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DOMINANCE OF THE SMILING BEAR
Dan Jenkins
March 08, 1971
The new Jack Nicklaus is trim, genial and smartly dressed but, as his win at the PGA shows, he still plays like the old Nicklaus—with power and determination. He may be the best the game ever had
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March 08, 1971

Dominance Of The Smiling Bear

The new Jack Nicklaus is trim, genial and smartly dressed but, as his win at the PGA shows, he still plays like the old Nicklaus—with power and determination. He may be the best the game ever had

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The 53rd PGA Championship belonged to Jack Nicklaus from the moment it was scheduled on a tough but dreary sort of course down off the turnpike near his Florida home. Who else but Nicklaus could have ignored the constantly annoying wind and even overpowered it? Who else knew that most of the putts broke toward the turnpike? Who else had his major adversary, Gary Player, staying in the guest room so he could keep an eye on him? And, anyhow, who else is the greatest golfer of our age and should have won?

One of the interesting things about the way Nicklaus goes about this these days—things like winning another major title in his historical jog through the record books—is that he seems to take the shape of the real Jack Nicklaus only at the big events, like last week's.

If one had made book on who was ready and who was not for the championship at the PGA National Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Nicklaus would have been among those who could not possibly have been ready. There had been seven tournaments on the calendar in 1971. Jack had appeared in only three, and he had played decently in only one.

Although he certainly was familiar with what the playing conditions of the area would be—the wind and slow greens—and although he lived only 10 minutes away, there was also the fact that Nicklaus had not practiced at all on the championship course until less than a week before the PGA began. Well, who would choose to play Palm Beach Gardens when he could play Seminole, or Pine Tree, or some of the better layouts around—or go fishing?

The fact of the matter is that Nicklaus, having been so successful already in his chosen field at so young an age, has nothing much to get up for now except the big ones. When he's ready, when he's relaxed and emotionally right, there's nothing much anyone else can do about it. It was that way with Bobby Jones and Ben Hogan, and perhaps one or two others. Last week he was ready. His game was not especially sharp, but his concentration was rigid, his desire immense and the surroundings familiar. The combination was unbeatable.

Technically, it started being unbeatable in Thursday's first round when Jack had an atrocious afternoon of shotmaking and still took the lead in the tournament, when he turned what easily might have been a 76 into a 69 by staying within himself, keeping his confidence and knowing the greens. When he one-putted eight of the last 10 holes of that round, it was a signal that it had to be Jack's week. He had the turnpike touch. Now that he had scored well on a bad day, what would he do if he played well?

He would never lose the lead again, that's what. His second-round 69 and third-round 70 put him four strokes ahead of everybody on a course that was too long and windy to relinquish many scorching scores. Jack's problem on the last day, Sunday, was only to keep from giving away the championship, as Arnold Palmer had once given away the U.S. Open and as Billy Casper had lost his grip on the Masters a couple of years ago.

"I've been pointing to this with the way I've conducted my life," Jack said later. "I worked on my game at home instead of on the tour, and I relaxed a lot. You build up a mental attitude about a major championship. Mine was good. It wasn't important that I played the course a lot, because I knew the course.

"I felt like it was my tournament all along after Thursday," he added. "I wanted to avoid only one thing. I didn't want to have to make a 4 at 18 on Sunday to win it. That's a hard hole."

A few guys crept into the act when Jack started off badly in the last round. It wasn't that he played badly—"I wasn't getting the results on some shots into the wind that I'd been getting," he explained—but he bogeyed three of the first five holes. This allowed for some mild drama in the closing hour. Out of nowhere came people like Player, who was a very real threat on Sunday until he ran into a string of misfortune; Gibby Gilbert, who stayed surprisingly close; the 52-year-old Tommy Bolt, who closed with successive 69s; and, ultimately, Casper, who was playing in Florida for the first time in two years (he doesn't like the pesticides). Casper made a couple of 30-foot putts, blew a couple of short ones and then closed with good birdies on 17 and 18, where he danced an uncharacteristic jig when his long putt dropped. Lo and behold, there was Casper with a 68 and a five-under total of 283. Nicklaus, six under, was only a stroke ahead as he drove on the 17th.

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