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Alfred Wright
July 18, 1966
Kilt-high grass lined the fairways and the sun baked the greens, but canny Jack Nicklaus persevered to win the 106th British Open
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July 18, 1966

Smiling Jack Wins A Rough One

Kilt-high grass lined the fairways and the sun baked the greens, but canny Jack Nicklaus persevered to win the 106th British Open

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When Jack Nicklaus approached the 18th green at Muirfield last Saturday afternoon the largest crowd in Scotland's long golfing history let go a roar of acclaim. Instead of responding like the certain winner he seemed to be, Nicklaus gave the appreciative gallery a tentative wave of the hand and a momentary smile, and then lapsed back into a deep frown of concentration. He had only to two-putt from 22 feet to win the 106th British Open, but the 75-year-old Muirfield course had made its impression. All week long it had seemed to submit to one or another of the game's best players, and then had used its knee-high rough and glass-slick greens to nullify their accomplishments. Cautiously, Nicklaus stroked his first putt to within six inches of the hole. He marked his ball—partly as a courtesy to Phil Rodgers, who putted out, and partly out of real concern about this last shot. When the moment arrived, Nicklaus bent over his minuscule putt, and the only sound to be heard was the far-off atonal argument of sea gulls. He tapped it in, of course, for a two-under-par 282 that defeated Doug Sanders and Dave Thomas by a stroke. Then, and only then, did he let himself believe he had finally won the last major golf title to have eluded him. As the applause soared, his smile grew wider and wider, and he kept raising his arms from his sides, like a sleepy man reluctantly doing his morning exercises. But the fearful concentration that Muirfield had exacted from him was going to take a long time to wear off, for once again an historic British golf course had proved to be an historic test of skill.

A powerful sense of tradition runs through the British blood, and when they are conducted at places like St. Andrews or Royal Birkdale or Muirfield their big golf championships become something more than just a competition among the best available players. The settings themselves bespeak tradition and legend, and none more than Muirfield, the playground of the Honourable Company of Edinburgh Golfers, which is the most venerable society in the annals of this sport that borrows so much of its personality from the past.

The Honourable Company can trace its records back 222 years, when its members were playing on the outskirts of Edinburgh. In 1891 it moved to nearby Muirfield. There the Company, composed of the leading golfers, professional men and landed gentry of the area, set up its imposing clubhouse, in which no lady has ever set foot, held its dinners and arranged its matches.

The 1966 British Open was the 10th to be contested on Muirfield's pastoral acres, and without any conspicuous to-do it summoned up the solemn excitement of a changing of the guards or a passing-by of the Home Fleet. The course itself is such a subtle part of the landscape that it is all but invisible. As you turn off the main highway that runs along the Firth of Forth and head across a bumpy little road there seems to be no more ahead than a waving wheat field. Suddenly one sees the fairways, carved through the high grass, with the perimeter of the course outlined by an old stone wall and long, olive-green rows of prickly boxthorn.

Muirfield is a type of course that has no U.S. counterpart. It is on the short side for championship play—6,887 yards—with two par-5s on the front nine and one on the back, all three of which can be reached comfortably in two shots by the better players if they dare risk a driver off the tee. As with all British championship courses, trees play no part in the game at Muirfield. The hazards are the rough and the deep pot bunkers, some 170 of them, that scar the graceful fairways like shell holes. Severe as these bunkers can be, they were as Elysian fields compared to the rough last week, for to bring Muirfield to full strength the Royal and Ancient decided to let the grass on either side of the fairways grow to full maturity. Thus lovely heads of purple grain waved in all their glory to catch and bury each errant shot. When Mario Gonzalez, the Brazilian golfer, was helping look for a lost ball on Wednesday he muttered to some local journalists who were aiding in the search, "What rough. They ought to export it with the whisky."

Even with battalions of forecaddies in white butchers' smocks patrolling the long grass, it was often touch-and-go whether a golfer could find his ball. When he did he often wished he hadn't. Julius Boros, a man who is inclined to take things as they come, just shook his head and said, "I don't think this is the way golf is supposed to be played." But there was no alternative, so all seven amateurs and 123 pros in the field had to govern their game accordingly. It was, in short, "The Cautious Open."

It would seem at first glance that Jack Nicklaus, of all the top golfers, might be the least likely to win under these conditions. The presumption is that he owes his success to his power, and here was a course where power was next to worthless. But in truth the strength of Nicklaus is not so much in his muscles as it is in his intelligent and subtle approach to the game and his resistance to adversity. "The way to win here," he said early in the week, "is to use good common sense in the choice of irons." The first show of common sense was his decision to use them off the tees. Only 17 times in 72 holes did Nicklaus use his driver.

His composure was to be as sorely tried as his intelligence and was even more of a key to his success. It got its first test early when he came into the 18th hole on the first day needing a par 4 to tie for the lead. His drive was just off the fairway, which meant into the hay. The heavy grass caused his second shot to careen off line, strike a grandstand to the left of the green and bury itself in trampled grass. Nicklaus reviewed his situation unhurriedly, made a wise choice about where to drop when he had to move away from the grandstand and then saved his par with a brilliant wedge shot over a four-foot fence.

On the next day, Thursday, Nicklaus shot a fine 67 to take a one-stroke lead, but by now Muirfield was showing its peculiar nature. England's Peter Butler broke the course record with a 65 and Phil Rodgers came in with a 66, both improbable performances under such conditions. Nonetheless, Pat Ward-Thomas, the noted English golf writer, reported in The Guardian that Nicklaus had the lead and would never be dislodged.

By the end of nine holes on Friday, Jack was far ahead of the field—as far, you might say, as Arnold Palmer had been ahead of Billy Casper a few weeks before in a different Open. In particular he was seven strokes up on Phil Rodgers, who was playing with him and had just shot a 40. And then Muirfield, which had been dried out by wind and sun to the point where the greens were hard as terra-cotta, turned on Nicklaus. He quickly went four over par, while Rodgers shot an amazing 30. In nine holes Jack had lost nine strokes and his lead. Yet within the hour he was joking about what had happened to him. Leaning out of his hotel window at Grey Walls, the little inn at the edge of the course where he was staying, Nicklaus spotted Pat Ward-Thomas. "Hey, Pat," he shouted, "what's that you wrote about me not blowing the lead?" Then he laughed the laugh of the untroubled. How Nicklaus can remain so steady in such an enormously competitive business is just another of the wonders of the man. Later that evening he was showing no qualms about his position. "It's somebody else's turn to blow," he said.

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