This story first appeared in the April 21, 1975, issue of Sports Illustrated.
Yeah, but Manny, we want Bob Red-ford for all three leading men. Okay, Jimmy Caan for Weiskopf, but Red-ford’s got to play those two blond guys, Nicklaus and Miller. We call it The Greatest Golf Tournament Ever Played. So people argue. Who’ll know? One blond guy makes a putt from here to Encino, and then the other two guys miss putts on the 18th from so close the hole looks as big as Coldwater Canyon. Now the blond guy who wins, Nicklaus, who is already the best there ever was, he marries his one-iron and takes his putter for a mistress. Cut and print. Ciao, baby.
There was something about the 1975 Masters that was cinematic from the beginning. The setup was perfect, all of the world’s best golfers coming into the thing primed, poised, inspired, eager. And sure enough it began to unfold toward what promised to be a historic climax, one way or another. But no one could possibly imagine that in the final hours it would become so excruciatingly exciting and monumentally meaningful in terms of the characters involved.
Honestly, if someone had said to one of those brilliant screenwriters, do me a script where the year’s first major tournament comes along and on the last day, Sunday, April 13, Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf go out there and undergo the most unbearable of sporting pressure and provide the most inconceivable of thrills, hole after hole, until the whole business is ultimately decided by the vagaries of the game itself, what would have been written was precisely what happened last week in Augusta, Ga.
This was the 39th annual Masters, but you can take all of your double eagles and your playoffs and your Arnold Palmers and Ben Hogans and Byron Nelsons, and nothing has ever equaled what happened when Nicklaus bagged his fifth Masters and his 15th major championship. The record will show that Nicklaus stood up to, outgutted, outmiracled — whatever — a Johnny Miller who stung the Augusta National with closing rounds of 65 and 66 and a Tom Weiskopf who rushed home with 66 and 70. The cold print will reveal that Nicklaus managed it by starting swifter, with opening rounds of 68 and 67, which gave him a six-stroke lead on Weiskopf and an 11-stroke lead on Miller through 36 holes.
But then things started to get confusing, as they invariably do at Augusta, and after some fairly hysterical occurrences on Saturday, when Miller and Weiskopf stormed forward while Nicklaus was agonizing through a round of 73, the scene was all set for something goshawful to happen on Sunday.
To appreciate the unraveling of nerves over the last nine holes, with all three of them playing in one another’s shadows, you ought to know how they blistered their way over the front nine through all of the Augusta evils that CBS-TV has yet to get on camera. Here was the situation: Weiskopf was leading after 54 holes by one shot over Nicklaus and by four over Miller. No one else was in serious contention, although so many legendary names had played reasonably well — Arnold Palmer, Lee Trevino, Billy Casper among them — that this Masters had seemed to be something of a Hall of Fame club championship.
Nicklaus was paired with Tom Watson, one of the young stars, in the next to last twosome of the day. And right behind them were Weiskopf and Miller. They would be able to see one another on practically every shot, and when they could not, there would certainly be those thunderous roars and prolonged groans from the Augusta crowds to keep them informed of what the others were doing.
This then is how it went on the early holes as Nicklaus gouged out the 68 and 276 that gave him victory, as Miller streaked to his 66 and the 277 that left him in second for the second time, and as Weiskopf carved out a 70 and the 277 that made him a runner-up for a heart-wrenching fourth time. Like this: Nicklaus bogeys the 1st hole; they par. Nicklaus and Miller birdie the 2nd; Weiskopf pars. Weiskopf and Nicklaus birdie the 3rd; Miller bogeys. Nicklaus and Weiskopf par the 4th; Miller birdies. Nicklaus birdies the 5th with an iron shot that swallows the flag. Through five holes: Nicklaus and Weiskopf tied, Miller four back.
Onward, drama lovers. Miller and Weiskopf birdie the 6th; Jack pars. Everybody pars 7. Miller birdies 8. Into the 9th, the turn, where Nicklaus and Miller both nail the flag and get their putts for birdies while Weiskopf pars. Miller is out in four under, Jack in three under and Tom in two under. Nicklaus and Weiskopf are tied, Miller two back. Can anyone really stand the back nine?
On Sunday night Nicklaus would try to describe what this sort of situation is like. “Fun,” he would call it. “To be out there in the middle of something like that is fun,” he would insist. “You’re inspired, you’re eager, you’re excited. You almost want to break into a dead run when you hit a good shot. It’s what you’ve prepared yourself for, what you wait a year for. To know you can look back some day and know you were a part of something like it, that’s just great.”
There is an old saying that the real Masters doesn’t begin until the back nine on Sunday. It’s a tiresome thing to point out, but it continues to be true. Amen Corner does it. Those holes with the water and shadows and swirling breezes and demon options. Plus the aquatic dangers of 15 and 16 and the last treacherous green where so many putts have ripped at the hearts of so many players.
