emphatically as he had his majority 28 years ago? Then, as an overweight, 22-year-old ex-insurance salesman, he had beaten Arnold Palmer in a playoff at Oakmont for his first professional title, the 1962 U.S. Open.
February 5, 1990
Three of Nicklaus's old costars on the PGA Tour had flown to Hawaii to share the moment, or better yet, to steal it:
•Palmer, 60 and gray-haired, with eyes narrowed to slits by years in the sun without a hat, but still slashing at the ball with youthful vigor.
•Gary Player, 54, the ramrod-straight South African with the monochromatic wardrobe and the incredible sand game; one of only four players to have won all four major championships.
•Lee Trevino, a newly minted senior himself, having turned 50 in December; a five-time winner of the Vardon Trophy for the season's low scoring average and winner of six major championships.
Collectively, the four hold 180 PGA Tour victories, 43 major championships, 14 PGA money titles and nine Vardon trophies, not to mention their $12.3 million in official Tour winnings. If this had been the U.S. Open, or even the senior U.S. Open, played on some great old course like Baltusrol or Cherry Hills, Bobby Jones himself might have rolled up out of his grave and bought a ticket.
Instead, Nicklaus's senior debut came in a made-for-television bonbon called the Senior Skins Game, an event as old and venerable as the cheese in your refrigerator. "Any time I play with these guys, whether I'm 10 or 50 or 100, I'm excited about playing," Nicklaus said last Friday. Maybe so, but he played his pro-am round in pink shorts and ankle socks, suggesting that he didn't think the golf gods were watching.
The supporting cast was more willing than Nicklaus to banter and reminisce for the handful of mainland golf writers mixing a Hawaiian vacation with business. The Mauna Lani Resort, where the golfers were staying in $2,500-a-day bungalows, struck Trevino as a far cry from the motel rooms he once shared with Tour chums Dave Eichelberger and Ted Makalena. ("We used to draw cards to see who was going to get the rollaway bed.") Player, who performed up the coast at the Mauna Kea Beach Hotel 25 years ago in another TV event, Big Three Golf, laughed and said, "Arnie, Jack and I went to skinny-dip on that beach, and you sure can't do that today."
"Boy," roared Trevino, "I would have loved to have seen those three!"
Fiftieth birthdays, like hemorrhoids, are funny only when they happen to someone else, and the Golden Bear wore the tired smile of a man who has received one too many FIFTY IS NIFTY hats. "I've got to get it out of my head first that I can't play the regular Tour," said Nicklaus, whose last win was the 1986 Masters. "Once I get that out of my head, maybe I can enjoy playing some senior golf."
Palmer, sitting next to Nicklaus, recognized one of the first symptoms of a golfer's mid-life crisis: denial. "I went through the same thing," he said. "The fact that you're going on the Senior tour is really a shock to you. You think you're not ready for it. But when Jack sees a guy like Robert Gamez come along and win a tournament at 21, he'll begin to see the Senior tour in a little better light."
The oldest thing in evidence, geologically speaking, was the terrain. The Francis H. I'i Brown course at Mauna Lani is laid out on 137 acres of black rubble deposited in the 19th century by the distant Mauna Loa volcano. The holes are routed through fissured lava beds and planted with twisted, shaggy-barked kiawe trees to great scenic effect. A melted watch here, a knight on horseback there, and Salvador Dali could have signed it. But the Brown course is not as tight as the desert layouts most Skins Games have been played on. Nicklaus proved that on Saturday with his first senior tee shot, a long drive that easily skirted a nuisance tree in the right center of the fairway. Conclusion: Skins would be hard to come by.
By now the skins format must be better known than the recipe for water, but here it is again for willful forgetters: Each of the 18 holes played over two days constitutes a minimatch, with prize money awarded only to the player who wins a hole outright. At Mauna Lani the first six holes were worth $15,000 each; the next six, $25,000 each; and the final six, $35,000 each. All money from tied holes was carried forward until someone won a hole.
On Saturday they might as well have played for macadamia nuts, because nobody won a skin. At number 3, Trevino took $45,000 out of Nicklaus's pocket by dropping a 7-foot birdie putt on top of Jack's 22-foot bird. Player seemed poised to take the first skin at the par-3 5th, but his across-the-grain five-footer for birdie rimmed out.
