The legend died, right there. It hung around, like Marley's ghost, for many more years, but it was all over that day. Palmer won the British Open later that year, and he won the '64 Masters. He was only 34 then, and he played at the top right through the '60s, but he never won another big one against the fat boy. People talk about the many great years of Nicklaus and Palmer dueling; in fact, that whole era of them both winning championships lasted less than two years.
But make no mistake. If Nicklaus, the golfer, put Palmer away on the course, there is no doubt that the trauma of destroying the legend, of having to overcome the idol of his sport, still inhabits Nicklaus. He will stop and almost obsessively qualify even the most innocent passing reference to Palmer lest it possibly be construed as criticism of his ancient rival. He is at pains to point out their personal differences.
Nicklaus, the golfer, simply cannot comprehend why Palmer hangs on, scuffling each week to make the cut. When Nicklaus can't win at golf, he'll be gone the next day. But Palmer breathes it all in: the cheers, the camaraderie, drinking with the boys, dealing gin rummy, then flying his real-life toy airplane on to the next week's go-round. "Arnold's different from me," Nicklaus says again. "I don't want to tell Arnold what to do," Nicklaus says again. "I won't miss the locker room," Nicklaus says again.
And no matter how badly Nicklaus beat Palmer, he didn't win affection. Esteem, respect, admiration—yes. But affection? It is reminiscent of Willy Loman and his sons talking about their successful cousin Bernard.
Willy: Bernard is not well liked, is he?
Biff: He's liked, but he's not well liked.
It is impossible not to believe that the animus kept Nicklaus fat. He was not fat growing up. His father was a heavy man and Nicklaus was an insatiable eater, and the genes and the appetite finally caught up with him at college, but a man with his discipline, with his incredible powers of concentration could have slimmed down whenever he set his mind to it. In fact, when he finally did decide to lose weight, he called in a tailor from New York, ordering him to measure for clothes still pounds away. "Can you imagine anyone having such confidence in himself?" asks Barbara Nicklaus.
But Nicklaus stayed fat all during the '60s. He knew his appearance fostered more hostility. "If I had looked more like an athlete it wouldn't have been nearly so bad for me," he says. He knew. It was as if he were punishing golf for preferring Palmer's glamour to his skills. Only after Palmer's game had declined, after the hysteria was laid to rest, only then did Nicklaus, the jilted lover, feel secure enough to want to be pretty for himself and his game. Today, down to 180 and less, he is even marginally narcissistic. "There is nothing worse than a reformed slob," his wife says.
Nicklaus' better appearance not only increased his popularity, it also forced his critics to appreciate the full range of his golfing talents. Before, there had been a tendency to write him off as a bully. He not only hit the ball so long, but also so high that it soared over the most time-tested of nature's obstacles. Nicklaus forced the redesign of entire championship courses. Only when he matured and lost 20 yards from his drives did the full, fair recognition begin to come to him. For example, Gene Littler points out, "Jack's the best putter we've had over the past 15 years. He rarely misses from six or eight feet in." Suddenly, now that his drives weren't a furlong past everyone else's, people could notice his exquisite work with irons, his command of strategy, his control of a challenge. And if his short game wasn't as good as the rest of it—although as he points out, he never got a chance to work on his short game because he was always, tediously, on the green—it was suddenly impossible to ignore his complete superiority.
"I never thought anyone would ever put Hogan in the shadows, but he did," says Gene Sarazen. "Nicklaus has the remarkable combination of power and finesse, and he is one of the smartest guys ever to walk the fairways. And he has been an extraordinary leader. What more is there to say? Jack Nicklaus is the greatest competitor of them all."