All Alone At The Top
This article on Jack Nicklaus's win at the 1965 Masters first appeared in the April 19, 1965, issue of Sports Illustrated.
Although he has been in the limelight of professional golf for three years now — and it is a pretty blinding limelight — Jack Nicklaus may still be one of the least understood of major sports celebrities. In the past when concentrating on his work, as great golfers must, he has often worn a scowl that is considered unfriendly and even overly aggressive by those who do not know him. There are some who consider him cocky, although he is really quite deferential for a man of his unusual talents. Only two years ago, the enormous gallery that surrounded the 18th green at the Masters actually cheered when a bogey for Nicklaus was posted on the scoreboard.
Nonetheless, Jack Nicklaus won the Masters Tournament in 1963. Last week, under memorable circumstances, he repeated that victory before an equally enormous crowd, but this time they knew and liked him. As he came up the 18th fairway the applause that greeted him must have broken several sound barriers, and every clap of it was heartfelt and sincere. He was, at last, an unforgettable part of Masters history, for he was smashing Ben Hogan's 12-year-old tournament record of 274 by three strokes and had already tied the one-round record of 64. As he removed his floppy white golf hat, a grin as wide as Augusta National's fairways spread across his face. There was no mistaking now that, at 25, Jack Nicklaus not only is the most talented young golfer to come along in 40 years, but one of the most likable as well.
Nicklaus had come to Augusta feeling good and feeling confident, but he could not have been prepared for the warmth of the followers who awaited him there. As soon as he sensed it he began to grin with them, and talk to them and laugh with them in such a casual fashion that it became hard to realize he was a man taking apart a fabled golf course as no Sam Snead or Ben Hogan or Byron Nelson or Arnold Palmer ever had. His 67-71-64-69 — 271 on one of the world's most demanding courses was an awesome performance. And yet he managed it with such ease — without even playing his best golf, in fact — that the suspicion lingers he could do it again tomorrow. His finish left him an overwhelming nine strokes ahead of his nearest competitors, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, who themselves had played so well that their 280s would have won all but five of the 28 previous Masters championships. In fact, early in the tournament each of them had looked like a winner: Player on Thursday, Palmer on Friday.
Customarily the birdies come slowly and reluctantly on the opening day of the Masters, as if the golfers are timid about damaging the reputation of Augusta National and timid, too, about taking gambles that might ruin their hopes before they so much as have a chance to be proud of being invited. But last Thursday was different. The course was benign, and the golfers were not. The weather was warm, dry and breezeless, and the tournament committee, perhaps deceived by predictions of rain or upset by increasing complaints that only long hitters can win the Masters anymore, had moved the tee markers up and put the pins in easy positions.
As a result, short hitters were reaching the greens on the par-5 holes in two, long hitters were getting there with a drive and a five-iron and the towering scoreboards were becoming walls of crimson — red being the color used to post subpar scores at Augusta. On its most generous day in the past — the third round of last year's Masters — the course had submitted to only 20 subpar rounds. On this opening Thursday, 33 players were under par. To assess the scope of Augusta's humiliation you need only consider that this is more subpar rounds for a first day than the pros managed at Greensboro, Pensacola, Jacksonville, Phoenix, San Francisco, the Crosby or the L.A. Open this year. By the time Gary Player got ready to tee off in the afternoon he not only could see that Tommy Aaron was in with a 67, but that Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tony Lema, Dan Sikes, Tommy Bolt, Wes Ellis and every 6-foot mule skinner from Texas was on his way to shooting Augusta National in zero or less.
Yet always exuberant Gary was not dismayed. He had a new set of muscles that several months of intensive exercises had produced. He was this very day reading The Power of Positive Thinking. He was convinced, as he had said the week before, that "all you have to do at Augusta is stand there on the tee and hit the ball at the whole world. You can't get in trouble, the fairways are so wide." He had a new jewel-bright putter that he had paid $50 for in Japan. And he was telling everybody, "I'm playing so well I can't believe it."
Whatever Gary thought, or said, he was right. Unintimidated by that red sea of subpar figures already posted, he started off birdie, birdie, birdie. Out in 32, his magnificent golf faltered only twice on the back nine, but each time he salvaged a par and he subsequently added three more birdies for a 65, to take a two-stroke lead. Only two other golfers in Masters history had shot a 65.
