It was the greatest 36-hole leaderboard in golf history. Golf’s Big 3, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player had played two rounds at the 1965 Masters, and they were deadlocked at 6-under-par 138. It was just the three of them, tied. After that came the rest of the field. Picture the TV ratings for a Saturday if Tiger, Phil and Rory topped the standings by themselves after Friday’s play. Bonanza.
Super-agent Mark McCormack and his IMG cohorts helped coin the phrase “Big 3” for a series of exhibition matches that Nicklaus, Palmer and Player had played at Hawaii’s Mauna Kea Golf Course and also at Firestone Country Club in Ohio. The trio christened the Big Island’s oceanside Mauna Kea in December 1964 and the matches were aired in March 1965, right before The Masters, so the “Big 3” concept was fresh in everybody’s minds. When April rolled around, Jack, Arnie and Gary didn’t disappoint.
Player took the first-round lead at the 1965 Masters with a sterling 65, amid benign conditions. Nicklaus recalled in his 1997 autobiography, My Story, that “easy hole locations combined with ideal scoring conditions enabled the boys to make mincemeat of the course. There were ten scores under 70 and thirty-one under par—a then unprecedented happening at Augusta National.” Nicklaus posted 67, Palmer 70, and the chase was on.
Nicklaus asserted that much tougher hole locations, plus significant wind took their toll on round two. Only one man beat 70—Palmer, with 68—and only three others bettered the par of 72, Australian Kel Nagle, 1964 PGA Champion Bobby Nichols, and Nicklaus himself, who shot 71. With Player’s 65-73, it was the Gary, Jack and Arnie Show, in whatever order you prefer. The cream had catapulted to the top.
By Saturday night, however, the Show was over. Nicklaus fired a near-perfect 64, which tied the Masters course record set 25 years before, by Lloyd Mangrum. He grabbed a five shot lead over Player and led by eight over Palmer. “I had never before and have never since played quite as fine a complete round of golf as I did on Saturday, April 10, in the third round of the 1965 Masters,” Nicklaus said. “There were a couple of small slips early on, and one particularly lucky break, but all in all I drove the ball great distances, hit it virtually dead straight with the irons, putted the eyes out of it, never fumbled a strategy decision, never was nervous, felt all the while as though golf were the simplest of human activities, wanted to go on murdering par for ever and a day, and had an absolute ball.”
On Sunday, Nicklaus slammed the door shut with a 69, for a tournament record 271, nine shots ahead of Player and Palmer, who tied for second. So dominant was the Golden Bear that it moved tournament co-founder Bobby Jones, the greatest amateur of all, to say, “Jack is playing an entirely different game—a game I’m not even familiar with.”
Nicklaus, Player and Palmer had finished 1-2-3 in two previous PGA Tour events. In the 1963 Phoenix Open at Arizona Country Club, Palmer shot 273, Player 274 and Nicklaus 275. Eighteen months later, at the 1964 Whitemarsh Open at Whitemarsh Valley Country Club, near Philadelphia, Nicklaus posted 276, Player 277 and Palmer 278. The 1965 Masters, however, proved to be the only time that the Big 3 finished a major in first, second and third position.