Johnny Miller will see Nicklaus winning this Masters as his own short birdie try creeps just outside the cup at the 10th, as his measly two-footer twists out of the cup at the 11th for a bogey, as both he and Weiskopf have one final chance for a birdie at 18 and his 20-footer makes a cruel left-hand turn at the last moment.
Tom Weiskopf will see Nicklaus winning this Masters as “a fat five-iron” fails to carry the embankment at the 11th green and plunges into the blue pond. He rescues a bogey with a marvelous wedge shot, but the damage has been done. He will also see Jack whipping him again as he bogeys the 16th hole — as he had bogeyed it to lose a year ago — with a sad iron off the tee and a deplorable chip shot. And lastly, after Miller had missed, he will watch an eight-foot birdie putt on the final green hold above the cup when it seemed it had to go slightly left, drop and force a playoff.
“I can’t believe I lost this tournament,” Weiskopf said. “The luck balances out. It comes down to the last hole and you hit a good drive, a good approach shot and good putt and it stays out. All I know is, one of these days the putt is going in and I’ll win a Masters.”
If Nicklaus won the day with his own heroics, he did it with one long iron shot at the 15th hole and with a birdie putt at the 16th that traveled 40 wondrous feet into the hole and made Nicklaus and his caddie, Willie Peterson, resemble Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers.
When Nicklaus reached his drive in the 15th fairway he trailed Weiskopf by one stroke and he knew he had to have a birdie at the very least. The shot was a 240-yard one-iron over the water on this par-5 that has decided so many Masters. You knew Jack liked it the instant he took the cut at it and indeed he later called it the best pressure shot of his life. For the entire distance the ball was on the flag, a double eagle without knickers and the thumb off the shaft. Not really a deuce, of course, but one heck of a golf shot when he had to have it. It gave him an easy two-putt birdie from roughly 15 feet, and sent him glint-eyed toward the 16th. He liked the iron on the 16th but it fell short, and now he faced one of those long putts he hadn’t made in a couple of days. It was right on line and the speed looked perfect. One last curl to the left, and down it went and Jack leaped and started running to his right. The ensuing roar alone might have destroyed any other competitors but Miller and Weiskopf.
The Masters always encompasses daily dramas, large and small, as well as numerous human-interest episodes. This year one of them featured Lee Elder, the first black man to win an invitation.
Elder’s arrival in Augusta on Monday afternoon from Greensboro was anxiously awaited by a thirsty press. Lee came in a pleasant mood but uttered a few “no comments” about his feelings and said he would withhold all of his innermost thoughts until an official press conference on Tuesday. The conference was staged, but it was matched in dullness only by a conversation about the state of health of the wistaria vine on the big oak outside the main clubhouse door.
Elder began the tournament on Thursday with a par four and he birdied the 2nd hole, but he played rather routinely from there on and finished up with a two-over 74 that he claimed to be happy with. There were no incidents, other than a few rednecks on the bank of the 16th green whooping and applauding when he missed a short putt. People were polite and gave him a generous hand as he trudged up and down the hills.
It was suspected that Elder would play poorly at Augusta because he was unfamiliar with the course, which turned out to be the case. He shot a 78 on Friday and missed becoming one of the 46 players to make the 36-hole cut. At Augusta it is possible for the entire field to make the cut, for the rules state that anyone within 10 strokes of the leader is eligible to hang around on Saturday and Sunday. But Nicklaus had set such a fast pace with his 135 he sent more players packing than usual.
Someone said, well, Elder missed the cut but look who made it: a Japanese (Jumbo Ozaki), a Chinese (Mr. Lu), an Indian (Rod Curl), three Mexicans (Trevino, Homero Blancas, Vic Regalado), one Englishman (Maurice Bembridge), two Australians (Graham Marsh, Bruce Devlin), three South Africans (Gary Player, Bobby Cole, Hugh Baiocchi) and two amateurs (George Burns, Jerry Pate).
The Masters’ final Sunday never lets you down for excitement, but the earlier rounds can frequently be routine. Now and again, however, one of them etches itself into the grand annals of the tournament’s history, and such was the case with Saturday’s third round. Mostly, it will become known as Miller’s Saturday despite the shotmaking Weiskopf provided much later in the day.
Miller admitted he began the tournament “choking.” He bogeyed the very first hole on Thursday and bad-putted his way to a 75. Even after a second-round 71 he was no more a part of the tournament than the veranda standers. At 146 he was 11 strokes behind Nicklaus, and some of the players were leaning back in their leather chairs in the locker room and saying, “By the way, whatever happened to the Nicklaus-Miller duel?”