Afterward, Gary was understandably euphoric. He talked at length about his meticulous diet and the exercises he has been taking with weights, and said that within another year even bigger muscles will add 15 or 20 yards to his tee shots. He forecast that by 1970 most of the tournament golfers would be working with weights. "They do it in every other sport," he said, "so it only stands to reason that they will do it in golf. Jack and Arnie kid me a lot about all my exercising and muscle building. Well, let me tell you they wouldn't if they got shrunk to 5 feet 7 and had to stand on the tee with me. Then we'd see who outhit who."
("Man," said old Jimmy Demaret, who had shot a 71 even though his muscles are mostly around his middle, "we got guys on the tour now who don't eat anything but seaweed and tree roots. If Gary keeps this up he'll be a real goner.")
Naturally, after Player's fine round it occurred to many people that Ben Hogan's tournament record of 274, which he set in 1953, might be in peril. "It depends on the weather," Player said. "Every record in sport must go sometime. But if anyone is going to break Hogan's I would have to say it will be Nicklaus. There is no such thing as a par-5 hole on this golf course for Nicklaus because he is so strong and he hits the ball so far. Not only that, he has a tremendous touch. I predict that if the weather is good Jack will break the tournament record."
Earlier in the day Nicklaus had made a small start toward fulfilling this slightly nonpositive thinking by Player. His 67 had put him in a four-way tie with Aaron, Lema and Sikes, but somehow the Nicklaus 67 was achieved with such freewheeling ease that it seemed like a routine round. This was not the grunting and straining Nicklaus of other years, who sometimes swung at the ball like a lumberman whacking a redwood. The Nicklaus swing of this tournament was so smooth and effortless that Jack looked to be only half trying. Yet he was hitting his drives 300 yards and better, and lofting little wedge shots to greens that other players could only reach with much longer clubs. Nicklaus was also hitting his irons high, as he usually does. This is especially important at the Masters. "They talk about his driving," said Byron Nelson, "but he wins at Augusta because he has that very long, very high iron shot that just drops on the green." In seven practice rounds during the week before the Masters, Nicklaus was never once over par, and his confidence in himself fairly bubbled forth. But when he went home from the course Thursday night he was far from happy with his putting. Changes were coming up. He was two strokes behind Player, and only three ahead of that ever-fearsome fellow, Arnold Palmer.
In addition to all the birdies, there were two other things to see on Thursday, one chilling, one warm. A smattering of people watched as Ken Venturi teed off at 11 a.m., the circulation in his ailing right hand no better. ("I can stick pins in it and not feel anything," he told a fellow pro.) His first shot went into some fruit trees on the right. He played seven holes before he reached a green in regulation figures. His longest tee shots were less than 200 yards. He is the U.S. Open champion, but no gallery followed him, understandably, perhaps. Ken Venturi was something not to see.
Then there was Bobby Jones. The glorious weather brought him out, a rare appearance on the course for the man who started the Masters. He is suffering severely these days from spinal trouble and is hardly able to fulfill the role of host to the tournament, turning over most of the work to his old friend and colleague, Clifford Roberts. But on this fine day Jones was driven out to the back nine in a golf cart. He was at the 15th hole when Jack Nicklaus got a birdie 4. After holing out, Nicklaus walked over to Bob Jones and greeted him with all the touching respect that today's famous golfers feel toward this legendary figure whom most of them are too young ever to have seen in action. As each of the following players approached the 15th green, Jones checked his identity with a nearby official, for he wanted to greet each by name. As they passed his cart on their way to the 16th tee, each would stop, tip his hat and shake Jones's hand.
Jones must also have enjoyed the enthusiasm of the crowd. For the second consecutive year, Masters officials sensibly limited galleries to a figure that is their own well-kept secret, although estimates run anywhere from 25,000 to 40,000, the former probably being closer to the truth. On Thursday only 2,500 daily tickets were left to be put on sale at the gates, and the supply was exhausted within an hour after play began. Tickets for Saturday and Sunday had been sold out for a week, and scalpers were getting as much as $175 for a two-day pair. One radio station advertised a telephone number where tickets could be obtained, but another, WBIA, took a different tack. On Saturday morning an announcer read and reread an editorial abhorring the scalping as a blow to civic pride and requested listeners to report any such activity to the tournament committee at once. "WBIA can only ask that you let your conscience be your guide," the voice intoned. Preferred parking stickers were also at a premium, and one local citizen whose conscience was guiding him astray was peddling photostats of them, which caused a bit of a crush in the parking lots. Thus golf had its first gate-crashing, credential-forging, ticket-scalping tournament, and never mind if the players were happily whipping their way around the hallowed Augusta National course as if it were the site of the Sioux City Open.
