Comes the great confrontation: Palmer vs. Player vs. Nicklaus. Thinking of these three golfers meeting one another at the Masters when each is playing about the best golf of his career, brings to mind other spectacular triangular confrontations: Palmerston, Gladstone and Disraeli; Lloyd George, Clemenceau and Wilson; Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons and Jack Paar. Like those, this is a clash to savor. The way in which Palmer, Player and Nicklaus have dominated tournament golf so far this year is unparalleled. Together they have won more than 15% of all the prize money distributed on the winter tour. Together they have won five of the nine tournaments in which they have contended, taken second place seven times and third once. Now they come to Augusta National, a course particularly suited to their power and talents, to face each other in a tournament that each desperately wants to win.
For quite obvious reasons, Palmer must be considered first. His Masters record of three victories—1958, 1960 and 1962—is clearly the best, and he obviously is ready again. His performance this year, with three victories—at Los Angeles, Phoenix and Pensacola—in only eight events, is stunning. Assessing his golf as it is now, just a few days before the Masters, Palmer says, "At Augusta you have to drive well to win. My aim is to be hitting the ball as solidly as possible with the driver when I get there, and I think I know what I have to do to drive well. I'm not as completely confident with my irons as I'd like to be. My putting is in about as good shape as I can expect to get it."
Three weeks ago, when he won the tournament at Pensacola, Palmer used a new set of irons, a different driver each day and two different putters. Now he has pretty well decided to stick to the new irons. He has narrowed the choice of drivers to two, and he probably will use his "old putter," which he has just given a coat of black paint because he thinks that will help him get a better line on his putts. Palmer is a golfer who believes that peaks and valleys of performance are inevitable. "You can't plan them," he says, "but you can influence them a little. Any time now I'm ready to hit a peak." What can the competition say to that?
Gary Player's golf has been so consistent that his fellow pros find it hard to believe. He won at San Diego in January, and he has finished second in five of the other eight tournaments he has entered. "I'm playing so well now it scares me," he recently told Jack Nicklaus. Furthermore, Player has shown he likes the landscape at Augusta, for he won the Masters two years ago and finished in a tie for first last year, losing to Palmer in the playoff. Like all who do well at Augusta, Player instinctively hits the ball from right to left. Furthermore, the determination of the 27-year-old South African is more than equal to the challenge and pressure of the Masters. He will arrive rested from a week in the sun at Nassau, and his outlook has never been cheerier.
Of the triumvirate, only Jack Nicklaus may possibly be short of his playing peak. He has been troubled since the start of the year with a pain deep in his hip that was first diagnosed as bursitis. It doesn't bother him when he swings a golf club, but it hurts when he walks. Lately a number of specialists have assured him the ailment is merely a strained tendon that, in laymen's terms, has worked itself into an uncomfortable position over his hipbone. "The doctors tell me this is quite prevalent among heavy-set men in the Army," Nicklaus explains. "It can be fixed by a very simple operation." At this point he demonstrates how a surgeon with a scalpel can readjust the position of the tendon.
The pain in his hip has forced Nicklaus to stay off his feet as much as possible. Even so, he was hitting the ball wonderfully well at the Doral Open last week. He was smashing his drives and long irons with just the kind of controlled hook that makes one realize his golf is tailor-made for Augusta. His putting, of course, has always been superb under pressure. Although Nicklaus' best previous finish at the Masters was a tie for seventh (in 1961 as an amateur), he has never been the complete golfer that he is today at the age of 23. So much for Palmer vs. Player vs. Nicklaus. Theirs is an even battle, but no law says one of them must be the next Masters champion. Below are reports on eight of the strongest challengers who will be out to beat the Big Three—and each other—at Augusta.
