In 1962 there were only two rookies on the PGA tour who mattered, and the question of which was better was still being debated when the year came to an end. Jack Nicklaus and Phil Rodgers were both blond, both crewcut, both fat and both very good golfers. Big Blob and Little Blob they were sometimes called. Nicklaus won the U.S. Open at Oakmont and two other tournaments that season and was named Rookie of the Year. But Rodgers, who finished third in the U.S. Open, won the Los Angeles Open at Rancho Park by nine strokes with a final-round 62 that many observers thought was the most impressive performance of '62. There were those willing to argue that Rodgers had more shots than Nicklaus did.
In the 18 years that have passed since his triumph at Oakmont, Nicklaus has won 14 more major titles and is now generally considered to be the greatest golfer who ever lived. Rodgers, on the other hand, had five moderately good years and then went into a long, painful decline that was accelerated by injuries. He never won a major title, he never got rich, and his early fame fled along with his youth and his confidence. He had chances, once in the U.S. Open and twice in the British Open, but he never pulled out a big one.
Nonetheless Rodgers' early boosters were right about one thing. He did have some shots that Nicklaus didn't, especially a reliable little number with a sand wedge from 20 yards or so off the green. With just a flick of his thick, freckled wrists, Rodgers could loft the ball high in the air where it would hang, as spinless as a knuckleball, and then fall gently onto the green, bounce once and stop, rarely more than one makable putt away from the hole.
Rodgers could make that shot over and over. Nicklaus couldn't do it nearly as consistently, but then he didn't have to. Nicklaus' long game and putting were so good that for two decades he didn't need to be a good chipper or a good pitcher. Lately, however, circumstances—such as finishing 71st on the money list in 1979—have made Nicklaus reassess the importance of his short game. "I think I would have won a lot more tournaments if I'd ever worked on those things," he said a few weeks ago.
Early last Saturday morning, Rodgers, 42, bachelor, bon vivant and, of late, guru, found himself in an alien although not unpleasant environment. Instead of waking in his own bed in his own little house in the hills north of San Diego with a living room full of dirty glasses left from a party the night before, he was sitting at the breakfast table in Nicklaus' sprawling, well-ordered establishment beside Lake Worth in North Palm Beach, Fla. Rodgers' eyes were red-rimmed from having spent the night crossing the country in a crowded DC-10. His pudgy frame was clad in an assortment of garments drawn from closets in the Nicklaus house to replace the clothes the airline had lost. When he stretched and yawned and scratched his new, reddish beard, his pale belly protruded into the space between a tent-shaped striped shirt and pair of tennis shorts that hung almost to his knees.
The south Florida air was warm and humid, and the large seagrape outside the breakfast-room window, with its flat leathery leaves the size of dinner plates, was foreign to his California eyes. A gardener was mowing the putting green at the edge of the lawn. Two golden retrievers bounded into and clambered out of the swimming pool. The grass tennis court was unused.
Nicklaus' children, who had been stirring at the back of the house, began to appear in the kitchen one by one—Nan, 14, Jackie, 18, Michael, 6, Gary, 11. Steve, 16, had already left with his mother, Barbara, for a baseball game in Boca Raton. Turning out eggs to order was Doris Richards, the caretaker who, along with her husband Jake, runs the Nicklaus household when Jack and Barbara are away. Jack, wearing a short burgundy bathrobe and with spirits as high as any of his children's on this first day of their spring break, had two over easy and dark rye toast. Rodgers passed. It was still 5 a.m. San Diego time.
Once these two were mistaken for each other. Now they seemed an odd pairing—the robust, prosperous family man surrounded by his athletic children, and the short, stocky loner with the slightly sad blue eyes. But for all their differences, the game of golf was still at the center of each of their lives, and Rodgers was there at Nicklaus' table, surrounded by dogs, children and luxury, because he has something that Nicklaus needed—a rare knowledge of the short game and the ability to communicate that knowledge.
Rodgers is a born teacher. Even when he was a rookie on the tour—the loudest, cockiest and, in the opinion of a few, most obnoxious rookie to come along in years—Rodgers never hesitated to give advice to anyone, whether or not he was invited to do so. Thus it was only natural, when his game began to let him down and his income from playing it started to dry up, that he would drift into teaching. When you teach as Rodgers does, on a free-lance basis rather than as a club pro, and when you work, as he does, with players who are already very good, like touring pros, teaching is referred to as "helping." Rodgers has helped Victor Regalado, John Schroeder, Gary McCord, his old friends, Raymond Floyd and Gene Littler, and John Brodie, the former NFL quarterback. He also has a stable of regulars in the San Diego area—a few young players who he thinks have a chance to be good and some businessmen, stockbrokers and the like, who call on him when their game has gone awry. He usually meets them at the practice range of their choice, and for a fee he patiently talks them out of whatever mental quagmire they've got themselves into.
Rodgers' pupils swear by him. Jim Iverson, 44, an investment banker who plays anywhere from scratch to a four handicap, first encountered Rodgers at a practice range, where Rodgers was giving some "help" to Mark Pfeil, a touring pro. "I just listened," says Iverson. "Up to then I had about a 75% chance of getting up and down in three from off the green. Now I average about two, just from listening. It's a rare talent, being able to communicate like that."