Friday started with a bulletin and a breeze, and both meant trouble. The first, News Bulletin No. 12, was signed by R. T. Jones Jr. and Clifford Roberts and said, in part: "The world's finest golfers responded splendidly to the most ideal course and weather conditions we have ever been privileged to offer. Our golf course officials will follow our established procedure with respect to pin locations and tee markers. We anticipate and hope for more low scoring today." Oh, sure. And Rome hoped Hannibal wouldn't mind the Alps. What the golf course officials did was move the tee markers back and put the pins in some fanciful positions. The effect of their effort was abetted by the wind, which is especially nasty at Augusta because it cuts and swirls through the giant pines in unpredictable patterns. Now subtle skills were needed, and the Masters was for masters once again.
Defending Champion Palmer, the tournament's only four-time winner, took command. His opening-round 70 had looked anemic alongside Player's 65 and all the 67s and 68s that filled the scoreboard. Already the Palmer-doubters were beginning to write him off. But Arnold had actually played quite well. His driving was excellent and he was hitting his irons firmly. Only his putting had lacked authority. He had two three-putt greens but, more important, he had at least two good birdie putts that he seemed to hit lamely off to the low side of the hole.
On the Monday before the tournament started he had received five new Arnold Palmer putters from his company in Chattanooga, though they could not be told from his famous old one because the manufacturer is now dipping this model putter into copper sulphate to give it a rusted look. But not even instant rust could help Arnold's confidence. He had been fussing about his putting for weeks. "He has to get his confidence back," his wife Winnie said. "Last night Arnie was certain that he was the worst putter who ever stepped onto a golf course. Just try and convince him he is wrong. The big difference between Jack and Arnie right now is confidence. It does not occur to Jack that he can miss a putt. It is when you get older that you realize you can miss them."
Arnie began his Friday round in a nine-way tie for 12th place, with a different putter in his bag and, almost surely, a slighted feeling because his name was not on the leader's scoreboard. On the first green he sank a perilous 18-footer for a birdie 3. On the second, he two-putted from just off the back edge of the green for a birdie 4. Quickly his name reappeared on the scoreboards, one of which noted him as A. Palmer (is there a B. Palmer?). On the third hole he sank a 40-foot chip shot for a birdie, and now he was within two strokes of Player.
By the time he got to the 13th Arnie's Army was in full cry, and he was ready to gamble. To shouts of, "Go for it, Arnie," he hit a nervy three-wood out of a nasty lie against a strong wind. It carried the water and reached the green, where he two-putted for a birdie. The same choice of club was later to cost Nicklaus a bogey when his ball just barely cleared the creek and then rolled back into the water. But Arnold's tremendous shot landed well on, and the Army loved it.
Palmer got his birdie at the 13th and another at the par-5 15th after an equally daring wood shot that was hit into the gallery — very likely on purpose, but soldiers in any Army must be prepared to suffer. He coasted in from there with a 68 that might easily have been three or four strokes better. It was the best score of the day by two strokes and, considering the conditions, probably the best round of the tournament so far. The only other subpar rounds among those who survived the cut were Ken Nagle's 70 and 71s by Nicklaus and Bobby Nichols. Player, who came in with a rather dicey 73, was now locked in a three-way tie for the lead with Palmer and Nicklaus at 138. Where a few hours earlier Ben Hogan's tournament record had seemed in serious jeopardy, now it appeared safe again for years to come.
What had happened to so drastically change the character of Augusta National? It was agreed that, as Palmer put it, "The course played almost as hard today as it played easy yesterday. The pin placements were as difficult as I've ever seen for a day like today. My guess is that they had a little thing in the back of their minds about some 30 or more scores under par yesterday. They didn't want to see that again."
"You could drop a bag of balls on some of the fairways and not hit one of them closer than 10 feet to the hole," said Player. Tony Lema thought the course played "six strokes tougher," which was the difference between his scores on Thursday and Friday.
