Except for some gusty winds that might have been a bit treacherous in a regatta, it would have been difficult to find a better four days for golf than those at this year's Masters. On Thursday the sky was a cloudless blue and the temperature midsummerish. Yet there were only five scores under par—a pair of 71s, a pair of 70s and Bert Yancey's brilliant 67. Jack Nicklaus began the defense of his title with an even-par 72 that did not disturb him especially, but he was far from happy over the condition of the course. "The fairway grass is simply too long," he said. "I had some good lies, but a lot of times the ball would just jump off the club from a flying lie. It was hard to tell what the ball would do. The fairways would be perfect if they'd just stop watering them and cut them."
The next day Gary Player, who had opened with 75, brought in a three-under-par 69, but he came off the course in something of a pique after bogeys on the last two holes had robbed him of a really spectacular round. He thereupon launched into even stronger protests about the course. "These are the longest fairways I've ever played on in a major championship," he said. "It's like playing out of the rough."
Fairway grass has always been a problem at Augusta in early April. The thick Bermuda base is still dormant, and when the weather is good you can almost see the winter grass growing. Jones and Roberts reduced this year's starting field to 83 players solely because time was needed to crosscut the fairways with two mowings before the first pairings were underway in the morning. The mowers were set at half an inch, but when the mumblings and grumblings reached Roberts he ordered the mowers changed to three-eighths of an inch, the lowest ever at Augusta. "None of us have ever heard of fairway grass being mowed quite so close on any course," he said. And the next day Ben Hogan proved the course was playable enough by shooting his memorable 36-30—66.
Aside from assessing the role played by new bunkers and long grass, the most interesting aspect of the 1967 Masters is what happened to the three men who consistently dominate play there: Palmer, Nicklaus and Player.
It has become so commonplace for Palmer and Nicklaus to win (six of the previous seven) that their failure to do so attracted almost as much attention as Gay Brewer's refreshing victory.
There was nothing shameful about Palmer's fourth-place finish, except in Arnold's mind. To him, victory is everything and everything short of victory is nothing. As the tournament was about to start, he seemed toned for an enormous effort. He was feisty and fretful, like a fighter approaching a championship bout. He had a new mallet-head putter that he seemed to like, although he thought the shaft was just a bit "soft." He had the new aluminum shafts on his clubs that he had been using since winning the Los Angeles Open in January, and he had said several times recently how much confidence he had in them.
Ever since the Ryder Cup matches in Britain in the fall of 1965, Palmer has been playing the most consistently excellent golf of his career—driving perhaps 20 to 30 yards shorter but much more accurately and hitting far better irons. Only his short pitches and chips from just off the green have seemed erratic, and the long putts don't fall the way they used to, but whose do?
Yet something of the Palmer of recent months was missing at Augusta. Save for a couple of abortive "charges," he was not striking the ball with that crisp, vicious determination that characterizes his winning days. He began looking at his aluminum shafts as if he had never seen them before, and after the first day he changed putters, going back to one of the flange models that he has done so much to popularize. On each of his first three rounds he hit his second shot into the creek on the 13th, a hole that has been an almost automatic birdie for him in the past. On Thursday and Friday he made only one birdie each round. And, as he said after his opening 73, "You have to make birdies here. I never mind making bogeys, but you have to make birdies." On the par-5s alone, he was four or five strokes above what he would consider normal. It was one of his least-inspired performances in a major tournament since 1965, and the fact that he finished fourth says all that need be said about Palmer as a competitor.
Nicklaus' dismal showing—the first time he has missed a 36-hole cut in three years—was less of a surprise because Jack has not played a good tournament since he joined the tour in Miami in early March. In fact, there are indications that while Palmer has been putting some middle-aged polish on his game, Nicklaus' golf has been coasting along on a plateau somewhat below the peak he attained with his record-breaking 271 in the 1965 Masters and the extraordinary season of golf that followed. He then seemed on his way to becoming a golfer of such strength and skill that he could win every time he really wanted to. Nicklaus does have interests besides his golf just as his friend Gary Player does. Both have won every major championship available to them (Palmer has yet to win the PGA), and when they sit down to chat as they did a month ago in Florida just after Gary's arrival in the U.S., they are apt to spend just as much time talking about their hobbies and their families and the number of children they expect to raise as they do about golf. When they do talk golf, it is not about the week-to-week trials and tribulations that make up 90% of the other golfers' conversation. Feeling no further compulsion to prove their everyday abilities, they concern themselves with loftier golfing achievements, while it is left to Palmer to agonize over the weekly struggle like a rookie.
When the major championships arrive, however, Nicklaus and Player have shown the ability to shift into a higher gear, which makes it all the stranger that neither was able to do so at Augusta. Jack Grout, the former pro at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio who started teaching Nicklaus when he was 9 years old, blames Jack's troubles on a lack of balance and footwork. "He's got to work on balance and work on it and work on it," says Grout.