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Jack Nicklaus' victory in the 62nd National Collegiate golf championship last week may not have been over the strongest field he has ever played against, but emotionally and physically it was one of his toughest tournaments. The 21-year-old Ohio State junior had just spent an exhausting and disappointing week at the National Open in Detroit, where he finished in a tie for fourth, three shots back of Champion Gene Littler. When he arrived at the Purdue University golf course in West Lafayette, Ind. on the eve of the NCAA tournament, his massive frame drooped with fatigue. He trudged over to a putting green and shook hands with Houston's defending champion Dick Crawford.
"After going through the Open," Nicklaus told Crawford, "this is going to be like a Sunday school picnic. Except that I just can't get up for it. The last thing I want to see for a while is a golf course. I feel, you know, blah."
No one could blame Nicklaus for feeling the way he did, for it is a difficult malaise of mind and body to shrug off. And it can prove disastrous in a golf tournament as vigorously competitive as the NCAA. Last year, for example, a week after his magnificent second-place finish to Arnold Palmer in the Open at Cherry Hills, Nicklaus was bumped out in the third round, 4 and 3, by Stanford's Steve Smith.
However, it is well known to the collegians who had to meet Nicklaus head to head in the NCAA that he is a better golfer than all but a few of the top touring pros. Even so, he had to overcome a four-hole deficit to win his 36-hole semifinal match from Michigan State's Gene Hunt, and anything but sub-par golf would have lost him his final-round victory over his resolute Ohio State teammate, 22-year-old Mike Podolski.
He tramped through his 36-hole qualifying round and the early rounds of match play like a serene polar bear. He emerged as low medalist with a 3 under par qualifying score of 140. He thus joined a distinguished list of NCAA medalists that includes Palmer, Earl Stewart, Gardner Dickinson, Paul Harney, Johnny Pott, Rex Baxter and Jacky Cupit. Then, in match play, he crushed a series of undergraduate nonentities and was never in any kind of difficulty until the semifinals. The only fear Nicklaus had was Nicklaus himself.
"I try to concentrate and play hard," he said, "but I just can't. Sometimes on the first tee I'll take a look at my opponent's first swing and figure there's no way I can lose to this guy. You can get beaten that way."
This kind of thinking may have affected Nicklaus in his semifinal against Hunt. Hunt is a Michigan public links champion, but he was No. 3 and 4 all this year on the Michigan State golf team. He puts his right hand so far underneath the club when he takes his grip that you are convinced he will sprain his wrist swinging it back. But he is a long hitter, and he has a resilient short game. Even though Nicklaus shot a par 71 in the morning round, he didn't win the match until the 35th green, 2 and 1.
The Nicklaus-Podolski match paired teammates against each other in the final for the first time since Tom Nieporte defeated Don Johnson in the all- Ohio State final of 1951. Podolski, whose father runs a punch press for the Columbus Bolt and Forge Company, is another Michigan public links product. He is an extremely tough and efficient player but not as good as Nicklaus. Nicklaus birdied two of the first three holes in the morning round and was 6 under par for the day. He polished off the match on the 33rd hole, 5 and 3.
A surprising winner
If Nicklaus' triumph was not unexpected, Purdue's in the team race certainly was. The Boilermakers had finished second to Houston in both 1959 and '60, but this was supposedly the weakest team Purdue Golf Coach Sam Voinoff had put on the course in years. It had finished fourth in this year's Big Ten championship, and Houston, as usual, was loaded.