Going into last week's PGA seniors Championship, golf's most junior senior seemed a cinch to win his most minor major. As the rest of the field would tell you, Jack Nicklaus was home; Jack was hot; Jack was simply a superior player.
All that was true, of course. From the Nicklaus family compound in the Lost Tree Village section of North Palm Beach, Fla., it is a 10-minute ride to PGA National in Palm Beach Gardens, a course Nicklaus radically redesigned a year ago. And certainly, Jack's two-week presence on the tour had scared the Sansabelts off his fellow seniors.
Funny, then, that it was the most apparently unnerved of them all, 54-year-old Gary Player, who put away his Easter Sunday playing partners, Nicklaus and Lee Trevino, in a driving drizzle in the dark, to win the tournament by two strokes. Player played the final three rain-delayed holes "like Ray Charles," he said, but by that time at least one thing had become crystal clear: The Senior tour now has charisma. Lots of it.
That has been the real effect of the Bear's presence, although when Nicklaus shot a 68 on Thursday to take a three-stroke lead, it was hard to see the charisma for the birdies. Most of his rivals, who are old enough to know better, allowed themselves to be psyched out.
"I'm not going to catch Jack," said Trevino, who did, finishing tied with Nicklaus for third. "He's just better than us," said Chi Chi Rodriguez, who finished second, two strokes better than Nicklaus. Even Player said that Nicklaus puts a lot of golfers "out of their comfort zones." Or, as he later phrased it, "I hear a lot of guys out there saying they're playing for second."
Nicklaus's daily commutes to and from Lost Tree Village, however, were to be his most enjoyable drives of the week. The PGA National course is now a watery graveyard that neutralized Nicklaus's newest weapon, the graphite driver he filched from Japan's Jumbo Ozaki. Forced to rely on his putter through the first three days, Nicklaus said, "I did the course, so I don't hate it, but it did take the driver out of my hand."
On Friday the 13th the Lost Tree resident found trees—and water and sand. With four double bogeys, he blew to a 78. Meantime, Player fired a 69 to share the lead with Harold Henning, and Trevino, with a 67, was in a four-way tie for third, one stroke behind. Nicklaus fell so far back that on Saturday he was paired with alternate Ralph Terry, whose last win came 24 years ago on the mound, in a Kansas City A's uniform.
"I found out today I was human," said Nicklaus after his 78. "The worst news is that somebody else might find out."
Player did. He pulled so far ahead of the field on the front nine on Saturday-he shot a 29, with an eagle on the par-5 3rd hole and birdies on 4, 6, 7, 8 and 9—that Nicklaus, with a 67, was still five strokes back. Trevino, who shot 70, was third, one stroke back of Nicklaus.
So six shots separated Sunday's final threesome of Player, Nicklaus and Trevino, who with Arnold Palmer appear this month on the cover of PGA Magazine as the faces on golf's Mount Rushmore. The three have 118 wins among them, 35 of which are majors. Thirty-five.
Player announced last week that as far as he was concerned, the PGA Seniors was another major. Nicklaus sniffed. This was a "different category," he said. "I don't see Norman and Ballesteros and Faldo out there."
On Saturday evening, as Nicklaus chipped and putted in the gloaming with the mowers buzzing around him, somebody asked him if the field was still cowed by his presence. "That's not for me to answer," he said. Then he added, "The reason I came out here is to help these other guys."
Nicklaus most certainly did help. On Sunday a golf fan could have given his channel selector a workout. On NBC, Trevino was chasing Nicklaus chasing Player. On CBS, in the PGA Tour's Heritage Classic, Payne Stewart stalked Nick Faldo stalking Greg Norman stalking Steve Jones. That fate took over—rain delays caused NBC to sign off without a winner, and Stewart beat Jones and Larry Mize in a playoff—wasn't Jack's fault.
Trevino faced Sunday's round with his usual equanimity. "I've paid off the mortgage," he said. Player, master of a different sort of psych, said he thought being chased by Nicklaus and Trevino would be misery. "It's my idea of a crappy day," he said. As for Jack, Sunday was just another Good Samaritan gig.
Sadly, for golf history fans, the three-way face-off fizzled. With birdies at the 9th and 10th holes, Player found his comfort zone, and after that his lead was never challenged. Even spanking a ball from the 16th tee into a lagoon he could hardly see after a rain delay only reduced his lead from four strokes to two. Player finished with 73 for a seven-under-par 281. Rodriguez, playing a group ahead, crashed the party with a final-round 66 to wind up ahead of Nicklaus and Trevino, who finished with 72 and 71, respectively.
"I wish Nicklaus would play every week," said Player, who left for Johannesburg with the $75,000 winner's check. "He's putting a lot of money in a lot of people's pockets."
Anything to be helpful.