You know the problem with the Tradition? It's got only one tradition: Jack Nicklaus. Four other players have won the Senior PGA Tour's highest and driest tournament since its premiere in 1989—Don Bies, Lee Trevino, Ray Floyd and a very surprised Tom Shaw—but hardly anyone outside cactus country remembers their wins. The Tradition is Nicklaus. It's supposed to be the seniors' first major of the year, but it's really just the tournament Jack wins to tune up for the Masters.
Sunday, as inevitabilities rained on Scottsdale, Ariz., the 56-year-old Nicklaus successfully defended the title, claiming his fourth Tradition in seven tries and the 100th tournament of his professional career. He did it by firing a second consecutive seven-under-par 65 over the Cochise Course at Desert Mountain, leaving his only serious challenger, Hale Irwin, dazed, as if a dust devil had spun Irwin's undershorts around. Irwin, who tops the Senior tour money list, led Nicklaus by three shots after the first 10 holes of the final round, shot 69 but wound up losing by three. The rest of the Tradition field, led by Floyd, finished nine or more strokes behind Nicklaus's 16-under-par 272. As Irwin said, "He was chipping and putting at a barrel, and the rest of us were going at a pinhead."
The biggest barrel, obviously, was the par-5 12th hole, which Nicklaus played to a cumulative six under par over three days, using his putter about as frequently as Michael Jordan uses a comb. On Friday, Nicklaus chipped in for birdie. On Sunday he chipped in for eagle. On Saturday, to goose an otherwise sleepy afternoon, he made the feathers really fly with a double eagle.
Albatrosses, as the British call them, are so rare that even liars don't report them. They are so randomly distributed that only Gene Sarazen's double eagle in the final round of the '35 Masters is deemed historic. Before last week Nicklaus had made two in his distinguished career—a driver/three-wood as a teenager at Scioto Country Club in his hometown of Columbus, Ohio, and a driver/four-iron at the '65 Jacksonville Open. On Saturday he needed only an eight-iron from 159 yards on the 500-yard hole. A pile of rocks blocked Nicklaus's view of the touchdown: the bounce, the roll and the sideways topple into the cup. "Pretty good aim," he would joke.
Only then did Nicklaus become news. Thursday's story was Ed Sneed, the former touring pro and ABC-TV foot soldier. Sneed aced the par-3 17th and birdied the 18th to tie Irwin for the first-round lead at 65. Alas, he would finish 57th. Friday's tale was a gusty northeast wind that blew off hats and bent flagsticks. J.C. Snead, who would hold a one-shot lead by day's end, belted a downwind drive of 403 yards on the 14th hole while other pros reported eight-irons traveling anywhere from 90 to 200 yards, depending on nature's whim. "We don't hit it 390, not at our age," said 59-year-old Butch Baird, after watching fellow 59-year-old Larry Mowry drive within three yards of the green on the 390-yard 1st hole. "We can't even dream that long."
The wind aside, the 1996 Tradition seemed more tranquil than usual. Fewer spectators jumped gallery ropes, slid noisily on desert gravel or skewered themselves on cacti. Explanation: After a two-year flirtation with single-day ticket sales, the Tradition reverted to a policy of issuing tournament badges only, ensuring a savvy crowd familiar with the course. "This is a unique golf course because the gallery is limited to one side of each hole," said tournament chairman Mark Kizziar.
In other words, the Tradition is better on television.
But television, with its quick jumps and commercial breaks, misses nuances. That happened on Saturday, when Irwin had to swallow Nicklaus's double eagle. Irwin, playing with Nicklaus, had already seen his four-shot edge on the Bear cut in half on number 11, where he bogeyed and Nicklaus holed a putt from off the green for birdie. Nicklaus's deuce on 12 meant Irwin had to birdie the hole to tie for the lead at eight under. Irwin did just that. He added two more birdies on the way in to lead Nicklaus by one. Yes, the cameras caught Irwin congratulating Nicklaus as they walked up the 12th fairway, but they didn't capture the stiffening resolve of the former All-Big Eight defensive back. Asked about Nicklaus's eight-iron at a postround press conference, Irwin curtly replied, "I'm here to talk about me, not one shot by Nicklaus."
On Sunday it looked as if Irwin would do all his talking with his sticks. Through the first 10 holes he built his lead to three strokes and seemed every bit the three-time U.S. Open champion—driving long, putting true. But then Irwin made three straight bogeys, on 11 through 13, and those slips, coupled with the inevitable Nicklaus eagle at the 12th, put the defending champion up by two strokes. The rest of the way in, Irwin looked desperate and Jack invincible.
"I just hit the ball as good as I can hit it," said Nicklaus, who credited technique and technology. A week of two-a-day lessons with Scottsdale-based swing coach Jim Flick, he said, had him swinging freely and confidently—something he was not doing in February when he won the GTE Suncoast Classic, another Senior tour event. Nicklaus also claimed to be getting 30 to 40 extra yards out of his new Air Bear titanium driver, which is 2?" longer and somewhat lighter than the persimmon-and-stainless-steel drivers he previously used. "My son Gary gave me a little push," Nicklaus conceded. "He said, 'I don't think you're taking advantage of technology.' "