From the Golf Journal Archives - Vintage Nicklaus

Jul 22, 2011

Chi Chi Rodriguez’s 69 in a rain-interrupted Monday playoff, one of only 16 scores under par for the week, wasn’t nearly enough to beat a dominant Jack Nicklaus, who tied a course record
with his seven-birdie 65 and won the 1991 Senior Open.

By David Earl

(Note: This article originally appeared in the September 1991 issue of Golf Journal.)

“FIFTEEN MILES AWAY,” said Mike Davis, USGA assistant manager of championship relations. He was holding a lightning detector in one hand, reclining in a golf cart in the rough off the 14th fairway at Oakland Hills Country Club. On the tee behind him, Jack Nicklaus and Chi Chi Rodriguez were preparing to drive. The rain-laden skies hovered, low and heavy, just like those that preceded a thunder-and-lightning-accompanied rain delay of an hour and 58 minutes earlier that Monday afternoon.

Like the clouds, the prospects of winning the 1991 Senior Open Championship looked bleak for the plucky Rodriguez. Not the charm-laden bracelet given to him by his adopted daughter, not the three silver dollars in his pocket, not even the lucky ball mark that he carried to seven previous tournament victories would be medicine enough to take out the iron-willed Jack Nicklaus at his most precise.

Jack was finessing his irons like Paganini bowed the violin, thoughtfully, precisely, and with killing effect. Four shots, ranging from a 9-iron to a 4-iron in distance, landed stiff, including a near hole-in-one on the 17th, a six-inch tap-in. Had Jack not bogeyed the 18th, he would have set a new competitive course record. As it is, he shares his 65 with Andy North and T.C. Chen, who shot their scores at the 1985 U.S. Open, which North won.

Chi Chi was unfortunate – he ran into a buzzsaw. Consider the fact that he shot 69 – and lost by four strokes. By the time play was stopped, Jack had moved to three under par, three ahead of Chi Chi. Was that thunder we heard in the distance, or was it only the big footsteps of the old Nicklaus, sensing another championship?


Thirty-seven amateurs joined 119 professionals in the starting field at Oakland Hills, a course with the reputation of a venerable, worthy championship site – and the soul of a blackguard, with treacherously sloping greens, bunkers with precise locations and voracious appetites, and hole locations to confuse and confound even the best putters.

As is the custom at senior competitions, good humor prevailed. Some practice rounds turned into entertainment, shows of camaraderie, and plenty of laughs. Ironically, one matchup pitted Rodriguez and Nicklaus against the team of Rives McBee and John Paul Cain. “I need some of that Texas money,” Chi Chi said.

Those who oppose gambling shouldn’t worry. Nicklaus said that as long as he’s known Rodriguez, he’s never come up with the cash when it was time to settle the bet. “We could play for $100,000,” Jack laughed. “It doesn’t matter when you’re playing with Chi Chi. He never pays, but he never collects, either.” And, perhaps in another foreshadowing, the match ended in a draw. The winners were the gallery, who were treated to Chi Chi’s constant droll chatter and, in contrast, McBee’s Texas-style one-liners.

WHEN IT CAME TO Thursday’s starting times, though, the guffaws had turned into thoughtful chuckles. The players, be they qualifiers like Dr. Jim Patti, of Winston-Salem, N.C., who won the low-amateur medal, or seasoned professionals like Nicklaus, Trevino, and Rodriguez, put on their game faces.

Okay, maybe not Rodriguez. From punch line to ball in the air for Chi Chi is measured in fractions of a second. “When I was a kid,” he offered, “I learned to play golf by sneaking onto a course. The greenkeeper had a gun, and he’d use it. So we’d run out of the woods, hit the ball, then run back. That’s where I learned to play so fast. Honest.”

The first-day leader, with a splendid 68, was Mike Hill, coming off winning a senior tournament the previous week, his third of the year. He and Gary Player were the only two players to break par; gusty breezes confused club selection, and the field played to a stroke average of a little over 78. Small but strong and slim, Hill stands in contrast to many other seniors, whose profiles have become a bit bulgy – what Lee Trevino calls the roundbellies.

The owner of a public golf course in Brooklyn, Mich., Hill showed the rest of the field the way with five birdies, including one on the difficult 10th hole, where he holed a chip. Three bogeys offset his birdies. Player’s round of 69 had fewer ups and downs, featuring three birdies and two bogeys. Lee Trevino came in with even-par 70, while two amateurs, Hunter McDonald, 17 times the club champion at Oakland Hills, and Dick Siderowf tied with five others at 71. McDonald started with three birdies in a row, but the difficult back nine brought him back to earth. Oakland Hills, termed a monster by Ben Hogan after his victory there in the 1951 U.S. Open, has a way of getting even.

Mike Hill found that out on Friday in the second round. “The golf course doesn’t give you anything,” he said after four bogeys and one double pushed him back into a tie for third at the close of play. As Hill was falling back, however, the big guns were wheeling into position. J.C. Snead took the two-day lead with a 69, a round that could have been a couple of strokes better except for a water-induced double bogey at the picturesque 16th hole. One stroke back lurked Chi Chi Rodriguez, Nicklaus, Al Geiberger, and Don Bies; two off the pace stood Hill, Trevino, Player, and Bob Charles.

