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On February 28, Jack Nicklaus returned to the scene of his ninth of 18 major titles, 50 years to the day that he hoisted the Wanamaker Trophy for the second time. Nicklaus recounted to members at BallenIsles Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Florida, which then was known as PGA National’s East Course (until 1987) when it hosted the 1971 PGA Championship, that he was paired in the opening two rounds with Hall of Famer Gene Sarazen.
The Squire, who won the first of his three PGA titles in 1922, was playing in his 50th PGA while celebrating turning 69 years old and looking as dapper as ever in his trademark knickers and a straw Panama hat.
“Now they say if you’ve played a long time you’ve played with Jack Nicklaus,” the Golden Bear said.
But 50 years ago, Nicklaus was 31 years of age and in full flight. He led the tournament wire-to-wire en route to shooting 7-under 281, two strokes better than Billy Casper, and in doing so became the first player in history to complete the modern career Grand Slam twice.
“The world’s largest bookshelf may be needed one of these days to store all the records that belong to Nicklaus,” Dan Jenkins wrote in Sports Illustrated.
No truer words about Nicklaus may have ever been written as he was just making the turn on the way to filling up his bookshelf with a record 18 majors, including five victories at the PGA. Nicklaus’s passion and desire to win the Wanamaker Trophy took shape more than two decades earlier when the 1950 PGA Championship was held at Scioto Country Club in Columbus, Ohio, where the Nicklaus family had a membership.
With the help of his teacher, Scioto’s head professional Jack Grout, a 10-year-old Nicklaus gained access to the locker room to meet many of the stars of the game, including acquiring autographs from Hall of Famer Sam Snead, eventual champion, Chandler Harper, who had been assigned to father Charlie Nicklaus’s locker, and most memorably Lloyd Mangrum.
“I can still see that slim, dark figure sitting at a table with a fan of cards in one hand and a glass of hooch in the other and a cigarette dangling from his lips, and recall how intimidated I was when he turned to me and gave me that famous tough look of his and snarled, ‘Whaddya want, kid?’ ” Nicklaus wrote in My Story, his 1997 autobiography. “But he signed my autograph book, and I remember being extremely proud of my courage in standing up to such a fearsome character.”
Nicklaus often has credited that experience with shaping his desire to be a professional golfer when he grew up. Having already won the PGA in 1963, Nicklaus enjoyed a veritable home game in 1971, one of three times in his career where he slept in his own bed in North Palm Beach. Holding the 53rd PGA in Florida required reorganizing the golf calendar so that the championship could be held in the balmy conditions of February rather than its traditional slot during the dog days of August to avoid the Sunshine State’s oppressive heat. It’s the only time the PGA was played in February, earning the moniker of “Glory’s First Shot,” and marked the first time the PGA was conducted as back-to-back majors.
“I thought it was the best time and the best thing for the PGA because it gave them the opportunity to start the year off in the majors,” Nicklaus told Golf Digest in 2011.
Nicklaus had just a five-mile commute to the course from Long Tree Village and his houseguests included Gary Player and Tony Jacklin. On the Sunday before the tournament began, Nicklaus had shot a dreadful 80 and struggled on the greens, leaving several putts short. Deane Beman, who had given Nicklaus a putter nicknamed “White Fang” ahead of the Golden Bear’s victory at the 1967 U.S. Open, stopped by for dinner and a game of bridge. The Bemans dominated at bridge — “They murdered us,” Nicklaus recalled — but Nicklaus gained some valuable intel. Beman, regarded as one of the best putters at the time, had a hunch what was plaguing his putting: he wasn’t finishing his backstroke.
Jack Nicklaus smiles and holds up his club after winning the PGA Championship, 7 under par, at Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Feb. 28, 1971.
That night, about 11 p.m., Nicklaus took a putter and some balls out to a patch of Astroturf near his backyard pool and practiced. Beman’s tip was spot on.
“I concentrated on doing that with every putt the rest of the week,” he said. “I putted very well that week because of that lesson.”
Did he ever. Nicklaus took just 23 putts on the slow Bermuda greens in the first round and he one-putted eight of the last 10 holes. He opened with a pair of 69s, including birdies on four of the last nine holes Friday, to take a two-shot lead over Miller Barber at the halfway point. In all, 81 players made the cut at 5-over par.
Nicklaus’s most noteworthy achievement to the midway point of the tournament may have been impressing Sarazen, the first player to complete the career Grand Slam, who joined the masses in awe of Nicklaus’s vast talents.
“I saw a real champion,” Sarazen said. “I never saw such power and Nicklaus putted magnificently.”
South Africa’s Gary Player, one of Nicklaus’s closest friends and a housemate that week, shot a 68 Saturday to move into second place entering the final round, four shots back of Nicklaus, who reeled off four birdies in a row, beginning with a 40-footer at No. 11, in posting a third-round 70 in gusty conditions.
