From the Golf Journal Archives - A Vintage Open - Nicklaus at Pebble Beach

Mar 05, 2010

By Robert Sommers

(Note: This article originally appeared in the July 1972 issue of Golf Journal.)

In the long history of the United States Open Championship, some years stand out as vintage: Ouimet in 1913, the first time a serious British challenge was turned back; Jones in 1926 when he won both the U.S. and British Championships, and in 1930 on his way to the Grand Slam; Hogan in 1950, his first Open following his automobile accident, and again in 1953 when he won his fourth; Palmer in 1960, closing with a magnificent 65 and making up seven strokes on Mike Souchak; and the classic confrontation between Nicklaus and Trevino last year at Merion.

We may still be too close to the 1972 Championship for a proper evaluation, but in the immediate aftermath it seems probable that the victory of Jack Nicklaus at Pebble Beach last month will be considered among the most significant of them all. Among the reasons why, consider these:

1. It was the third Open Championship for Nicklaus. Only Jones, Hogan and old Willie Anderson, with four each, have won more, and at 32, Nicklaus has every prospect of at least matching them.

2. While it could not be said that he brought Pebble Beach to its knees, his score of 290 must be weighed against a number of factors – the course, the weather, the challenge. Nicklaus was two over par for the 72 holes over one of the truly classic golf courses of the world. We are just beginning to realize the soundness of Pebble Beach; its scenic splendour for years has overshadowed its playing qualities. Anyway, he was three strokes better than the runner-up, Bruce Crampton, of Australia, who shot 293. Arnold Palmer was third at 294.
3. Nicklaus’ victory was as much a triumph of character as of golfing skills, for only twice before has a player assumed a challenge such as he has thrown down before himself of winning the world’s four most important golf competitions in one year. His goal is winning the U.S. and British Opens, the PGA Championship, and the Masters Tournament, a series that has become known as the “modern slam.” He had already won the Masters in April.

Only once before has a player won the first two and been in position to win the second two. Arnold Palmer won the Open and Masters in 1960, but finished second to Kel Nagle, of Australia, in the British Open when Nagle scored an eagle on the 71st hole. Ben Hogan won the Open and Masters in the same year twice, but in 1951 he declined to play in either the PGA or British Open, and in 1953 when he did win the British Open, the PGA Championship was being played at the same time.

Ever since Nicklaus struggled through the final round at Pebble Beach in as fine a 74 as one could imagine under the conditions of weather and emotion, it has been inevitable that His quest for four titles should be compared to the Jones Grand Slam of 1930. It is equally inevitable that his record of victories in major competitions should be compared with that of Jones. By winning at Pebble Beach, Nicklaus now has won 13 “major tournaments,” as many as Jones. No one else has won so many.

Jones’ Grand Slam, of course, consisted of the Open and Amateur Championships of the United States and Great Britain. As a professional, Nicklaus naturally cannot compete in the Amateur events, and so the Masters and PGA Championships are substituted. For each of those men, the four he had to win were the four most difficult events he was eligible to win.

It has been advanced by some, though, that Nicklaus’ record does not stand up to Jones’, or even to Walter Hagen’s, for Jones won 13 National Championships and Hagen won 11, and no matter how you look at the Masters, it is still an invitational tournament and not a national Championship.

Technically speaking, this is true; it is also true, however, that invitation tournament though the Masters may be, winning it is still one of the four most prized accomplishments in golf, and Nicklaus has won it four times.

He ranks now with Jones at the very head of the list of major tournament winners – ahead of Walter Hagen; ahead of Arnold Palmer, who has won eight; ahead of Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead, who have won seven; ahead of Gary Player and Peter Thomson, who have won five. Harry Vardon also won seven, but he should be placed in a separate category because he had fewer tournaments to play in. Indeed, throughout most of his career, the British Open was in a class by itself.

It is obvious that Nicklaus will surpass Jones and establish a record that probably will stand as long. Everyone else is confident he will, and Nicklaus probably is too, for confidence is one of his strong suits. He is certainly confident that he can play just about any shot he wishes.

