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Down among the moss and live oaks of a South Carolina retreat the Masters juices were starting to flow like the channel bass in Calibogue Sound. It was still two weeks before Augusta and the year's first major tournament, but there was little else on the minds of the golfing heroes who have been marching toward Georgia since 1975 began. For a while in the marshes of Hilton Head Island it looked as if Jack Nicklaus had broken into a dead run and everyone else was mired in the swamp. But by late Sunday afternoon, when things had settled down and the Heritage Classic had been decided as much by the diabolical hazards of the Harbour Town course as by Nicklaus' varied adventures on it, all that was proved is that coming up is the kind of Masters that will stir your grits, Miss Scarlett, ma'am.
Harbour Town was important as an Augusta trial run for several reasons. First, it is among the narrowest, toughest and most fascinating courses in the country. They not only can put the flags where only an alligator can find them, they can hide the fairways. Second, the Heritage had the strongest field of the year, what with Gary Player's arrival from South Africa, with Lee Trevino having won recently, with Johnny Miller supposedly rested and seriously primping for the magnolias and azaleas, with Tom Weiskopf looking as poised and inspired as he had back in '73, with Hale Irwin beginning to show the form he had when he won the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, and with Jack Nicklaus hard at work on his game—thanks in part to all this Johnny Miller business.
What first occurred at Harbour Town in that atmosphere—marvelous course, top field, the Masters approaching—was one of the most audacious outbursts of golf that Nicklaus has ever produced. On Thursday, in a gusty wind that made the course's multiple hazards even more dangerous, Jack fired a five-under 66, led by three, and said it was "one of my best rounds in two years." This was just the hors d'oeuvre.
The next day Nicklaus jolted the place with an eight-under 63 that was so gorgeous he had to wonder whether he had ever played a better round. He hit every shot exactly as he wished, and when the wind took two of them into bunkers, he nearly holed out from the sand. He looked at no putt longer than 20 feet, and most of them were closer. Three of his birdies were "stiff," and he even blew one at the 16th from two feet, which would have given him a 62. The round might easily have looked like a typo. Something in the 50s.
Jack was seen laughing uproariously out there after he had birdied the 12th to go seven under for the round and 12 under for the tournament. The woman who was carrying his scoring standard had apologized to him, "I'm sorry, Mr. Nicklaus. I don't have any red numbers beyond 11."
After 36 holes the Heritage appeared to be over. Jack had a six-stroke lead on Weiskopf, who had shot a 65 and lost ground. He was 11 shots ahead of Trevino, who said he was playing as well as he could play. There were 12 strokes between him and Player, who, considering his recent arrival, had played beautifully. And he was 22 strokes in front of Johnny Miller, who had in fact missed the cut with 78-73 and perhaps was wondering if he had played too good too soon in January and February.
Player, who as Nicklaus' playing partner had seen the 66-63 from front row center, shook his head at a cocktail party Friday evening and said, "That is only the best golf Jack has ever played."
Nicklaus himself compared the 63 to some of his other treasures. It was better than his 64 at Augusta in 1965, he said. Better than his 65 at Baltusrol in 1967. Maybe not as good as the first 15 holes of his last-round 66 at Muirfield in 1972. "I can't think of a bad shot I hit," he said.
It wasn't until the 46th hole of the tournament on Saturday that Jack produced a bad shot, and this was what made it a contest after all. He hit a drive at the 10th hole that didn't have to go into a lagoon, but it did. Double bogey. He struck two more bad drives thereafter, flubbed a chip shot and posted a human 74 while Weiskopf was carving out a 68 to put them in a tie for the lead.
They were still tied through the first nine holes of the final round, with Jack moving along one hole in front of Weiskopf. But when Nicklaus reached the same back side where the magic had escaped him for a few brief holes on Saturday, he resumed his race toward Augusta. He jarred the pins out of the cups with his irons, shot three under for a closing 68, and won as comfortably as he had started off the week.