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."
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 the way.
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 lime 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 times.
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 came Woods.
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 it removed.