The explosion of Tiger Woods onto the golf scene has often been
compared with that of Jack Nicklaus 35 years ago, and indeed
there are similarities. Both turned professional after
distinguished amateur careers and, while still the reigning U.S.
Amateur champion, won a major--Nicklaus, the 1962 U.S. Open;
Woods, this year's Masters. But there the parallel ends.
It took Nicklaus many years and many major championship titles
to be recognized as the game's best. Today everyone agrees that
Woods rules golf by the same margin his tee shots outdistance
the field's. Is it too soon to congratulate him on winning next
week's U.S. Open or on being inducted into the Hall of Fame?
When he plays the 16th hole at Augusta National next year, will
he walk around the pond or across it?
What's more, all of America has fallen in love with him. He is
on magazine covers, talk shows and commercials. There are books
about Tiger and will be one by Tiger. When he made that trip to
Thailand last winter, the major networks reported on it. And why
not? He is young, handsome, talented and multiethnic. All four
are important, but it is the fourth that has made him a
celebrity, even among people who don't know a wedge from a putter.
So how come victory by the 22-year-old Nicklaus in his first
Open as a professional didn't create the same sort of frenzy?
There are several reasons, but the biggest by far was the man he
beat in an 18-hole playoff: Arnold Palmer. Except in Nicklaus's
hometown of Columbus, Ohio, where he and his wife, Barbara, were
given a decidedly off-Broadway ticker-tape parade, the first of
Jack's 18 major championships was as popular as a toothache. The
tournament had been held at Oakmont in western Pennsylvania,
some 30 miles from Palmer's home in Latrobe, and Jack had
committed the unpardonable sin of beating Arnie head-to-head. As
a friend of Nicklaus's later said, "The first time he went into
the forest, he shot Robin Hood."
June 8, 1997
At the time, Palmer was the most popular player in golf, and the
vast legions of Arnie's Army hated Nicklaus for beating their
hero. Palmer was 32 and at the top of his game. He had won three
Masters, a British Open and a U.S. Open, the last in 1960 with a
final-round 65 at Cherry Hills to beat Nicklaus, then a
20-year-old college junior, by two. Palmer was attractive, if
not handsome, and had a swashbuckling, go-for-broke style that
was exciting to watch, even if it cost him several majors along
Television caught it all. Today we take TV for granted, so
unless you were alive before it existed, it is difficult to
appreciate the impact TV made. It suddenly put everyone into the
arenas--Yankee Stadium, the Rose Bowl and, in 1958, Augusta
National, the year Palmer won his first Masters. Two years later
television showed us Ken Venturi sitting in the Butler Cabin,
waiting to try on his first green jacket. But there, on camera,
came Palmer, a stroke behind, birdieing 17 and 18 to win. The
next day Arnie played the course again, this time in the company
of a high handicapper, President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Everything was go, Arnie, go.
Then Nicklaus intruded on this golfing Camelot. He was
overweight and kept his hair in a crewcut at a time when short
hair was going out of style. At Oakmont he wore baggy, olive
green slacks that were almost iridescent. Barbara called them
his "Army refugee pants." Nicklaus had been the most widely
acclaimed amateur since Bobby Jones, and in some ways he was
even more impressive as an amateur than Woods was. He didn't
have those juniors titles Tiger had, nor did he win three
Amateur championships in a row, but he did win two--in 1959 and
'61--and had followed his runner-up finish to Palmer at the '60
Open with a tie for fourth the following year.
But nobody knew Nicklaus, not the way we knew Tiger when he
turned professional last August. Television covered all three
U.S. Amateurs that Woods won, including his come-from-behind
final-match victory over Steve Scott last year, so he was a
celebrity before he hit his first shot as a pro. Sure, we had
read about Nicklaus's achievements in magazines and newspapers,
but he was never brought into our living rooms the way Tiger
was. So Nicklaus was regarded as an unattractive, poorly dressed
young brute who could crush the ball into the next county. He
had just swiped a U.S. Open from our Arnie--in Palmer's own
backyard, no less--and appeared capable of doing it many more
When Woods turned pro, there was no undisputed champion to
behead, much less a nationally loved one. Greg Norman? Perhaps a
year or two earlier he might have been a candidate, for despite
his various misfortunes in major championships, he had talent
and charisma. But before Woods got to him, Nick Faldo did,
putting away Norman in the 1996 Masters. Faldo? A great player,
but erratic of late and no idol, even at home in Great Britain.
Fred Couples? John Daly? Tom Lehman? Hardly in a league with
Arnold Palmer. America's golf fans yearned for a hero, and along
There is a mistaken impression that Nicklaus laid Palmer to rest
with his victory at Oakmont. Not true. A month later Palmer went
to Troon and won his second consecutive British Open. Nicklaus
finished 34th. Order had been restored. Palmer won eight times
in 1962 and was the Tour's leading money winner. Nicklaus won
three times and was third in earnings. At every tournament in
which they both played, Palmer was the crowd favorite. One year
at the Masters, soon after Nicklaus turned professional, a small
plane circled overhead, a banner streaming behind it that read
GO, ARNIE, GO. The same message appeared next to one of the
leader boards on the course until tournament officials ordered
Nicklaus's achievements during those first few years were often
met by silence. Or worse. In 1963, on his way to his first
Masters title, Jack bogeyed the 12th hole on Sunday and was
stunned when many people in the gallery cheered. He felt it was
one thing to be the villain on your opponent's home turf, as was
the case at Oakmont, but it was difficult to stomach at Augusta.
