From the Golf Journal Archives - Going One Better

Feb 17, 2012

In I960, Jack Nicklaus finished second in the Open at Cherry Hills – as an amateur. Thirty-three years later, he took the Senior Open title by a stroke at the Colorado course.

By David Earl

(Note: This article originally appeared in the August 1993 issue of Golf Journal.)

The clubhouse at Cherry Hills Country Club in Englewood, Colo., sits high atop a hill, and in the distance, the imposing wall of the Front Range of the Rockies hangs like a snowy cloud bank. Both the ninth and 18th holes play uphill to the environs of the clubhouse; they’re tough par 4s (the 18th plays as a par 5 for the members) because of the firmness of the greens, the difficulty of club selection, and the fact that it’s almost impossible to find a truly level lie from which to hit the approach.

On both Saturday and Sunday of the Senior Open, however, Jack Nicklaus had no difficulty whatsoever with the final hole. Jack had birdied the 16th and 17th holes on Saturday, the 16th with a twisty little 12-footer and the 17th with a three-and-a-half-footer after reaching the green easily with a second shot that rolled into the back collar. In fact, his attempt at eagle nearly hit the hole first; he seemed to expect that it’d go in, as he always seems to, and indicated to son/caddie Jackie with a little motion of his hand that the putt had just slid off center.

The 18th played to a stated yardage of 450 yards, but that nasty uphill second made it far longer. After driving the ball well, Jack was looking at more than 200 yards, but his long iron sailed unerringly into the right front of the green and nestled about three feet from the hole, and, of course, as we’ve seen, he made the putt for his third consecutive birdie – and first position going into Sunday’s fray.

It could easily be argued that those three holes in three under were the stretch where Nicklaus won his second Senior Open in three years. Although at the close of play on Saturday a resurgent Dale Douglass, with his faithful caddie Cowboy, of the straw hat and laconic Texas drawl and attitude, was only a single stroke in arrears, and although Tom Weiskopf went out hot on Sunday with a record first-nine score of 30, there was almost a feeling of inevitability about Nicklaus and the championship. Something in the Colorado air . . .

In the months leading up to the Senior Open, Jack had not been pleased with his game. He couldn’t seem to put three good rounds together, let alone four. Watching him play at Augusta, except for the first day when he shot 67 and looked like the Nicklaus of old, wasn’t fun; that expression of disapproval and faint disgust, of slight self-reproach, with downturned mouth and wrinkled brow, seemed to be permanently etched on his face. It was the same look at the Open at Baltusrol. If you read his mind, it might be thinking, “Ohhh, come on, Jack!” Not self-doubt, understand; that thinking isn’t part of the Nicklausian repertoire. Just the knowledge that he wasn’t sharp, that something was off – something that just needed a bit more fixing.

And fix it, Jack did.

* * *

Those fans who enjoyed playing the name game had fun with the field at Cherry Hills. Included were two Smiths, two Joneses, two players whose last names started with “Z” (Kermit Zarley and Larry Ziegler, who would both figure prominently in the proceedings), and a chap by the name of Martin Luther. There was even a player named Robert Walker, which tickled the USGA’s staff photographer, Robert Walker. No, they’re not related.

* * *

From time to time, the subject comes up of how good for golf it would be if an amateur were to win a major championship, but the person who brings it up is usually pooh-poohed by the rest of the discussion group. This year, at least the odds were better than they’ve been at past USGA championships involving professionals. The 1993 Senior Open field included three dozen amateur players, including Walker Cup captain Vinny Giles. On the first day, Vinny despite back difficulties, posted a score of even par 71 and featured on the leaderboard. Giles finished as low amateur.

Still, the leaders at the conclusion of Thursday’s play, with the exception of files, didn’t surprise anyone. Chi Chi Rodriguez danced and parried his way to a 4-under 67, Nicklaus fashioned an excellent 68, and four players, Larry Ziegler, Jim Colbert, Lee Trevino, and Bob Murphy, were one stroke further back at 69. Little wind and some rain earlier in the week contributed to the low scores. On the other hand, the rough was far more lush than that found at Baltusrol, so it paid well to drive the ball straight. In all, 13 players bettered par in the first round; another six equaled it. This championship was setting up to be a horse race, as one observer put it – but an onlooker countered with another cliché. “The cream rises to the top,” he said. Prescient, prescient.

Rain delayed the proceedings for almost two hours on Thursday, so it was up bright and early on Friday morning for a few. Our clichémonger was on hand after the close of play on Friday and, remembering the precipitation of the day before, piously intoned, “Well, into each life, a little rain must fall.” You can’t admire his language, but his facts were fairly accurate. The only golfers really making a move were Isao Aoki, with the best round of the day, a 68, and Tom Weiskopf, with 69, working himself back to even par.

The rest of the leaders just kind of noodled away all day. Chi Chi and Miller Barber were 1 under for their Friday efforts; Douglass and Zarley matched par, and Nicklaus, Trevino, and Larry Ziegler posted 2-over 73s. “It’s tough to play golf late in the afternoon,” Nicklaus offered by way of explanation. “The greens were a little bumpy – but Aoki handled it well. I shouldn’t have any complaints, [but] I would’ve liked to have gotten a couple more putts in. The greens were hard.” Hard enough so that Jack only made one birdie.