On Saturday everyone settled down to watch the contest between the leaders — Palmer, Player and Nicklaus — and if the situation had a decided similarity to a television series called Big Three Golf, well, that's show biz.
Nicklaus was the first of the trio to leave the tee, and after a routine par on the first hole he came up with a remarkable birdie on 2, a 555-yard par-5. His tee shot was of epic proportions and could have resulted in epic trouble. It started to the right, began to fade even more and was last visible over a pine forest and headed in the general direction of Atlanta. The trees eventually slowed the ball, and it fell in a bed of pine needles about 25 yards deep in the woods. When Jack walked up his face was a mask of concern. Then he looked toward the green and discovered a wide-open path for his shot. He raised his eyes to heaven, his face broke into a wide grin and from that moment on he was never in danger of losing the 1965 Masters. He hit a three-iron out of the woods, put a wedge on the green and stood over a 22-foot putt with a slightly different stance than the one he had used the day before. It was wider and more open, and it worked, for the ball went in.
With that, the deluge was on. Par, birdie, par, birdie, birdie, birdie, par for an outgoing 31. At each tee he was greeted with thundering applause. ("I hope it doesn't wake him up," said his wife Barbara on the 9th hole.)
Though Jack did not know it, it was his birdie on the 7th hole that caused his biggest foe double trouble, for it came as Arnold Palmer was about to hit a pitch shot to the 2nd green. Palmer already knew that Jack had suddenly gotten three strokes ahead. Now came the roar from 7, which adjoins the 2nd hole. "It shook me," said Arnold later. "I started pressing. It was the turning point."
Still, it is doubtful that anything Arnold Palmer could have done would have stopped Jack Nicklaus, who was now making more of a rout of the Masters than Palmer had in his hottest year.
When Jack sank an eight-foot putt on the 16th hole for his eighth birdie of the afternoon, he needed only two pars to tie the 64 that Lloyd Mangrum shot in 1940. He was now 14 strokes under par for the tournament, which quite obviously put Hogan's record within easy reach. At that point, his nearest pursuer, Player, was seven strokes to the rear. Palmer, who was still struggling with his balky putter, was back even farther.
As it turned out, Nicklaus tucked away his final two pars to equal the 18-hole record, and Player, thanks to birdies on the two par-5 holes on the back nine, pulled to within five strokes of him with an excellent 69. Palmer's shaky 72 left him trailing by eight strokes and out of contention.
Strangely enough, Nicklaus was not at the very top of his form during this monumental round of golf. He hit five drives that he rated as "bad," but the rest of his game was so sharp and his putting touch was so delicate that he demonstrated the single most depressing fact that the touring pros have to contemplate in their spare time: even when he is not at his absolute peak, Nicklaus can shoot the kind of scores that others can achieve only on a day of miracles. Bob Jones was not talking idly when he recently described Nicklaus as "the greatest golfer who ever lived."
It took a bit of prodding from the press before Nicklaus would eventually concede that his 64 was "as fine a round as I've ever had." Even then he felt obliged to qualify the statement by adding, "except for my bad drives; but as far as knowing what I was doing with the ball." He refused to speculate on what the next day might bring. "I just want to finish one stroke ahead of the field," he insisted. "I'll just go out there and try to play it the way I did today." When he realized what he had said, he broke out laughing.
Sunday was strictly for laughs, and whatever the scalpers were getting for tickets they should have been ashamed to be selling entry to a sporting event that was already over. Before Nicklaus could even tee off, the rest of the contenders — if that's what they could be called — were having more troubles. Nicklaus never did have any, and though he later said he did not relax until he was past the dangerous 12th hole, his 69 had a commanding, effortless air about it. Without a doubt he had taken possession of the Augusta National course as well as seizing a host of its records. When his last putt fell he snatched the ball out of the hole and joyously threw it into the crowd. Within minutes he was accepting the traditional green coat and the big trophy, and Masters officials can be excused if they were keeping a close eye on the Eisenhower cottage. It was about the only thing around that Nicklaus had not taken as his own.
"I have an aversion to superlatives," Bobby Jones told Jack Nicklaus at the presentation ceremonies, "but this was the greatest performance in all golfing history."
And then, moments later and before a much smaller audience, the man who founded the Masters added another thought. "Palmer and Player played superbly," he said. "Nicklaus plays a game with which I am not familiar."