From the Golf Journal Archives - The Nearly Secret Practice Of Jack and Arnie

Apr 30, 2010

By Frank Hannigan

(Note: This article originally appeared in the June 1965 issue of Golf Journal.)

One of the compensations for living out of a suitcase for six weeks every year at the site of the Open Championship is that one gets to see Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer play golf when nobody else is around.

This happens early in May, more than a month prior to the Open. As everyone knows, either Nicklaus or Palmer has won every Masters Tournament since 1962, and it is probably no accident that the Masters winner is always the first to show up at the Open course. Despite their protestations about the unlikelihood of such a feat, rest assured that both men retain uppermost in their minds the possibility of a modern Grand Slam – victory in the Open, British Open, PGA Championship and Masters in the same year.

Although Palmer and Nicklaus are good friends, they have never come together to practice on the Open course. About one week after one of them plays his first practice round, his rival will appear. The second man invariably asks how his predecessor liked and/or played the course. The stock answer to this query has become “He liked it fine, but he said it was really tailor-made for your game.” This always evokes a lively response.

The casual arrival of either Palmer or Nicklaus is a mixed blessing for the host club, which welcomes the publicity but is singularly unequipped to cope with Arnold’s Army early in May. Should the word get out to the public that the Great Man will appear on a specific day, there would likely be a throng of townspeople in attendance and there could be considerable damage to the course. Therefore secrecy becomes the order of the day. The local press is not notified until the last possible minute. Sometimes there are spirited discussions among the club’s Open Committee as to whether even the club membership should be let in on the secret. The USGA chooses to stay aloof from such family conversations.

The arrival itself has become an event. Palmer and Nicklaus are now minor industries and they no longer travel anywhere unattended. After Jack or Arnold walks through the club door and is greeted by the host club’s General Chairman, there will be a series of introductions that go something like this:

“I’d like you to meet A and B, who will be working on my magazine article analyzing your course; this is C, who makes my line of clothing; here is D, who writes my newspaper syndicate stuff; and over there is E, my pilot.”

Waiting out on the practice tee are an announcer and a cameraman from each of three television stations and four men, armed with tape recorders, representing local radio stations. One of the stations plays rock-‘n-roll music around the clock but today will go a bit sporty. (“Hey out there, boys and girls, we’ve got a little somethin’ special for you today – an exclusive interview with good old Arnie Palmer we taped out at that Bellyreeve Country Club where they’ll be playing that big, bad U.S. Open golf thing next month. We’ll be talkin’ with Arnie right after this next number from the Rolling Stones.”)

It’s obvious that both Jack and Arnold more than tolerate this treatment. They actually seem to like it. The average man would flee to a monastery after a couple of months of having microphones shoved in his face as a daily diet, but not these two.

Palmer, of course, is recognized as a public relations genius who has a wonderful facility for re-membering first names. Nicklaus’ skill at answering questions is often underrated. At age 25, he has acquired sufficient poise and maturity that enable him to answer the most banal of questions with sincerity, grace and often with a puckish touch of humor.

The interviews finally ended, the round is ready to begin. Since neither man likes to play alone, he likely has brought along someone to play with, usually a friend from Latrobe or Columbus. Both have played practice rounds on Open courses in recent years with their fathers. Palmer’s is a golf professional; Jack’s is the owner of several pharmacies with an 8 handicap. The host professional is always invited to play with them.

Neither Palmer nor Nicklaus will leave any tee until he is satisfied that he has hit a pretty good shot. As a result, they often play two or three balls. Should a particular hole seem to present optional methods of attack, two balls are a must. For instance, on dogleg holes, one ball will be hit straight away and a second will be driven in an attempt to cut the corner of the hole.

The first ball, however, is always played into the hole so that there is an approximation of an 18-hole score available when the round is completed. Nicklaus last month reported a 74 – four over par – on his first crack at Bellerive.

When Jack made a birdie on Bellerive’s third hole, he remarked that he was showing great improvement over his 1964 Open form – referring to the fact that he played 45 practice holes at the Congressional Country Club without making a birdie.

The custom of playing more than one ball off the tee is one of the primary reasons both men like to get to the Open course so early. Once the officially designated practice days begin – on the Monday of Open Week – every player is restricted to playing one ball.

Nicklaus uses these practice rounds to chart the course. Somewhere to the side of the drive zone on each par-4 or par-5 hole he will select a landmark, often a tree or a bush, and will count his paces from that point into the center of the green. This information is dutifully recorded on a score card he will carry during the Open. Once the Championship begins, he is careful to relate his drives to the landmarks. He then estimates where the hole is cut in relation to the center of the green, figures out how many “paces” he has left to the hole, and makes his club selection based on this intelligence. Palmer, on the other hand, makes no notes. (Jack says “Arnold’s depth perception is better than mine.”)