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After nine holes on the final day, Nicklaus was in command of the Championship, the only player in the field equal to Pebble Beach’s par, and he had a four-stroke lead over Trevino (who was grouped with him), Bruce Crampton (one hole ahead), and Arnold Palmer (then on the 12th tee). The 10th and 12th changed the entire complexion of the Championship.

The 10th hole at Pebble Beach skirts along the edge of the craggy, gray bluffs that plunge down to the shores of Carmel Bay, with its broad white sand beach and roaring surf. The best approach to the flagstick was from the right that day, but that meant flirting with the cliff. Jack decided to play for the right side, but as he reached the top of his backswing, a gust of wind blew in from the sea and upset his balance slightly. The shot soared beyond the edge of the cliff and the margin of the lateral water hazard; and the ball buried in the loose sand on the beach. After accepting a one-stroke penalty, Nicklaus played his approach into the hazard again, and he eventually made a 6 on the hole, a par 4, and two strokes of his lead were gone.

The 12th is a 205-yard par 3, calling for a tee shot with a long iron, a difficult requirement because the wind had dried out the greens and they had become quite hard to hold with low trajectory shots. The ground behind the green slopes steeply into very thick rough, and bunkers guard the entrance. Nicklaus at this point had only a one-stroke edge on Palmer, who had made 5 on the 10th where Nicklaus had made 6. His shot, played with a 3-iron, came down on target, but bounced high and ran over the back. He needed two whacks with his wedge from deep rough to reach the green, and eventually settled for a bogey, thanks to holing an 8-footer (more about this later).

The reason why these holes have been brought up now is that the two tee shots illustrate the complete assurance Nicklaus has that he can do what he wants to do. It is always risky to guess what some other player might have done in certain circumstances, but the thought occurred to many at Pebble Beach that Ben Hogan would have approached these situations differently – that he would have played down the left side of the 10th hole on both his drive and his approach to avoid just what happened to Jack, and that while he might not have been on the 12th green with his tee shot, he probably would have tried to play a much softer shot onto the green, and to have finished close to the green if he failed to hit it or hold it.

Hogan, however, played a different kind of game from Nicklaus, and each in its day has been the best. That is all that can be asked of anyone. Certainly Jack’s game has been the best being played in major competitions this year, for in both the Masters and the Open he either led or was tied for the lead after every round.

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To take the lead in the first place, and then to hold on through four rounds was a remarkable accomplishment at Pebble Beach, which played at 6,812 yards with a par of 36-36—72. The course was as stern an examination in golf as the Open has seen, and it was among the best conditioned Open courses in some years. Certainly it had more grass than it had in January when it was the site of two rounds of the Bing Crosby National Professional-Amateur tournament. The fairways were moderately narrow, the rough heavy and punishing, and the sand in the bunkers deep and fluffy, perhaps too fluffy, for the ball tended to bury itself and some of the skill was taken out of the bunker shot.

While those conditions had their effect on the scoring, it was the brilliance of the design that had the larger effect on the Open. Pebble Beach, like Merion, Pine Valley, the National Links and a number of other fine courses, was the product of an amateur architect. While it is true that a man need not be a great player to design great courses, Jack Neville, who designed Pebble Beach, was, in fact, an accomplished player and won the California Amateur a number of times. He is 81 now, still active, and lent some advice on the placement of some new bunkers that were added for the Open.

Neville laid out the course in the second decade of the century, and although it is now over 50 years old, it is by no means antiquated. It begins with a series of short, relatively easy holes well away from Carmel Bay, and then begins to wend its way along the sea at the fourth. Its classic stretch begins at the sixth, a moderate length par 5 of 515 yards that rises to a high escarpment above Stillwater Cove, a yacht basin. The course then plunges down again almost to the edge of the bay with the 120-yard seventh. From then on you are playing golf of the most demanding order. The next three holes skirt the edge of the bay before the course turns inland again, weaving among the cypress, eucalyptus, live oaks, and Monterey pines before returning to the sea once more at the 17th and, of course, the par-5 18th.

