Jack Nicklaus, comma. Having a bad year by his own standards, comma. Bored when there isn't a major championship on the line, comma. Disinterested in money earnings, comma. Well, there's only one thing wrong with all of that. How do you explain the fact that every time they think up a golf tournament of special significance, Nicklaus goes out and hammers everyone so deeply into the bunkers that they think they must be living in a tent in the Sahara?
Jack did it again last week. Professional golf had dreamed up this thing called the World Series of Golf, a new version of it at least, and to make it more important they qualified only the elitest of the elite and decided to give the winner a modest check of $100,000. The hope was that the 20 guests would fight it out to a tie over 72 holes at Firestone Country Club in Akron. But of course there were two things wrong with that.
First, Nicklaus plays the South Course at Firestone from memory better than any tire worker. And, second, with more than a casual eye on the history books, Nicklaus seems to take the precaution of winning any new championship that might someday earn the label of "major" and thus add to the luster of the Nicklaus legend.
For example, they invented the Tournament Players Championship three years ago, and although it has yet to achieve a status above the "mini-major" level, Nicklaus has won it twice. One of those occasions was this year, and as bored with prize money as Jack claims to be, the TPC was worth $60,000.
When Nicklaus arrived in Akron last week, he insisted his game was not very sharp, and he even went so far as to say, "This is a major tournament, but it isn't a major championship."
Nevertheless, Nicklaus was there, and everybody in the field knew what that meant. Firestone was where Jack had won four "old" World Series of Golf, one American Golf Classic and last year's National PGA, and when you totaled it up Akron was also where Nicklaus had earned almost as much money as the Firestone family. In fact, with the $100,000 he took home last week, Nicklaus has now won close to half a million dollars in Akron during his career, and if you look it up, that bundle alone would place him 41st on golf's alltime money list.
There was a certain amount of fooling around with Jack's turf over the first two rounds; Dave Hill and Japan's Takashi Murakami tied for the first-round lead at 67, and Hubert Green fired a 65 the second day to take over. But they were just kidding themselves. As Hill said, "Jack has to win. For a hundred thou', my Adam's apple might beat my brains out, and I'll hit it outside the ropes so many times I'll have to buy a gallery ticket."
Green, always a fighter, tried to pretend they all had a chance, even though Nicklaus assumed the lead after 54 holes and was two strokes ahead of Hubie and Murakami with Sunday's round yet to come. "Jack puts his polyesters on the same way the rest of us do," Green said hopefully.
As it turned out, what Nicklaus did not do was hit his irons and roll his putts like the rest of the field. In both Saturday's and Sunday's rounds, Nicklaus stuck some of the deadliest irons anyone had ever seen him hit into Firestone's greens, and it seemed impossible for him to miss a putt. If he hit a wild tee shot into the trees or rough, which he occasionally did, out would come a remarkable iron shot and down would go a putt to save his par or give him birdie.
So when the tournament was over, Nicklaus had rounds of 68-70-69-68—275 on a course where only one other player, Hale Irwin, closing with 67, managed to break par of 280. Nicklaus won the World by four strokes, and when you stopped to think about it, how could anything be called the world championship of golf, in this day and age, without Jack Nicklaus winning it?