It wasn't until 1965, en route to his second Masters crown, that
the galleries began to warm to Nicklaus. Around the rest of the
country, however, he was still the man in the black hat, as
Nicklaus himself phrased it. Gay Brewer said he was embarrassed
when fans booed Nicklaus in Dallas one year. At another
tournament, someone placed a sign behind a bunker that read HIT
IT HERE, JACK.
We skip ahead to the Open of 30 years ago, the 1967 championship
at Baltusrol. If there had been a world ranking system in place,
it would have shown Nicklaus as the game's dominant player. In
17 major championships dating back to the 1963 Masters, Nicklaus
had won five times, finished second four times and third twice.
Palmer had only one victory in a major--his fourth Masters, in
1964--and three seconds, including 18-hole playoff losses in the
'63 and '66 Opens. Yet such was America's affection for Palmer
that few were ready to admit that the torch had been passed.
At Baltusrol, Nicklaus and Palmer went head-to-head again and
this time, because of their scores, were paired together on
Saturday and Sunday. It seemed that every spectator on that
Springfield, N.J., course, and probably those in front of
television sets around the country, was rooting for Arnie. On
Saturday the two adversaries stayed close, but on Sunday,
Nicklaus shot 65 to Palmer's 69 and won by four shots. Palmer,
who certainly will go down as the greatest player to win the
Open only once, was second for the fourth time in six years.
SPORTS ILLUSTRATED's headline for that Open was JACK DELIVERS
THE CRUSHER. Its subhead began "An Army was against him" and
concluded that the win "now establishes him as a golfer without
peer." A week after the tournament, Nicklaus was interviewed, on
tape, by SI's Gwilym Brown and, in his high-pitched voice, said
this about the galleries: "On Saturday we came to the 18th, a
par-5. I outdrive Arnold by 30 yards. He hits a four-wood toward
the green. Crowd goes wild. I hit a four-iron. Silence. Nothing
from the crowd. I figure his is close and mine must be long,
into the pro shop or down the driveway. Turns out I'm 15 feet
from the hole, he's just over the green, yet the crowd cheers
his shot. [A pause on the tape.] Big deal."
By now even the most ardent Palmer fans recognized there was a
new king of golf, but Arnie still held the hearts of the nation.
If one needed proof, the 1968 Open provided it. Through three
rounds Palmer had one of the highest scores, and ABC was having
a fit. For the previous two years he had been the focus of the
network's U.S. Open telecasts: the heart-wrenching loss to Billy
Casper, in which he blew a seven-shot lead on the back nine at
Olympic; and the battle at Baltusrol with Nicklaus. Now he was
scheduled to tee off early on Sunday, meaning he would be
through with his round long before ABC's cameras went on.
Astonishingly, the U.S. Golf Association solved the network's
problem by having Palmer and playing partners Jack Lewis and Jim
Simons tee off last, just a few minutes behind the leaders, Bert
Yancey and the eventual winner, an obscure Texan named Lee
Trevino, neither of whom had box-office appeal. So there it was,
a telecast showing Trevino winning the first of his six major
championships, intermingled with shots of the aging hero,
Palmer, struggling to finish in a tie for 59th.
If one could point to the time when the public finally warmed to
Nicklaus, it was in late 1969, a period he later called his
"metamorphosis." He had already replaced his "housepainter's
pants" (his description) in favor of brightly colored slacks and
shirts designed by Hart, Schaffer & Marx, with whom he had an
endorsement contract. At the Ryder Cup at Royal Birkdale he
played two singles matches--36 holes--the final day and left the
course exhausted. On the flight home he told Barbara he felt he
needed to lose weight, perhaps as much as 20 pounds, which he
did over the next month or so. His crewcut had given way to
longer hair that was neatly combed, but now he added sideburns,
in the style of the times; grew his hair even longer; and
stopped slicking it down. Barbara began to call him a sex symbol.
Even so, the specter of Palmer continued to haunt him. When
Nicklaus, having picked up his fourth green jacket, at the 1972
Masters, teed off in the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach 25 years ago
this month, his main challenger seemed to be Trevino, who had
outdueled him to win the Open in a playoff at Merion the year
before. Nicklaus's game was never better. He had won three of
the previous seven majors, his worst finish in that stretch
being a tie for sixth. He had been a wire-to-wire winner at that
year's Masters and proceeded to lead the first three rounds of
Yet, just past midway in the final round at Pebble Beach, there
came a moment when Nicklaus, who had been up by as many as four
strokes but had double-bogeyed, needed an eight-foot putt for a
bogey at the 12th. Trevino, paired with Nicklaus, had dropped
far back, as had other challengers. Up ahead, guess who was
suddenly in contention and had an eight-footer for birdie?
America's hero. The old champion was challenging the current
champion one last time. Television went to a split screen. If
Palmer made his putt and Nicklaus missed his, the two would be
tied. Within seconds of each other, both stroked their putts.
Palmer missed, Nicklaus made, and not long after, Nicklaus had
won his third U.S. Open.
That was Palmer's last challenge to a Nicklaus victory in the
Open. He had finished second, second and third. When Nicklaus
won his fourth Open, at Baltusrol in 1980, Palmer, at 50, had
moved into a ceremonial role. He finished 61st. There were no
more of the whoops and hollers that had echoed across the course
13 years earlier, or at Oakmont five years before that.
Instead the cheers were all for Nicklaus. At 40 it was he who
had become the aging warrior, and the cracks were showing. Of
the previous 17 major championships, he had won only the 1978
British Open, so when he birdied the final two holes to nail
down the title, a swarm of fans rushed onto the green. Near the
clubhouse where, 13 years earlier, a GO, ARNIE, GO sign had
hung, there was another. This one read WELCOME BACK, JACK.