Many of the professionals in the field had played Pebble in the Crosby, and they knew that to score well they had to make birdies on those early holes, and then try to hang on. The statistics bear them out. Of the 10 players who scored lower than 300, eight played the first nine better than the second. Nicklaus, for example, was four strokes higher on the second nine; Bruce Crampton was three, Kermit Zarley was two higher, Cesar Sanudo three, Chi Chi Rodriguez five, Tom Weiskopf 12, and Homero Blancas an incredible 19 strokes higher on the second nine than the first.

Of the 10 leaders only Palmer, who finished third at 294, and Lee Trevino, tied for fourth at 295, played the second nine better than the first.

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The easy start, rugged finish character of the course was not long becoming evident during the Championship. Bobby Cole, the young South African, birdied three holes on the first nine and was out in 34. He lost both strokes on the second nine and finished with 72. Jerry McGee, who was grouped with him, played an even-par 36 going out, but his game then collapsed; he made five bogies and a double bogey coming in and finished with 43 and 79. While McGee was never again a factor, in the third round he scored a hole in one on the 180-yard fifth — the first ace in the Open since Bob Kuntz, of New York, in 1956.

Returning to that first round, Bob Murphy and Bob Rosburg were out in 37, back in 42; Rodriguez was out in 34, back in 37. Jim Simons, the young amateur who came so close at Merion last year, was out in 35, back in 40, Weiskopf was out in 34, back in 39. For a while it looked as if Mason Rudolph or Blancas would lead the Open. Both shot 33 on the first nine, but Blancas went into what was to become his habitual second-nine collapse, scoring 41 and 74 for the 18; Rudolph slipped to 38 coming in, for 71.

As it developed, 71 was the low score of the day, a score shared by six players, the most ever to tie for the lead after the first round, the most ever to tie for the lead after any round since 1896.

Among the six was Nicklaus, who played the course in two birdies and one bogey and declared that it was “not too bad an opening round.” It could have been somewhat better, though, for Jack missed five putts inside 13 feet, four of them for birdies, along with a 10-foot eagle putt on the 504-yard second after reaching the green with a 2-iron.

Among those tied at 71 was Tom Shaw, who had six birdies and five bogeys in what he called
“an exciting round.” His round was almost as chaotic as the 74 that Blancas turned in. Homero had six birdies, but he also had three bogeys, a double bogey and a triple bogey.

Lee Trevino, the defending champion, was three strokes back at 74, but this was encouraging both to him and to his followers, for he had been suffering from a mild case of bronchial pneumonia, and having arrived at Pebble Beach only the day before the Championship began, he had had time for just one practice round.

Some others might well have followed his example, for the carnage was incredible. Of the 150 starters, 48 failed to score lower than 80. That amounts to two players less than one-third of the field. Consider these scores: Frank Beard, 85; Doug Sanders, 82; Jim Jamieson, 82; Ben Crenshaw, 80; Bunky Henry, 88.

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Blancas was among the early starters on the second day and his game was just as erratic as it had been on the first. After 13 holes, or 31 holes of the two rounds, he had scored 11 birdies – better than one birdie every three holes – but was just one stroke under par. He finished the round in 70 for 144, even par for 36 holes.

Once more six players stood tied for first place: Nicklaus, Blancas, Bruce Crampton, Cesar Sanudo, Lanny Wadkins, and Kermit Zarley. Nicklaus was a bit more erratic on this second eighteen, scoring three birdies and four bogies for his 73. Again, had his putting been a bit better, it might have saved him some strokes. His biggest mistake, however, was a 4-iron that slid off his club on the long 14th hole and sailed out of bounds, but he saved his bogey by holing a 20-foot putt after putting another ball in play. It was here, also, that he encountered his worst run of scoring throughout the Championship. After the bogey 6 on 14, he followed with two more bogeys, succumbing to a 5 on the 15th when a gust of wind upset his balance as he was about to stroke a 20-foot putt and caused him to leave it six feet short, and to another 5 on the 16th when his 5-iron approach went over the green into a bad lie. His chip back was 20 feet short of the hole.

