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Although he has been in the limelight of professional golf for three years now—and it is a pretty blinding limelight—Jack Nicklaus may still be one of the least understood of major sports celebrities. In the past when concentrating on his work, as great golfers must, he has often worn a scowl that is considered unfriendly and even overly aggressive by those who do not know him. There are some who consider him cocky, although he is really quite deferential for a man of his unusual talents. Only two years ago, the enormous gallery that surrounded the 18th green at the Masters actually cheered when a bogey for Nicklaus was posted on the scoreboard.
Nonetheless, Jack Nicklaus won the Masters Tournament in 1963. Last week, under memorable circumstances, he repeated that victory before an equally enormous crowd, but this time they knew and liked him. As he came up the 18th fairway the applause that greeted him must have broken several sound barriers, and every clap of it was heartfelt and sincere. He was, at last, an unforgettable part of Masters history, for he was smashing Ben Hogan's 12-year-old tournament record of 274 by three strokes and had already tied the one-round record of 64. As he removed his floppy white golf hat, a grin as wide as Augusta National's fairways spread across his face. There was no mistaking now that, at 25, Jack Nicklaus not only is the most talented young golfer to come along in 40 years, but one of the most likable as well.
Nicklaus had come to Augusta feeling good and feeling confident, but he could not have been prepared for the warmth of the followers who awaited him there. As soon as he sensed it he began to grin with them, and talk to them and laugh with them in such a casual fashion that it became hard to realize he was a man taking apart a fabled golf course as no Sam Snead or Ben Hogan or Byron Nelson or Arnold Palmer ever had. His 67-71-64-69—271 on one of the world's most demanding courses was an awesome performance. And yet he managed it with such ease—without even playing his best golf, in fact—that the suspicion lingers he could do it again tomorrow. His finish left him an overwhelming nine strokes ahead of his nearest competitors, Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, who themselves had played so well that their 280s would have won all but five of the 28 previous Masters championships. In fact, early in the tournament each of them had looked like a winner: Player on Thursday, Palmer on Friday.
Customarily the birdies come slowly and reluctantly on the opening day of the Masters, as if the golfers are timid about damaging the reputation of Augusta National and timid, too, about taking gambles that might ruin their hopes before they so much as have a chance to be proud of being invited. But last Thursday was different. The course was benign, and the golfers were not. The weather was warm, dry and breezeless, and the tournament committee, perhaps deceived by predictions of rain or upset by increasing complaints that only long hitters can win the Masters anymore, had moved the tee markers up and put the pins in easy positions.
As a result, short hitters were reaching the greens on the par-5 holes in two, long hitters were getting there with a drive and a five-iron and the towering scoreboards were becoming walls of crimson—red being the color used to post subpar scores at Augusta. On its most generous day in the past—the third round of last year's Masters—the course had submitted to only 20 subpar rounds. On this opening Thursday, 33 players were under par. To assess the scope of Augusta's humiliation you need only consider that this is more subpar rounds for a first day than the pros managed at Greensboro, Pensacola, Jacksonville, Phoenix, San Francisco, the Crosby or the L.A. Open this year. By the time Gary Player got ready to tee off in the afternoon he not only could see that Tommy Aaron was in with a 67, but that Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Tony Lema, Dan Sikes, Tommy Bolt, Wes Ellis and every 6-foot mule skinner from Texas was on his way to shooting Augusta National in zero or less.
Yet always exuberant Gary was not dismayed. He had a new set of muscles that several months of intensive exercises had produced. He was this very day reading The Power of Positive Thinking. He was convinced, as he had said the week before, that "all you have to do at Augusta is stand there on the tee and hit the ball at the whole world. You can't get in trouble, the fairways are so wide." He had a new jewel-bright putter that he had paid $50 for in Japan. And he was telling everybody, "I'm playing so well I can't believe it."
Whatever Gary thought, or said, he was right. Unintimidated by that red sea of subpar figures already posted, he started off birdie, birdie, birdie. Out in 32, his magnificent golf faltered only twice on the back nine, but each time he salvaged a par and he subsequently added three more birdies for a 65, to take a two-stroke lead. Only two other golfers in Masters history had shot a 65.
Afterward, Gary was understandably euphoric. He talked at length about his meticulous diet and the exercises he has been taking with weights, and said that within another year even bigger muscles will add 15 or 20 yards to his tee shots. He forecast that by 1970 most of the tournament golfers would be working with weights. "They do it in every other sport," he said, "so it only stands to reason that they will do it in golf. Jack and Arnie kid me a lot about all my exercising and muscle building. Well, let me tell you they wouldn't if they got shrunk to 5 feet 7 and had to stand on the tee with me. Then we'd see who outhit who."
("Man," said old Jimmy Demaret, who had shot a 71 even though his muscles are mostly around his middle, "we got guys on the tour now who don't eat anything but seaweed and tree roots. If Gary keeps this up he'll be a real goner.")
Naturally, after Player's fine round it occurred to many people that Ben Hogan's tournament record of 274, which he set in 1953, might be in peril. "It depends on the weather," Player said. "Every record in sport must go sometime. But if anyone is going to break Hogan's I would have to say it will be Nicklaus. There is no such thing as a par-5 hole on this golf course for Nicklaus because he is so strong and he hits the ball so far. Not only that, he has a tremendous touch. I predict that if the weather is good Jack will break the tournament record."