For the moment at least, Gary Player has a right to feel he is the best golfer in the world. Last week just outside of London, Player and the only three other golfers with a claim to the title—Jack Nicklaus, Billy Casper and Arnold Palmer—came face to face, and Gary won. Moreover, he won clearly and decisively in golf's most complete test: 36-hole match play. On Friday, Gary beat Palmer 2 and 1 while Nicklaus was beating Casper by the same margin. On Saturday, Gary beat Nicklaus by an overwhelming 6 and 4. Any questions?
The reason for this blue-ribbon showdown was a relatively new event on the golf calendar called the Piccadilly World Match Play Tournament, which has been staged at the Wentworth Golf Club for the last three years. Piccadilly got into the title because that is the brand name of the cigarette company whose �16,000—give or take a few shillings—makes the whole thing possible. Piccadilly's grand design is to invite eight topnotch golfers to compete in a three-day knockout to find out which one will survive. The truth is, of course, that the promoters would have just as soon limited the invitation list to the big four—Player, Nicklaus, Palmer and Casper—but that would have been too obviously a box-office setup. And so, Peter Thomson of Australia, Britishers Neil Coles and Dave Thomas and Argentina's Roberto de Vicenzo were added to the list.
Obviously, the script called for Thomson, Thomas, Coles and De Vicenzo to slip quietly from the scene on Thursday, and for the most part they did. Palmer, Nicklaus and Casper dispatched De Vicenzo, Thomas and Thomson easily enough, but Coles refused to play patsy for Player. Although Gary zipped around in 69 during the morning, Coles had him 1 down. It took another 69 in the afternoon before Player finally finished off Coles on the 36th green.
Now the tournament was ready for the showdown that everyone had been awaiting, and the atmosphere could not have been more prickly if you had had four society matrons at the same ball wearing the same $3,000 dress. None of the remaining four was more determined than Bill Casper, who has smarted for some time in the shadow of the well-publicized Big Three. Week in and week out over the past few years, Casper has been the most subtle, the most deft golfer among U.S. pros. Since starting on the tour in 1955, he has won more money than anyone except Palmer. This June he became the U.S. Open champion for the second time, something none of the Big Three has ever achieved. Yet Casper's workmanlike, unflamboyant manner has never attracted the applause and the excitement that surrounds Nicklaus, Palmer and Player. This year, having won not only the Open but also tens of thousands of dollars more than second-ranking Nicklaus, Casper was nonetheless passed over as one of the two players to represent the U.S. in the Canada Cup matches to be played in Japan in November. The selection was made by the Japanese hosts, but the oversight was still rankling.
And so Casper arrived at "The Dilly," as he called it, with vindication on his mind. Unfortunately for his hopes, he ran into a very good Jack Nicklaus in the semifinal on Friday. After several indifferent weeks on the U.S. tour, Jack's game came together at Wentworth. The only explanation he could give was that "I always play better on courses that are in good condition."
Jack, who is probably as uncomplicated an individual as a superathlete can be, was the only one of the remaining four who did not have something important to prove to himself and the world. On this particular week he was just swinging with youthful abandon, confident that every shot would go directly to its target. Almost every one did. Nicklaus fired a 67 at Casper on Friday morning, not losing a single hole and going to lunch 6 up. In the afternoon, Casper rallied but Nicklaus' lead was too great, Jack winning 2 and 1.
Up ahead of Casper and Nicklaus was a match that had a somewhat less obvious drama of its own. Ever since his apparent victory in the Open at San Francisco evaporated in the closing holes, Arnold Palmer has thought of little else but his own redemption. Where better to achieve it than against Casper, Nicklaus and Player? Passing up recent tournaments in the Far West, Palmer arrived in London with his golf game brightly polished and the remnants of a cold in his head. But a slightly incapacitated Palmer is a dangerous thing.
Player, on the other hand, was brimming with euphoria. He had just finished spending five weeks on his farm in South Africa, which has become the principal preoccupation of his life. "If I had to choose between farming and golf," he said last week, "I wouldn't have to think twice, although I would miss golf." During all those weeks Gary had played only two rounds of golf, but he practiced for a week before the Piccadilly. Then he explained his new philosophy. "You've got to have some interest in life besides golf if you're going to play this game well. The week-to-week strain is just too much. Jack Nicklaus is smart. He has his fishing to get him away from golf for a few weeks. I have my farm." The implication was that Arnold Palmer had no hobby to take his mind off the game.
Good friends that they are, the rivalry between Player and Palmer has been sharpened by the dozens and dozens of matches they have played against one another on TV and in exhibitions throughout the world, and each has discovered the most effective method of needling the other. On top of that Player had by no means forgotten the 8 and 6 licking he took from Palmer in the first Piccadilly two years ago, when Palmer was the tournament's first winner. It caused Player to embark on a strenuous body-building program and abandon his theory that he could compete against Palmer and Nicklaus by driving off the tee with a spoon or a four-wood. Last Friday's match was their first head-to-head meeting in a tournament since Palmer's lopsided victory of 1964.
This time Player had a shiny black driver in his bag and intended to use it. The match was close all morning, each winning four holes, halving the rest and finishing with brilliant 68s. A stickler for golfing niceties, Palmer was a bit nettled when Player teed off first on the afternoon round, since Palmer had won the 18th hole of the morning. He was also a little sick of hearing Player say, as they proceeded from hole to hole, "This is a terrible way to make a living, isn't it." Palmer does not think so.