The 6th produced no winner either, but Nicklaus got a chance to show why he was voted Player of the Century a couple of years back. Boldly launching his drive over a daunting carry of lava and shrubs, Nicklaus caught the downslope of the dogleg-right par 5 and his ball rolled 40 yards past Palmer and the others. Player's second shot fell short of the green. Trevino bounced a fairway wood onto the putting surface but far from the pin. Palmer, with his characteristic flair, went for the flag but plunked his ball into a bunker.
Would Nicklaus, with a downhill-sidehill he and 207 yards to the hole, shoot for the flag? He would, indeed. His cut three-iron rocketed straight at the pin, cleared the bunker and skipped to the back edge, 12 feet from the hole. Nicklaus missed the eagle putt, but his three-iron shot thrilled the gallery and demonstrated the edge he will enjoy over his senior opponents, when and if he deigns to play them.
Perhaps inspired by that shot, Nicklaus got his fingers around $115,000 on the 7th hole, only to have Trevino snatch it away again. This time, Nicklaus's eight-foot uphill putt for birdie dropped to a gallery roar and shouts of "Happy birthday, Jack!" The cheers were even louder when Trevino, putting last, sank his own eight-footer to save the skin.
"That's great golf," Nicklaus acknowledged later. "I enjoy watching a guy perform that way."
At this point the Skins Game ceased to resemble a golf match and turned into something directed by Cecil B. de Mille. The par-3 8th hole—normally the 17th—is a natural amphitheater with an elevated tee at one end and a sunken green surrounded by high lava walls at the other. It looks like a place at which Druids would gather if they had enough frequent-flyer miles. Saturday's play halted there with the contestants standing high on the tee, like priests on an altar, and the spectators clogging the paths below and watching from the surrounding walls. When word spread that play could not continue because the show had gone beyond the two hours allotted by NBC, a wail rose from the assembled multitudes. (Actually, it sounded like booing.) Trevino, quick to grasp the situation, turned to the other golfers and said, "Anybody want to play from here in for 20 bucks?"
Great idea, but the players rode carts back to the clubhouse instead. "With $140,000 at stake, we thought it was sufficiently important that we do it this way," said Skins Game executive producer Barry Frank, explaining his decision not to tape holes 8 and 9 before quitting.
On Sunday the golfers returned to the course at 9:20 a.m., 40 minutes before airtime, and played the amphitheater hole while tape rolled in the TV truck. Before Arnie, Gary and Lee could rub the sleep out of their eyes, the Golden Bear was $140,000 richer, knocking a nine-iron to four feet and making the putt for the first skin. On the next hole, Palmer birdied from four feet for $25,000, thanks largely to a putting tip from Trevino, who had told him to quit fooling around with a split-handed grip. "Arnold Palmer is Mr. Golf, he's fried chicken and apple pie," said Trevino. "And him putting with his hands separated is un-American."
Palmer, growing more confident with every hole, hit across the water and sank an 18-footer for birdie on the postcard-pretty par-3 15th, but Trevino curled in an eight-footer to save yet another skin.
Not a bit fazed, and with the gallery yelling encouragement and starting to trample shrubbery like the Army of old, Arnie dropped a crisp wedge shot three feet from the hole on 16 and made the putt, to a huge roar. The skin, worth $215,000, ensured that Palmer, the oldest of the four, would win the event. Trevino was shaking his head and laughing. "Anytime you give somebody a tip," said the rueful Samaritan, "it's gonna come back and bite you."
That left $70,000 to fuss over, and Trevino got it, with a routine par 5 on the second playoff hole. Nicklaus, who shot 67 but missed several medium-length putts for skins or saves on Sunday, shrugged and said, "I guess I shot my wad on the first hole."
In retrospect, the tone for the whole weekend was set last Friday, when the Big Three Plus Lee posed with a silver tray bearing a macadamia nut-coconut cake inscribed HAWAII 5-0. Trevino, sensing that the tableau was as stiff as da Vinci's "The Last Supper," suddenly tore a hunk out of the cake with his bare hand and stuffed the creamy goo into his maw. Chewing happily to shrieks of laughter and the whirring of camera drives, he proclaimed the cake delicious and drifted off, licking his fingers.
Hey, someone shouted, wasn't Trevino going to cut a piece for Jack?
"Hell," Trevino said over his shoulder, "he can get his own."