January 14, 1963
He was the boy wonder of the PGA Tour, a rugged blond with a round face and a buzz haircut who looked as if he could win every week. "I've never seen a player with more innate ability," said PGA champion Paul Runyan at the time. Added Tour stalwart Bob Goalby, "He's got confidence you can't believe." When the 24-year-old phenom walked past, fans would call out, "Hi, Jack."
Indeed, Phil Rodgers was frequently mistaken for Jack Nicklaus. The two resembled each other, joined the Tour in the same year (1962), and liked to eat. The distinction between them was that, Goalby said, " Rodgers has more shots." The victory tally 35 years later: Nicklaus, 18 majors; Rodgers, 0.
"I've never thought I did my job as well as I could have or should have," says Rodgers, 60, who finished his PGA career with five Tour wins (three in his first two years) and now lives in San Diego with his wife, Karen. "If anything, I probably ran from it. Of course, I never would have been in Nicklaus's category. When I started out, he was the only player I didn't think I could beat."
For good reason. At the 1960 U.S. Amateur in St. Louis, Nicklaus clobbered Rodgers 6 and 5. "Worst whipping I've had in my life," Rodgers says. But Rodgers had some game, too. His remarkable touch around the greens overshadowed his all-around excellence. In fact, his only flaw may have been his bravado. In the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont, he hit his ball into a spruce, refused to take a drop, flailed at the tree four times to dislodge the ball and took an eight. Rodgers, who'd already won twice on the Tour, missed a playoff with Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer by two shots. The Golden Bear won the Open for his first Tour title and, as it turned out, the edge over Rodgers for rookie of the year.
Rodgers's biggest impact on golf has come through teaching—he coaches several touring pros—and indeed through Nicklaus, whose short game he helped to revive in the '80s. In the winter Rodgers teaches in Florida, and in the summer and fall he and Karen pack up the RV for fly-fishing trips to Idaho and Montana. As for getting lost in Nicklaus's wake, Rodgers knows he's in good company. "He had the discipline and the fortitude I never had," Rodgers says. "That's why he's the best player who ever lived."