“Jack saw the competition and he met it,” Player said of the birdie run by Nicklaus just as he and others were on the verge of overtaking him.
Player also joked that since he was the only player within shouting distance that Barbara Nicklaus might try and poison his food. Player wasn’t taking any chances at breakfast, claiming he watched Barbara prepare the meal “like a hawk.”
“I told her Jack would have to be the official food taster before I’d eat,” Player said. “When he sipped his milk, I switched glasses. When he took some grapefruit, I switched them.”
“He’d tell me to look out the window and then he’d switch plates,” Nicklaus recounted 50 years later. This running gag took on a life of its own in the locker room ahead of the final round.
“Barbara’s getting a complex,” Nicklaus relayed. “She gives him a cheese omelette, he pours catsup all over it. She cooks him a steak, he pours catsup all over it. A couple of fried eggs, catsup all over it.”
“So would you if you had a catsup contract,” Player cracked. “I didn’t know you had a catsup contract,” Nicklaus said. “I will when these fellows get through writing about it,” Player said. The night before the final round, Nicklaus and Player had stayed up late watching Mannix, a detective show they both liked on television. On Sunday, Player posed a real threat to play the spoiler, cutting the deficit to one stroke until disaster struck at 15. “I hit my drive to the right, only about 4 yards off the fairway. But the ball hit on the cart path and bounced way out-of-bounds,” Player said of the shot that sealed his fate. Or was it something else? “He was convinced Barbara’s prune cake eventually got him at the end of that week,” Nicklaus said.
The blond bomber had been cruising along for three days, but leading wire-to-wire is no easy bargain even for a player of Nicklaus’s caliber and he made three bogeys in his first five holes to give his competitors a ray of hope.
“I had a hard time settling down,” Nicklaus conceded. “When you play late in the days and lead, you get a bit tight and tired. That’s the way I felt out there.”
He got one stroke back with a birdie at the sixth, bogeyed the 11th but bounced back with a birdie one hole later. Despite a shaky passage, Nicklaus recovered and maintained the pole position for the stretch run.
“I felt like it was my tournament all along after Thursday,” Nicklaus recalled. “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.”
Casper, who started the day seven strokes back, made a late charge with birdies on the final two holes, including a 25-footer at the last, to shoot 68 and signed for a 72-hole total of 5-under 283. Ageless wonder Tommy Bolt, 52, finished in third another stroke back and one better than Barber and Player, who tied for fourth.
PGA champion Jack Nicklaus smiles at the trophy he earned after winning the tournament at Palm Beach Gardens, Fl., Feb 28, 1971. (AP Photo)
“I hadn’t thought of Casper all day,” Nicklaus said. “Now I’m on the 17th with a one-shot lead. If I don’t birdie the 17th, I’m in exactly the situation I don’t want to be in. I’ll have to make 4 on 18 to win.” Nicklaus removed any doubt at the 588-yard par-5 17th. Despite being one of the few players capable of reaching the green in two, Nicklaus elected to lay up short of the bunkers guarding the green. He wedged to five feet and stood over his birdie try in his trademark cocoon of concentration for 21 seconds before holing the putt that gave him a two-stroke cushion going to the 72nd hole of the tournament. “I’ve never seen a man stand over a putt so long and putt as well,” Sarazen said that week. “People who do this generally finally come apart.” Not Nicklaus. He remained red hot, tallying 29 one-putt greens for the week and deeming it “the best putting in a tournament in my life.”
“When you point for something so long, you want it to end up sweet,” said Nicklaus, who closed in 1-over 73. “The birdie putt on 17, I felt, was it. I said to myself, ‘Work hard on this one and you’ve got it.’ ”
Nicklaus notched his 31st Tour title, his first trophy in his adopted home state of Florida and capped off the double career slam – at least two victories in each of the four professional major championships, a feat matched by only Tiger Woods.
When Nicklaus arrived home with the Wanamaker Trophy, there was a double celebration. It was wife Barbara’s 31st birthday. She had traipsed after her hubby with their oldest son, Jackie, 9. The previous day, she had taken 7-year-old Steve. Asked by the Palm Beach Post why she hadn’t taken both boys at the same time, she replied, “Never. There’d be the biggest knock-down, drag-out fight you ever saw.” The fight was on for Nicklaus, who conceded afterwards that eclipsing Bobby Jones’s major total of 13 was on his radar.
“I’ll be honest about it,” Nicklaus said. “I want to win more than Jones. That’s what you play for, to separate yourself from the crowd.”
He would go on to do that and then some, etching his name on the Wanamaker Trophy again in 1973, 1975 and 1980. Fifty years after being crowned champion at BallenIsles Golf Club, Nicklaus may be smaller in stature but he remains a giant in the game and his record in the majors still is the gold standard.
“The greatest champion in the history of the game won here,” PGA CEO Seth Waugh told attendees at the ceremony commemorating the 50th anniversary of Nicklaus’s achievement. “You can’t ever take that away.”