There are occasions when professional golf's big winners seem to act like giant one-man corporations, gobbling up prize money with the dispassion of a steel mill swallowing pig iron. Last weekend's television extravaganza, the 36-hole $75,000 World Series of Golf, looked initially as if it would be one of those times.
Three of the sport's biggest and most muscular corporate types, Masters and PGA Champion Jack Nicklaus, U.S. Open Champion Julius Boros and leading money winner Arnold Palmer, rolled into the industrial city of Akron to compete for the $50,000 first prize, the biggest payoff for two days' work that the game offers. Also along was that tall, skinny and noncorporate left-hander, Bob Charles, the British Open champion whose chances seemed slimmer than his build. The assignment for the three corporate types was a simple one: go out and win and get home. But by the time the weekend drew to a close late Sunday afternoon and Jack Nicklaus had pocketed the winner's check, there had been a kind of excitement on and off the golf course that was distinctly unbusinesslike.
First of all, Arnold Palmer, whose closely cropped brown hair is now sprinkled with wisps of gray, had a very human problem, bursitis. Every time he tried to launch an especially long or hard shot, a sore muscle in his right shoulder sent out a stab of pain. Palmer's soreness was almost certainly temporary, but the situation was hardly soothed by a wire-service story which proclaimed that Arnold's career was in dire jeopardy and compared the tragedy that was striking Palmer at the height of his powers to the early demise of Alexander the Great.
"This is ridiculous," said Palmer when he read the story in an Akron paper on Friday. "I had a similar pain in my left shoulder back in 1955 that was even worse. I had to stop playing completely then. This is something that golfers get all the time, along with sore hands and bad backs—an occupational hazard. It goes away with a little rest. Ready to retire? My answer to that is a very emphatic no."
This matter had hardly been set straight when Nicklaus came up with a tremendous pain in his public image. It both upset his composure and raised his score, and it may last a great while longer than the ache in Palmer's shoulder.
Nicklaus is certainly one of the finest golfers the game has seen. But on the golf course his personality and play are both stolid and phlegmatic. Consequently, he has never earned his true share of public affection. Yet he is actually one of the friendliest and best-humored of pro golfers, enjoying victory and accepting defeat with the same good grace. And far from being a stone Buddha, he likes exchanging jokes and jibes with his fellow golfers. This got him into trouble at Akron.
Following their first practice round with Charles and Boros over the arduous Firestone Country Club course, Nicklaus and Palmer sat in the press tent answering questions and kidding each other lightly as they have often done, both in public and in private.
"If this is supposed to be a contest for champions only, then Arnold doesn't belong here," needled Jack, referring to the fact that Palmer had joined the three major tournament champions on the show only after winning a qualifying playoff to round out the foursome. "Arnie's strictly an also-ran in the major events. The World Series should have winners, not also-rans. Isn't that right, Arnie?"
Palmer had time to mumble only a good-natured assent before hurrying to his private plane for the 40-minute commuting trip he was making daily between Akron and his home in Latrobe, Pa. Nicklaus, assuming that he had engaged in nothing more than light badinage with his friend, strolled out to the practice tee to hit some shots.
The fact that Nicklaus' remarks were meant strictly as a friendly rib was apparently understood by everybody except United Press International. The story it sent out did not have the trace of a smile in it. Picking it up, the Akron Beacon Journal ran a bold headline that shrieked JACK LABELS ARNIE AN "ALSO RAN."