Arnold likes to make tiny bets during practice rounds. At Oakmont, in 1962, he played the best ball of his father and two of their amateur friends. The three opponents were permitted to play from the middle tees while Arnold went all the way to the back. When he failed to break 80, Palmer lost every conceivable way, much to the delight of his father.

Last year, at Congressional, a magazine writer proposed that Arnold play his first ball in match play against the course par. A $1 Nassau bet was proposed, Palmer, no mean first-tee lawyer, demanded and received a handicap of one stroke on each nine. He scored high in the 70s and lost all three ways, but as he walked off the 18th green Arnold demanded a chance to “press” the bet on the first day of the Open itself. His first-round score was 68. The writer dutifully came up with $3.

Every great golfer seems to fancy himself a golf course architect as well. Palmer and Nicklaus are certainly no exceptions. No detail of the Open course is too small to escape their attention. Their feelings toward these wonderful courses, which serve as the ultimate stage for their skills, are somewhat ambivalent, much the way Hemingway’s Old Man thought about his Sea – as both friend and enemy simultaneously.

They appreciate the time and effort that go into the preparation of an Open course, but neither will hesitate to quibble about certain architectural features he questions. (They dislike having to use anything except a driver off the tee on par-4 holes.) It is safe to say that Nicklaus and Palmer feel that their records would be even greater than they are if every course was prepared as the Open course is.

They have a marked preference for very fast greens and have been quoted independently as saying the finest greens they ever saw were those at Oakmont during the 1962 Open. Those were the very greens that prompted Sam Snead to say “I marked my ball with a dime on one of them and the dime started to slither toward the hole.”

Nicklaus fancies himself an agronomist as well as an architect. If the club’s superintendent or Chairman of the Green Committee is introduced, Jack will halt play to engage in a technical discussion of the turf replete with such terms as “verticut,” “Tifton 328,” and “Seaside bent.”

The two are extremely cordial to club members who make up the small gallery. Care is taken to avoid any critical remarks within hearing of the membership. Such criticism is reserved for the less tender ears of a USGA representative. When Nicklaus is unhappy about something, his already high-pitched voice moves upwards into squeaky tones; Palmer has been known to emit a heart-rending moan that might melt steel but is nonetheless not convincing enough to reduce the height of a belt of rough blocking the entrance to a green on a par-5 hole.

They are famous for their ability to hit the ball very long. This they consider an advantage during the Open, but not an overriding one. They agree that the key to success in the Open is the ability to drive the ball repeatedly into the relatively narrow fairways which are bordered with good old-fashioned rough. Nicklaus, with all his power, was unsuccessful in the 1963 and 1964 Opens because he too often failed to keep his drives in the fairways.

Nevertheless, to the club member at the Open course, it is their distance that is most impressive. The talk in the men’s grill after they depart will invariably center on drives that have been hit where no balls have previously come to rest.

At Oakmont a new bunker had been constructed on the right side of the drive zone especially for the Open. It was considered a sure thing to snare any ball hit in its direction. Palmer corrected that notion quickly when he pushed his first drive a bit and flew the ball 10 yards over that new bunker.

Last month at Bellerive, when Nicklaus walked onto the new 12th tee, he was advised that a fairway bunker on the left side was now considered “out of play” since it had been designed for the regular tee, which is some 50 yards forward. Jack hit two balls that landed within five feet of each other in the forward part of that bunker at least 325 yards off the tee. He announced laconically to an audience of popped eyes and gaping jaws, “I suppose I’ll either have to fade the ball to the right of those traps or lay up short of them with a 3-wood.”

For those interested in the actual conduct of the Open, the early rounds serve one practical purpose. They are observed to check the tentative plans already made for the installation of gallery-restraining rope. The gallery must be kept out of zones where balls seem likely to land, and under no conditions must the crowds be channeled so that balls will fly over their heads in the normal course of play.

The appearance of Palmer and Nicklaus sometimes causes certain adjustments to be made. For example, consider Bellerive’s 460-yard 10th hole, a par-4 that bends sharply to the left after the drive zone. The dogleg is protected by a cluster of fully grown trees.

Bellerive’s Gallery Committee thought it would be safe to permit the gallery to flow down both the right and the left sides of the hole. Then Nicklaus stood on the 10th tee, faced himself left, and rocketed a ball far over the trees, cutting so much off the hole that he was left with only an 8-iron to reach the green. Had this been the first round of the Open and had the tentative plan been adopted, his ball would have traveled directly over the heads of thousands, and perhaps onto the head of one.

As Jack’s ball soared over those trees, a member of the Gallery Committee was heard to say wistfully: “Well, back to the drawing board.”

“Hullo. He seems to have missed the putt.” (USGA Museum)

“He seems to have the crowd with him, doesn’t he?” (USGA Museum)

“You’ll find the hardest part is in trying to keep a straight face for 18 holes.” (USGA Museum)