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The leading money-winner commands the most respect in golf," Jack Nicklaus was saying the other day. "It may not be right—making the leading money-winner the year's foremost golfer—but it's the way we evaluate ourselves. It is what the public is looking at, and it is the only yardstick we have that is printed in the newspapers every week. So it must be what the public is interested in."
Indeed it is; so much so, in fact, that last week the race to be the top money-winner of 1966 threatened to overshadow the best new professional golf tournament to come along in years. The event was the Houston Champions International, a tournament that has replaced the old Houston Classic and has moved some 20 miles out of town to the velvety fairways of Jimmy Demaret and Jackie Burke's new Champions Golf Club. Originally the event was scheduled for early May, but when a Texas-size deluge washed it out it was rescheduled for one of the final weeks of this dying season. With its enormous prizes—$21,000 to the winner, $13,000 for runner-up, $8,000 for third and then a gradually declining scale beyond the fourth-place money of $5,150—Houston seemed almost certain to determine whether Jack Nicklaus, who had won $110,221, could overtake Billy Casper, who had earned $120,747, in the golf tour's financial sweepstakes.
Fighting his game, and a swing that had suddenly deserted him, Nicklaus did not even come close. After four rounds of indifferent scoring by both men, they emerged at even-par 284 and in an inglorious tie for 19th place, which merely added $1,197 to their previous totals and left Casper with undisputed possession of golf's money crown.
As it turned out, the most interesting money move of the week was the one made by Arnold Palmer, who shook off the last-round jinx that has plagued him all year and won the Champions' $21,000 first prize. He did it in his last-gasp fashion of yore, sinking a 12-foot birdie putt on the final hole to overtake Gardner Dickinson. It had been so long since Arnold had made that kind of putt that not only he but his army had forgotten what it felt like. They all knew, however, what the rest of the back nine felt like—Palmer in a deep ravine at 13 and escaping with a par, Palmer bunkered at 14 and saving a par, Palmer bogeying 15 to lose his lead. And then came the must birdie at 18 that tied Dickinson, who minutes later bogeyed the same hole to lose by one stroke.
Palmer not only won, he showed some of his best golf in years and continued a hot streak that started in Australia and lasted more than a month, the Champions being his fourth fine tournament in a row. On Friday night, after a second-round 68, he casually asked if there was any way he could catch Casper in the money race. Told that there was not, he said, "Well, maybe I'll set an alltime record next year...more than $150,000." And he laughed—sort of.
His Champions win did, in fact, enable Palmer nearly to catch Nicklaus in the cash race. It raised Arnold's 1966 earnings to $110,467, a somehow unexpected total when you consider how many people have been assuming his career is in eclipse. But Casper was the uncatchable man at Houston, and, without a doubt, the 1966 golf season belongs to him.
Casper's ascension to the top rung of professional golf should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed his progress through the past decade. Only once in the last nine years has he finished out of the top four on the money list. That was in 1963, when an injury kept him out of action for the three lucrative summer months and he dropped to eleventh. In 1958, his fourth year as a playing pro, he was second to Arnold Palmer with the then plush total of more than $41,000 in winnings. In each of the last two years he has won more than $90,000 and finished third, once behind Nicklaus and Palmer and once behind Nicklaus and Tony Lema.
These impressive figures notwithstanding, the golfing public has appeared to regard Casper with an indifference rivaling the boredom with which they greet, say, Winchester Cathedral. Were it not for such offstage irrelevancies as his anti-allergy diet of buffalo hamburgers and hippopotamus steak and his recent conversion to Mormonism, Casper might still be a relatively obscure figure in a sport that belongs to the more flamboyant personalities of Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player. Yet, in his quiet, workaday way, Casper is the only one of the four who has twice won the ultimate prize of American golf, the USGA Open championship. And his lifetime winnings of just under $600,000 are second only to Palmer's three-quarters of a million.
Casper, it might be said, plays Gielgud to Palmer's Olivier. The subtle perfection of his performance never sets a gallery on edge, as do the hair-raising escapades of a Palmer seeking salvation in the face of imminent disaster or a Nicklaus with his feats of nearly superhuman strength and power. Even when his game is off", as it most assuredly was in Houston last week, Casper will call on his deep reserves of technique and cozy the ball around a golf course so unobtrusively that you scarcely know whether he is breaking the course record or failing to break 100.
Casper arrived at Houston after a two-week layoff, following an exhibition tour of Australia and a second-place finish in the Hawaiian Open. At home in San Diego he scarcely touched a club. He started the tournament after only a couple of practice rounds on a terribly demanding course he had never seen before. "I just don't have much feel in my clubs," he said after his first three rounds of 69, 70 and 73—a total of one under par that left him in a tie for 19th. "I still don't feel comfortable when I stand over the ball, but that sort of thing always happens when you haven't been playing." Even so, during those 54 holes he reached all but eight greens in regulation figures. What was hurting him was his putter. He was averaging more than 33 putts a round.