Now came Saturday, a day that gleamed with bright weather compared to the mist and rain of the first two rounds. Miller had teed off early and he was finishing the front nine as Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were about to begin at 2:10 p.m.
At the Masters they post notes of interest on the huge scoreboards that rise up out of the pines. On the one everybody can see from the putting green, from behind the 9th and 18th greens and from the veranda, a note was posted: Miller four under. Nicklaus and Palmer glanced casually at the scoreboard as they loitered on the putting green, and Jack said later that he couldn’t tell immediately whether it was a red four (for under) or a green four (for over par). Nicklaus is color-blind.
It did occur to him, though, that there would be no news value in posting a four-over number.
“Pretty good round Miller’s got going,” Nicklaus said to Palmer.
“Yeah, four under,” Palmer said.
“Six,” Nicklaus said, pointing out that Miller had been two over par when the day began.
Palmer squinted at the scoreboard.
“Yeah, not bad,” he said.
Nicklaus smiled. “I guess not,” he said. “It’s only an alltime record.”
What happened was that Miller had not only broken the front-side record with his remarkable 30, he had done it with one of those splurges so characteristic of the way he can sometimes catch fire. With, for instance, six birdies in a row.
They like to construct monuments on the Augusta National premises. Things like the Sarazen and Nelson bridges, commemorating past deeds. For Johnny Miller on the 2nd through the 7th holes there may one day be a walkway of bronzed soft-drink cans.
Here is how you make six birdies in succession, starting with the belief that such a thing is possible:
On the par-5 2nd hole, which sweeps down a hill to the left, you hit a driver, a five-wood into a bunker by the green, and blast out to within one foot of the cup.
On the 3rd you drive with a three-wood and hit a pitching wedge 14 feet from the flag, and you sink the putt.
On the par-3 4th, which is a biggie and all loaded up with dangers, you smack a two-iron about 10 feet away and you drop this one.
On the par-4 5th, which is one of the toughest holes on the course, although perhaps the least scenic and praised, you crush a driver, spank a four-iron to about 14 feet — on No. 5, that’s considered “stiff” — and you make this one.
On the par-3 6th, which drops off into a hollow, you float a five-iron down there that looks like an ace. One foot from the flag.
And on the 7th you get lucky. You hit a three-wood to guide it up the narrow fairway but the pitching wedge from a bad lie is terrible, not even on the green, but puttable. So from 35 feet you calmly watch it ramble its way into the hole.
“After the birdie at the 6th,” Miller said, “I started thinking, ‘Hey, this isn’t so shabby a round.’ I really started the day just trying to play myself back among the top 15 in the tournament.”
He also said, “I had the good year last year but I was lousy in the major championships. This time I was determined to prove I’m not a dog in the big ones. The press has been on me a little bit about that.”
Maybe Johnny had something else to prove on Saturday. He was paired with Gary Player, which led to the joke that the Masters had put them together in what would be a “God-off.” Miller and Player are not the largest fans of one another, and on top of that there has been this mild debate about who had the best season in 1974, Miller in America or Player in the world.
Player has enjoyed pointing out to friends that while Miller won eight PGA tour events last year, he, Gary, beat Miller by a modest 39 strokes in the four major championships, winning two of them.
Well, Miller’s Saturday 65 was not the final settling of any such debate, but it did make Player’s 73 seem like 173 in contrast. Besides that, Miller’s round might have been much, much lower. He was all over the hole on the back nine and only one putt dropped. At the 17th, in fact, he had the ball three feet from the flag and it dived into the hole but spun out.
All in all, it was clearly one of the landmark 18s ever fired on the Augusta National, and it put Johnny Miller in shape to add all sorts of thrills to Sunday’s fury.
In the final analysis, this was a Masters of unique scoring, basically because the greens were so much slower than ever. Too much rain throughout the winter was the official reason given and too much rain earlier in the week. A real old-fashioned Augusta wind never came up, either. Hale Irwin’s last-round 64, that matched the course record, and which leaped him over dozens of people and into a fourth-place tie with the first-round leader, Bobby Nichols, furnished proof of this, together with the other scoring, and it also gave an indication of how inviting the Augusta National would be for Nicklaus, Miller and Weiskopf when they would get out there on it to thrash around and drive the world of golf utterly mad with suspense.
Other than the fact that he is probably inhuman when it comes to dealing with pressure and is beyond argument the greatest golfer mankind has produced, there is not much else to say about Jack Nicklaus. He loves his wife and kids, is loyal to his friends, he is kind to animals and he can recite the Preamble.
In a sense, if it hadn’t been for the brave manner in which those glamorous losers performed, and the promise they have, Jack Nicklaus would be on the verge of destroying tournament golf. Why do you think that makes a good film, Manny?