There is a widespread—and entirely fallacious—notion that Billy Casper is just a carefree sort of fellow who happens to win a lot of money at golf because he putts so well. Actually, nobody on the tour takes his work any more seriously than Casper, and few hit the long shots any better. The natural rhythm of his swing is so extraordinary that it rarely gets out of kilter. And great as his putting is, he frets about it just as much as the next man. With his victory in the Crosby, this has been Casper's best winter tour in his 10 years as a pro. He approaches the Masters ranked fifth among the money winners—-just behind the Big Three and Tony Lema—despite a lingering struggle with the flu. Although his fourth place in 1960 was his best showing in six Masters appearances, Casper comes into this year's tournament with confidence. "I just feel better than I have in a long time," says the 1959 U.S. Open champion. "I'm hitting the ball solider, and any fellow who is playing well can win the Masters. My problem at Augusta has been that I've never had very much luck on those greens. On good greens I always seem to putt badly, and I do fine on the lousy greens. It's crazy." Maybe so. But Billy Casper is a brilliant putter no matter what Billy Casper says. If he masters those Augusta greens he can be the Masters champion.
As the new year began, not a few people who concern themselves with such things talked about Phil Rodgers in terms of coming golf greatness. Despite his youth (24) he already had an exceptional knowledge of the techniques of the game. He was gifted with a quick, curious and absorbent mind. Few of his elders understood more thoroughly what they were doing on a golf course and why. Rodgers started off the 1962 season—his first complete year as a tournament pro—by winning the Los Angeles and Tucson opens, and after he tied for third in both the U.S. and British opens there was no question that he could play with the best under the pressure and travails of a major championship. So, following a mediocre performance on this year's winter circuit, a certain amount of "what's wrong with Phil?" talk ensued. Some of his colleagues felt he may have started to think that the whole thing is much easier than it actually is. Others said he wasn't keeping fit. After withdrawing from the New Orleans Open with a back injury several weeks ago, Rodgers began paying attention to his condition. He not only watched his diet, he followed it. Consequently, he took off some weight and has since been playing better golf. If he continues to apply himself seriously, he can win any big tournament, including the Masters.
As the man nobody notices, Gene Littler seems to embrace anonymity. He prefers to let his golf do the talking for him, and it is some talk. Last year he was the second biggest money winner in professional golf, behind Palmer. At Augusta he finished fourth, two strokes back of the three who tied for first. "It was the best four rounds of golf from tee to green that I ever played in my life," Littler recalls. But it is characteristic of his seemingly offhand approach to his profession that he can't remember on which day he had a four-under-par 68 (it was the second). The 1961 Open champion, Littler did not have a particularly good winter tour. Three times he missed the cut. After a tie for second at Tucson he rejoined his family in La Jolla, Calif., which is where he really prefers to be all the time. Last week he returned to the tour at Doral, hoping to play his way into form there and at the Azalea Open. "Right now I'm trying to get back to drawing the ball a little, but I don't know," he says. "In the last Masters I was hitting everything out to the right, and things seemed to work out pretty well. If I could just start putting well, it would give me more confidence, which, I suppose, is the thing I lack the most." Even so, Littler is such a magnificent hitter of the ball, so easy and graceful, that he must be regarded as a contender.
In two of the last three Masters, Dow Finsterwald came as close to winning as a nonwinner can. In 1960 he would have tied Palmer had it not been for a two-stroke penalty called for taking a thoughtless practice putt, and last year he was the forgotten man in the three-way playoff. Finsterwald today is a much different kind of golfer than he was from 1956 to 1960, when his fluid swing and metronomic consistency annually placed him among the three or four leading money winners on the tour. He hasn't won a tournament since early in 1960 and he began this year's tour weakly. "I don't think I won a thousand dollars all the way through California," he says, quite correctly. But his play has been perking up lately. Like everyone else who feels the breath of the Masters long in advance, Finsterwald recently has been concentrating on hooking his drives. "If you don't hook, you can't play that course," he will tell you. He also has a new black putter, a mallet with a thick hickory shaft, hoping that a change might help. Always an excellent chipper, he could easily warm up around the greens at Augusta. When Finsterwald arrives there, with memories of his wonderful 65 in last year's third round, he will have with him one of the biggest assets that any golfer can take into a tournament—the knowledge that he is on a course he can play.