The difficulty of the greens monopolized most of the players’ thoughts. Highly contoured and unforgiving, they were responsible for a spate of three-putts; Charles, an excellent putter, told one reporter, “I hate these greens! I missed so many short putts, it’s not funny.” Nicklaus called the putting surfaces “the most difficult set of greens in the entire world. Augusta’s are difficult,” he said, “but these are the most difficult.”

Of course, the leaders weren’t the only players getting attention. Worthy of note were two 74s by the indefatigable Jerry Barber, who seems to beat his age of 75 almost every time he goes out to play, and a 68 by Dr. Patti, tying Rodriguez for the day’s best round. He was one of five amateurs who made the cut of 152; first-day sensation McDonald slipped to 81, barely sliding under the wire.

GLORIOUS WEATHER had made a reservation to stay in the Detroit area, apparently. Saturday dawned bright and clear, almost sweater-chilly early in the morning, and the wind never blew harder than eight miles an hour. “Conditions couldn’t be any better,” Trevino said, prophetically. “I still think someone’s going to break loose and shoot two under par.”

Someone did, indeed, and it was Trevino, After bogeying the fifth hole, he came alive with birdies on holes six, 11, and 12, then three-putted the 17th from 50 feet, but won the stroke back immediately with one of the few birdies on the 18th, setting himself up with a superb 3-iron to 4 feet, then rolling in the putt with his newly adopted grip. “I tried it during practice rounds at the British Open and drove Tom Watson and Fred Couples wild,” he commented. “But it’s working.”

Trevino’s 68 wasn’t the best round Saturday. Walter Zembriski posted the best round of the week with a stunning 66, launching him past 40 other players but keeping him six strokes back. Snead, Hill, Nicklaus, and Rodriguez all maintained their challenging position, J.C. and Mike with 71s and Jack and Chi Chi with even-par 70s.

The scoring set up some interesting last-round pairings. The penultimate group would have J.C. and C.C., and the final pair would be Nicklaus and Trevino. From all appearances, the Lee/Jack rivalry would have the chance to play itself out once again.

AFTER THREE HOURS and 32 minutes of golf, however, Trevino had played himself out of the championship picture. Both he and Nicklaus bogeyed the very first hole, and for good measure Lee added another bogey at the second. Ahead of them, however, Chi Chi and Al Geiberger were making up strokes with consistent iron play and precise, safe putting. At one point, the possibility of a four-man playoff loomed.

Geiberger couldn’t keep his game in line, though, and after taking a one-stroke lead, he bogeyed from a greenside bunker at the 13th, missed a three-foot putt for a birdie at the 15th, missed again from 10 feet at the 17th, and bogeyed the 18th. It must have galled him to watch Charlie Coody’s birdie-birdie-birdie finish. “I would have paid a lot of money for that,” he reflected.

Second-round leader Snead, meanwhile, fell abruptly from contention with a frustrating 79, as did Mike Hill, who finished with 74. But Rodriguez, who’d absolutely ripped a drive on the 18th on Saturday that left him only 135 yards from the hole, had one amazing shot left. He wasn’t as close as he had been on Saturday, but from the center of the fairway he played a 6-iron that no one who watched could forget. The ball started about 30 yards right, but drew in beautifully and, following the contours of the green, nestled about 30 inches from the hole. “I put masse on it,” he said, “like on a billiard shot.”

Rodriguez knocked the putt in for his birdie, then waited as Nicklaus walked up the 18th. At this point, Jack was tied with Chi Chi. His iron wound up 14 feet right of the hole, but he left what would have been the winning birdie putt short. “I watched guys go past that hole all week long,” Jack said. “I wasn’t about to do that.”


On Monday afternoon, Nicklaus was simply remarkable. He hit 16 greens in regulation, scored seven birdies with bogeys on the sixth and 18th holes, but was in total control after the seventh hole. Like the Nicklaus of old, he rose to the occasion with resolve and consummate skill. It was an exhibition of superiority, a case of total domination.

After close of play on Sunday, Jack and Chi Chi held a joint press conference. Rodriguez suggested that the USGA should provide two trophies, so that he could make a Monday outing where he said he’d earn $40,000. “Okay by me,” said Jack, but it was easy to tell he was just playing the straight man.

Rodriguez was fired up by his closing birdie, and continued his gentle ribbing of Jack. “If the Golden Bear goes to sleep,” he quipped, “the little mouse from Puerto Rico will come right in,” then grinned at Jack across the lectern.

As they say, though, he who laughs last, laughs best. Nicklaus, obviously, had the last laugh.

Pre-championship favorite Jack Nicklaus showed more than a few flashes of brilliance. His iron play as characterized by deadly accuracy. (USGA Museum)

“I thought I could hit it right through the leaves,” lamented Nicklaus on Sunday. “But the ball hit a little limb, and came straight down…” (USGA Museum)

Chi Chi Rodriguez certainly gives it a lash, as the Brits say; even at 135 pounds, he can still drive the ball more than 300 yards if the occasion should require. (USGA Museum)