But there was plenty of golf left, and in the press room, after some self-berating about his round of 73, Lee Trevino had it in perspective. “This is only Friday,” he said. “The fat lady hasn’t even come to the auditorium yet. She hasn’t even limbered up her vocal cords. She won’t get here until Sunday morning.”

Saturday saw the field cut to an even 60 players, a far cry from the Open at Baltusrol when 88 golfers were around for the weekend. (In fact, if Lee Janzen hadn’t birdied two of the final three holes on Friday, there could have been more than 120 on the course for the weekend. Talk about a logistical nightmare – the mother of all fields in a major.)

Oh, yes. Speaking of mothers was Jack Nicklaus, after a Saturday spate of six birdies en route to a sizzling 67. “This one was for Mom,” he told the smiling scribes. “She’d been telling me recently that I never played well on Saturday . . . . Throughout my career, I won quite a few of my tournaments on Saturday.”

He can number this one among them, if the truth be told. Only two bogies marred a fine round, one of them on the 13th after missing the green and failing to convert a long par-saver of a putt. That must have set Jack off a bit; after good pars on 14 and 15, he moved to another level. His 4-iron approach on the 16th – some knowledgeable observers thought this was a great hole, others a “goofy” hole – rolled 12 feet past, and Jack rolled it right in the heart. Then, on the 17th, he went for the island green in two, disregarding Chi Chi’s cautionary comments of the day before and his knowledge of Ben Hogan’s debacle back in 1960. His high, soft 2-iron rolled into the back fringe, then as we’ve seen above, he two-putted for birdie. Then, on the 18th, the shot that made all the highlights on the sports that evening, a glorious 4-iron that has to live in the memory of all who witnessed it. Three birds in a row – bang, bang, bang. Pretty encouraging, Jack? “If I keep playing well,” he said, “I’ll play more golf the rest of the year.”

There were a few other players who should play a whole bunch the rest of the year. Dale Douglass shot a fine 68 – "the best round I've played in several weeks," he said afterward — in spite of a pair of disappointing bogies on the final two holes. The two "Z"s, Zarley and Ziegler, hung on doggedly, Kermit with 69, including four birdies in a five-hole stretch after double-bogeying the 10th hole, and Larry with 70; Weiskopf had 70. Chi Chi almost shot himself out of it with a 75, and Isao Aoki did, with 76.

Sunday dawned clear and gloriously cool, the transparent Rocky Mountain air like a crystal. When the leaders stepped to the first tee, a few puny clouds spotted the skies, and it was still mild. Not Tom Weiskopf, however. He couldn’t do anything wrong, burning up the first nine with five birdies en route to a Senior Open record of 30, and moving to 6 under par, one ahead of Nicklaus. Tom was playing with Chi Chi, and on the fourth, after drilling his approach to 3½ feet, he turned to Rodriguez and said, “Cheech, I pushed it.”

“Yeah, I know,” groaned Chi Chi.

Meanwhile, Jack was having a roller-coaster of a nine, alternating birdies with bogies, and getting up and down on a couple of holes. As the leaders progressed, the potential to win fell away. Douglass couldn’t get the birdies to fall, and neither could Zarley. Chi Chi was in it until the 16th, when he missed a good chance for a birdie. And although some imprecise putting brought Weiskopf back into a tie with Jack, the 17th was his coup de grace. He was unable to finesse his short-iron approach any nearer than 25 feet, and thus missed his last real birdie opportunity. (But what about the 18th, you ask? No way. The hole played the hardest all week, to a stroke average of 4.542. Not a birdie hole by any stretch of the imagination.)

Those who stood and sat by the 18th hole had to wait for a break in play until the monster board reacted to Nicklaus’s goings-on at the 16th. One official had a radio and filled a few reporters in on Jack’s birdie, then said gleefully, “Wait till they post that score. It’ll be the biggest roar of the day.” He was right, except for a couple of roars from Mother Nature; the clouds had rolled in, thunder was rumbling ominously, and the officials kept the hand-held radios close to their ears, anxious expressions on all their faces. Would there be time to finish?

Two pars would do it for Jack, and that’s just what he made. A lay-up on the 17th, on, and two putts. A fine drive on the 18th, an iron to 35-plus feet, and finally, a three-footer for par and his second Senior Open Championship, just seconds after the rain spotted the stands and the hats in the gallery.

How tough was that putt for par, Jack? “I hit that putt so hard,” he said later, “and it was so fast, and above the hole, if I’d have missed it, I never would’ve made the one coming back.”

But he didn’t miss it, now, did he? Good stuff....

Things were definitely looking up for Jack at the 1993 U.S. Senior Open. (USGA Museum)

Ultimately, as Chi Chi Rodriguez found, no amount of patriotic-themed garb or body language can make a crucial putt fall. (USGA Museum)

The applause was early and long as Jack walked up the 18th after a magnificent Saturday approach. (USGA Museum)