When Jack Nicklaus, a broad, beefy and friendly collegian who dominated amateur golf as no one had since Bobby Jones, became a professional last January, it was immediately assumed that his rare combination of brute strength and finesse would move him right to the top of the pro game, too. After all, it was argued, hadn't he won the U.S. Amateur twice and almost won the U.S. Open as well? But when five months went by and Nicklaus failed to win a tournament, the doubts about his future began to be more shouted than whispered. He had never finished out of the money and his earnings were high. But neither had he won, and this was something that rattled his well-wishers almost as much as it did Nicklaus. When he got $10,000 for finishing second two weeks ago at the Thunderbird Classic, he said he would rather have won $200 and finished first.
Well, there is no need to wonder any longer about the future of 22-year-old Jack Nicklaus. This week, at the demanding Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh, he won the U.S. Open Championship. What's more, he won it in a manner so convincing that he must unhesitatingly be ranked alongside Arnold Palmer as one of the most extraordinarily gifted players of the post-Hogan generation.
On Saturday, during the nerve-racking and exhausting final 36 holes of the 72-hole tournament, Nicklaus managed two nearly flawless rounds over Oakmont's hilly terrain and wavy, slippery greens. By finishing one under par that day he picked up three strokes on Palmer, the leader, to force a playoff.
Then, on Sunday, Nicklaus earned his title during an exhibition of brilliant play by the two strongest, most resolute and determined golfers anywhere in the world. Only twice, once on the 8th hole and again on the 18th, when his ball was imbedded in soft turf, did Nicklaus fail to reach the green in the regulation number of strokes. Once on the green, he icily outputted golf's best clutch putter, Palmer. The suddenly and seriously challenged Palmer was three-putting three greens, and that was the three-stroke margin of victory that brought Nicklaus the championship, 71 to 74.
It was a sad and revealing defeat for almost unbeatable Arnold Palmer. It came in a battle fought in the situation he likes best—a tournament he wanted desperately to win—and on his traditional and exciting terms; namely, just when you think I've lost, that's when I'm going to magically beat you. Jack Nicklaus faced Palmer under those conditions and whipped him, and that is why golf now has two personable superstars instead of one.
Technically speaking, there was nothing to choose between the tee-to-green play of either player. The difference was all in Palmer's putter, a much battered, much fondled bit of metal that, after helping him produce endless dramatic finishes, finally let him down. During the 72 holes of the regular tournament Nicklaus three-putted only once. Palmer, meanwhile, three-putted seven times. So Nicklaus won what so many people had predicted would be a putting contest on those vast Oakmont greens.
When the fourth round of the Open Championship ended in a draw between Palmer and Nicklaus late Saturday afternoon, one could be forgiven for feeling that the nation's golfers have been overdoing the business of suspense lately. In the past year this country's three biggest championships have all ended in a tie. So have many lesser tournaments. At the PGA last July it was Jerry Barber and Don January. In April it was Palmer, Dow Finsterwald and Gary Player at the Masters. And now it was Palmer and Nicklaus at the Open.
Of all the participants in these months of melodrama, Palmer has been the most conspicuous, for this was his third dead heat in recent weeks.
Even so, the final two hours at Oakmont on Saturday afternoon lost none of its tension simply because the theme has been played so often. The principals were too interesting, and there was too much at stake.
In addition to Palmer and Nicklaus, the cast for the latest cliff-hanger included a couple of names that were not at all familiar to the more than 24,000 people who swarmed over the course.