- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
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The delicate giant
Perhaps the moment that most distinctly showed the force of Nicklaus' play that day came at the 15th. The big hitters expect to reach this green in two when the wind is absent or following, as it was on Friday, and many of them did, only to find that their long approach shots refused to hold on the putting surface. Nicklaus used a five-iron for his second that day—a drive and a five-iron, mind you, on a 520-yard hole—and the ball floated in as if it were being gently transported by a friendly robin, stopping within a few feet of where it struck. It was a prodigious, yet delicate shot—visual testimony that along with Jack's enormous strength goes the touch of a golfing artist.
Equally vital to Nicklaus' success is his attitude. Before or after a match he will be as friendly and considerate as an airline hostess, but once on the golf course he is as determined as Palmer at his grimmest. Just before Nicklaus left the clubhouse for his final round on Sunday, he paused to say hello to a friend who asked him, "How do you feel today, Jack, big and strong?"
Nicklaus laughed and said, "Yeah, big and strong and tough and mean." He was laughing, but that is exactly how he did feel the moment he addressed his ball on the first tee. It was an attitude that served him well during the high winds of Thursday and Friday and Saturday's drenching rain.
The idea of the Big Three of golf—Nicklaus plus Palmer and Player—has begun to stick in the craw of quite a few touring pros, particularly the old-timers like Snead, Bolt and Demaret, whose instincts and experience tell them that these three men cannot be as much better than the rest of the field as the press insists. Demarct, for instance, gave an interview to the Associated Press before the tournament started, in which he said the whole idea of the Big Three was hogwash. "Where are your Big Three now?" he asked late Thursday afternoon when Player was tied for sixth with a 71 and Palmer and Nicklaus for 16th with 74s.
Actually, only Arnold Palmer of the Big Three was constantly out of real contention. Much as he wanted this one, and he probably wanted it as badly as he ever wanted any tournament, Palmer could never develop the momentum he needed to win. From the time he arrived at Augusta his frame of mind appeared to be un-Palmerish. One day he said, "It seems everybody is playing better than last year, and I'm not playing as well." People have been outdriving him, of late, and it bothers him. "I must be getting old," he said. "I don't seem to be getting the distance I used to."
As the tournament began, Palmer was driving erratically, and his wedge play, which has never been the game's best, would have made a duffer squirm at times. "I'm the worst wedge player in the world," he said Friday afternoon.
Helped by a hand mashie
To the very end, nonetheless, Arnie's Army had faith, and when faith wasn't enough they took matters into their own hands. On the 10th hole on Sunday, Palmer hooked his drive into the rough at the base of a large pine tree, and one of his still-huge gallery picked it up and chucked it out to the fairway. Naturally, the Rules Committee made him drop the ball where it had first come to rest. A few moments later, when Palmer reached the 11th green, the young men who were operating the scoreboard had posted a message for him. "Go Arnie," it read in big black letters. But this time Arnie couldn't go, and he wound up in a tic for ninth at 291.
Of all the Big Three, Gary Player showed the steadiest golf throughout the tournament, never brilliant but never dismal. His successive rounds of 71, 74, 74 and 70 left him, respectively, in a tie for sixth, two ties for ninth and finally in a tie for fifth only a stroke over par for the 72 holes. It was nothing Gary could explain, and when it was all over he offered no excuses.