Trevino was feeling a bit better after a nice long rest: he went to bed at 4 p.m. Thursday and got up at noon Friday. He then went out and shot 72, and was only two strokes off the lead at 146.

This was the day that Arnold Palmer made his move. He had opened with 77 on Thursday and seemed possibly on his way out of the Championship, but all the gears meshed on Friday and he brought in a 68 that included six birdies. His shotmaking was some of his best in a long time, and he was consistently near the hole with his approaches. As with most rounds of this kind, the score could have been lower, but Palmer missed makeable birdie putts on the fifth, sixth and seventh, and then missed a two-foot putt on the eighth that cost him a par. All in all he missed nine putts of 20 feet or less in this round.

Again 48 players failed to break 80. The 36-hole cut came at 154, the highest it had been since 1955 at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, just 100 miles or so to the north.

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Nicklaus moved out in front in the third round with an even par round of 72 and a 54-hole score of 216, also even par. His closest pursuer was, of all people, Trevino, the only player in the field able to improve on his score in every round. Trevino shot 71, scoring five birdies, four of them on the second nine, and keeping himself alive with his putter.

Palmer was playing immediately ahead of Nicklaus, and he caught Jack momentarily with a par 3 on the fifth, barely touching a 10-foot putt from above the hole and watching it trickle slowly downhill until it came to rest just off the left lip of the hole. Moments later Nicklaus hit his tee shot 30 feet above that hole and three-putted. It was clearly one of the most treacherous spots on the course.

Nicklaus got the stroke back when Palmer made a 5 on the par-4 eighth, and he was not overtaken the rest of the day.

By the time the third round ended, the quality of Pebble Beach was obvious. Nicklaus was leading and Trevino was tied for second, and who played off for the Championship in 1971 but Nicklaus and Trevino. Bruce Crampton, a first-class shotmaker, was at 217 with Trevino, along with Zarley; Palmer and John Miller were another stroke behind at 218. With one round to go, then, we were facing the possibility of a duel among Nicklaus, Trevino, and Palmer.

Sunday dawned sunny, but the Monterey Peninsula was being whipped by high westerly winds. Small craft warnings were raised all along the coast, and the sloops that raced off the seventh hole on Saturday were kept safely moored in Stillwater Cove. It was not a day for low scoring, and it was not a day to take chances. It was a day when the wind could whip a swinging club out of line, upset a man’s balance, and blow a ball into the matted rough.

Nicklaus and Trevino were the last pair off, but the anticipated duel between them did not develop. It seemed as if Trevino’s physical condition finally overcame his spirit, and he simply could not cope. He matched Jack’s par 4 on the first hole, but his chances really ended on the 504-yard second. Here he drove into the left rough, left his second shot still in the rough short of the ravine that slashes across the fairway, put his third shot over the green in the woods, and took three more to hole out. A 6. Nicklaus, meanwhile, drove into the fairway, hit a 2-iron on the green 35 feet from the hole and two-putted for a birdie 4 to lead Trevino by three.

Jack then went through a period of indifferent golf. He made a shaky bogey on 4, another shaky bogey on 5, a shaky par on 6, and a shaky birdie on 7, where he turned slightly on a punched 7-iron against a cross wind. His shot just did manage to stay on the green, and his hopping 25-foot putt into the wind dropped for a 2. Jack’s principal challenge then was coming from Crampton, Blancas and Palmer, Crampton fell three strokes behind after making 6 on the par 4 third, but he made a 4 on the fourth where Nicklaus made 5, and a 3 on the par-3 fifth when Nicklaus put his 6-iron over the green and took three from the edge for a bogey 4. Crampton was then only one stroke behind again, but he lost two strokes on the next two holes and never narrowed the margin between him and Nicklaus over the rest of the round.

Blancas began the final round four strokes off the pace, but closed to within one when Nicklaus made his 6 on the 10th hole. From then on, Homero did nothing but lose strokes and finished at 295, tied with Trevino.

