Chalk One Up for Jack

In a U.S. Senior Open that was more pool game than golf match, Jack Nicklaus beat Chi Chi Rodriguez with a dazzling playoff round
August 04, 1991

It was one of your better verbal massè shots. Chi Chi Rodriguez, who puts as much spin on his one-liners as he puts on his golf shots, was asked late Sunday afternoon about his impending 18-hole playoff with Jack Nicklaus for the U.S. Senior Open title. Monday's showdown at the Oakland Hills Country Club, in Birmingham, Mich., Rodriguez said, would pit a "big bear" against "a little mouse from Puerto Rico."

Nicklaus grinned at the characterizations, but he wasn't buying them. Anyone who follows Senior golf knows that Nicklaus is a part-time bear, while Rodriguez—henceforth known as Michigan Slim—is a mouse with very sharp teeth. Rodriguez came to Oakland Hills leading the Senior PGA Tour this year in wins, with four, and in prize money, with $464,521. He has gained this eminence in part by hitting so many trick shots that you expect him to open a black case and screw together the two halves of his club before he swings.

That's why Nicklaus's course-record-tying 65 in Monday's playoff, good for a four-shot victory, shouldn't be seen as a Bear-beats-Mouse story. This Senior Open was more like a smoke-filled room with low-hanging lights and 18 tables—the Poolroom Open. Victory, in the end, went to the man who best moved his ball around on Oakland Hills' slick greens.

Consider the crucial shots of Sunday's final round. Nicklaus, three over par for the tournament, came to the 17th tee needing a birdie to break a four-way tie with Rodriguez, defending champion Lee Trevino and Al Geiberger, who had already completed his round. The pin on the 185-yard par-3 was in a hard-to-reach spot behind a bunker. Trevino, who hits low-trajectory shots, tried a five-iron off the tee that fell feebly short of the sand. Nicklaus answered with a sweet, high five-iron that cleared the bunker and sat down five feet from the pin. He made the putt for the birdie and the lead.

The shot that clinched Rodriguez's place in the playoff was even better. Standing on the 18th fairway with a downhill lie, 167 yards from the hole, he too needed to get close to a pin guarded by bunkers. But this green is elevated, and it was so firm on Sunday that balls hit near the flag bounced to the back fringe, leaving virtually unmakable downhill putts.

As he took his six-iron, Rodriguez told his caddie he was going to aim right and try to bring the ball back to the left with hook spin—"kind of like a massè," he said. He also wanted the ball to jump to the left upon landing. (Calling your shot is a must in straight pool.) Rodriguez lashed at the ball, recoiled and walked sideways to inspect his work. The ball hooked sharply, landed far to the right of the flag, hopped left and then rolled slowly toward the hole, stopping two feet away. The roar of the crowd told Rodriguez he had a sure birdie on a hole that had been birdied only seven times all week.

"It was a snap hook," marveled Geiberger, watching the shot from a TV booth above the 18th green. "I don't know how he did it."

Nicklaus knew. Using a ballpoint pen for a cue and stroking an imaginary ball, the winner of 18 major golf championships demonstrated the massè for reporters in the press tent, explaining how a sharp descending blow on the cue ball makes the ball curve. Rodriguez, admiring Nicklaus's form, said, "You can make one ball jump right over another with that stroke."

So much for the six-iron massè. The question of the week was, What stroke does it take to get the ball in the hole? The South Course at Oakland Hills—called a "monster" by Ben Hogan after he won the 1951 U.S. Open on it—seemed almost tame from tee to green. But the greens! Fast and dry, with heaving swells and troughs, they inspired awe or hatred, depending on one's success with them. Dave Hill, baffled to the point of rage during practice rounds, three-putted the first green on Thursday and told his playing partners, "You may be a twosome in a few holes."

The comment was prophetic. At the end of his round (an 82), Hill was disqualified—conveniently—for signing an incorrect scorecard.

Others stuck around and looked for ways to get the ball in the hole. Amateur Hunter McDonald, 17 times the club champion at Oakland Hills, put his local knowledge to work and shot a first-round 71. Trevino, a winner by two shots over Nicklaus in last year's Senior Open, at Ridgewood Country Club in Paramus, N.J., gripped the putter between the middle and index fingers of his right hand; this so-called fork grip helped him to a one-stroke lead after three rounds.

Of course, all that was history once Nicklaus and Rodriguez teed it up in the playoff. The man in the Panama hat played well enough to win, shooting a flashy 69, but Nicklaus ran the table. The Bear had three birdies in five holes before thunderstorms interrupted play for almost two hours. Starting up again in a drizzle, Nicklaus bogeyed number 6, but he birdied 7, 8 and 12 to go five under—the lowest red number of the tournament. That put Rodriguez squarely behind the eight ball.

The rest, as pool-hall wizard Steve Mizerak used to say, was "just showin' off." Striking shot after shot with a purity that evoked his glory years, Nicklaus had the gallery enthralled. Birdie putts of five and six feet slid by the holes on numbers 14 and 15, respectively, but word quickly spread that Nicklaus was a shot off the Oakland Hills tournament one-round record of 65, shared by George Archer and T.C. Chen.

"Come on, Jack, shatter that record, baby!" one man shouted on the 16th tee.

He almost did. A near hole in one on the 17th—Nicklaus tapped in for a birdie—put him at six under, and only a final-hole bogey kept Nicklaus from clearing the rack.

"I never think of course records," he said afterward. "I don't have a clue what it even is."

Rodriguez was more awed than disappointed by Nicklaus's feat. "He played the best golf I've seen him play in 15 years," said the erstwhile hustler. "I don't think anybody could have beat him today."

Nicklaus is still the toughest stick around.

PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINOn Sunday Nicklaus had to scramble for pars, but his playoff round was nearly flawless. FOUR PHOTOSJACQUELINE DUVOISINRodriguez punctuated his rounds with his signature sword dance and paid homage to the gallery at the end of regulation play (below).
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)