SI Vault
Dan Jenkins
March 27, 1978
Aroused by the challenge of Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus has outdone even himself in his last four tournaments, finishing second, first, second and now first again at Sawgrass
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March 27, 1978

Off In A World Of His Own

Aroused by the challenge of Tom Watson, Jack Nicklaus has outdone even himself in his last four tournaments, finishing second, first, second and now first again at Sawgrass

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It was that same Sawgrass music again. Dueling bogeys. And it was the same Jack Nicklaus again. There has never been anything quite so spectacular in the world of professional golf as what Jack has been up to lately. Not since the gutta met the percha, anyway. If you wanted to look for a pattern to it last week at Sawgrass, you had to start out by taking A1A to the first swamp on your left, then chartering a canoe and asking to be dropped off at the factory where they make grits out of lost Titleists.

The big news from Sawgrass and the Tournament Players Championship was that Nicklaus won another title without making birdies or eagles out of everything but the loose change in his pockets. At Sawgrass, which is just down the coast from Jacksonville, a man is lucky even to make pars, and Jack made enough of those in Sunday's final round to shoot a 75 and beat Lou Graham and all those other guys who were charging after him with their backup lights on. Explaining his three-over-par 75, Nicklaus said, "When I know that all I have to do to win a tournament is shoot even par, my shots tend to look very commercial. I'm liable to look like anybody else you might see out there."

Nicklaus' one-shot triumph concluded a fascinating stretch of golf over a period that he has for some time considered his "Masters preparation." In Jack's past four tournaments he has finished second, first, second and first, in that order, and has won the pleasant sum of $155,600. Nicklaus now will fish, rest and work on his game this week in the Dominican Republic, and spend all next week practicing at Augusta for the following week's Masters, which signals the start of golfs "major championship" season.

Chronologically, his 2-1-2-1 streak went like this: Nicklaus appeared to be all set to trample Gil Morgan and win the Los Angeles Open at Riviera, but with four holes to play he suddenly staggered into a double bogey and a bogey to blow it. The next week he went to Inverrary, outside Fort Lauderdale, and merely birdied the last five holes to wipe out Grier Jones' three-shot lead and captivate half the population of the Eastern seaboard. Two weeks later at Doral in Miami he had two holed-out wedge shots for eagles and a chip-in birdie over four holes on the final 10 only to lose to Tom Weiskopf by a stroke. And then came Sawgrass where Nicklaus went the last 18 without a single birdie but still won the TPC for the third time in five years.

"Something's going on," Jerry Heard said seriously. "It's got something to do with the devil."

What's going on? The obvious conclusion is that Tom Watson's success has made Nicklaus start getting up an hour earlier these days. Just as Lee Trevino had awakened him years ago, and as Weiskopf and Johnny Miller had later. If that is true, it has nothing to do with holing out wedge shots. Those things are luck, even if Jack claims he predicted two of them to his caddie, Angelo Argea. As Walter Hagen once said, "A shot two feet from the pin is skill. A shot that goes in is unconscious."

For all of this, however, the main thing is that Nicklaus did what he had to do to win at Sawgrass. On that horrid, almost unfair layout, it seemed proper that only Nicklaus could survive. On the final hole Jack had to work his way out from behind a tree trunk, nail a seven-iron out of the rough and onto the green, which was 160 yards away, and then get down in two putts from 30 feet for the par 5 that gave him a total 289, one over par for the 72 holes—and one better than runner-up Lou Graham.

In the annals of brilliant golf charges, it may be written that Jack won his third TPC by playing two-over-par golf for the last seven holes and topping Graham who charged home with two-over-par golf for the last five holes. Compared to Jack's birdie barrage at Inverrary, it was about as thrilling as an insurance symposium, but Sawgrass does that.

Nicklaus won on a golf course where exactly one round was shot below 70—that being Mike McCullough's 69—and where the two players who scored holes in one, Grier Jones and John Mahaffey, needed them to post their blazing 77s.

From Thursday's start, the players found Sawgrass to be precisely as they left it a year ago. A swampy, scrubby, windy, chilly, narrow pain in the three-wood. They had been told it would be easier this year, that some changes had been made in the architecture. Several reptiles supposedly had been exterminated, too. There was, however, one thing that couldn't be corrected: the basic design of the layout. Sawgrass is a non-links course by the sea. If there was a run-up shot out there anywhere, or a place where the golfer could get underneath the wind, no one could find it. Sawgrass was target golf under links conditions, and this made for high scoring and bitter locker rooms.

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