The real threat came from Palmer, who has come so close so many times since his victory in 1960. Three strokes behind after the second hole, where he made par to Jack’s birdie, Arnold picked up three strokes on the next three holes, and so when both men had played five holes, they stood even with each other. But in a way this is misleading. Palmer was playing two holes ahead, and since he bogeyed the sixth before Nicklaus bogeyed the fourth and fifth, at no time was Palmer even with Nicklaus on the scoreboard.

The birdie on seven seemed to lift Jack’s spirit, and he played the eighth and ninth with assurance, scoring par 4s on both. He had played the first nine in even par 36, and had actually gained ground on his closest challengers. Now, as he began the final nine holes, he faced the most dramatic moments of the Open – the 10th through the 12th where the Open was almost lost as Jack’s wayward drive soared over the cliff – the result of being blown off balance by the wind.

The ball impacted in the sand within the boundary of a lateral water hazard – Carmel Bay – and so Jack elected to drop outside the hazard and take a one-stroke penalty. His next shot was a 2-iron, but perhaps he should have used more club. Anyhow, the ball landed short and to the right of the green on the steep bank of the cliff – again within the lateral hazard. Nicklaus, however, was able to play the ball as it lay; he was on with a wedge and down in two for a 6. Two strokes of his lead were gone.

On this hole Trevino had a great opportunity – his last opportunity. If he made 4 he would have picked up two strokes and then would have been just two behind with eight holes to play. On in two, he had his chance at a 4, but he three-putted and made 5.

Palmer also had made 5 at the 10th, but as he moved to the 13th tee he was now but one stroke behind, for he had made a par 3 at the 12th. He made a routine par 4 at the short 13th, and as Nicklaus came to the 12th tee, Arnold was playing a driver into the 14th fairway, a second shot short of the green, and then a little pitch close to the hole.

It was on the 12th that Nicklaus hit what he thought was a perfect 3-iron only to see the ball strife that hard green and jump over the back into a terrible lie. After two more shots he finally reached the green, but he was eight feet away from a bogey 4.

The Open finally hinged on what happened to those two putts – the eight-footer Nicklaus needed for a bogey 4 on 12, and the eight-footer Palmer needed for a birdie on 14. Palmer was then a stroke behind Nicklaus on the scoreboard. If his putt fell and Jack’s missed, Arnold would be ahead. If they both made their putts, they would be tied. Now Palmer crouched over that putt in his familiar stance – knees together, shoulders hunched, just at the time Nicklaus crouched over his, moving very deliberately, setting the clubhead down behind the ball and giving the hole that one last glance before striking the putt.

Each man hit his putt at almost the same instant; as Jack’s neared the hole, Trevino urged “get in there!” and the ball dove into the cup. Just then Palmer’s eased by the edge. He screwed up his face in anguish and sagged slightly. It was over for Arnold; instead of being a stroke ahead he was a stroke behind. Palmer followed by driving the rough on both 15 and 16, scoring bogeys on both, and when Nicklaus survived a poor drive on 13, playing a crisp 9-iron approach from a dirt road to save par, and followed by holing a 12-foot birdie putt on 15, Arnold was four strokes off the lead. That is how he finished.

Jack scored a routine par 4 on the 16th, hit the flagstick of the 218-yard 17th with a marvelous 1-iron tee shot for another easy birdie, and played the 18th cautiously, three-putting for a bogey 6 after learning that he was four strokes ahead of Crampton.

As those final few strokes were played before nearly 20,000 spectators on the course, millions more on television, and a few scattered sea otters swimming among the red kelp offshore, Crampton stood watching from behind the green.

He was watching someone who played a little different game from the rest of them.

The intense concentration of Jack Nicklaus, Open Champion for the third time. (USGA Museum)

Arnold Palmer was a factor in the Open once more, as he has been so many times since he won in 1960. (USGA Museum)

Bruce Crampton, runner-up to Nicklaus in both the Open and the Masters. (USGA Museum)