I feel like I'm at the center of the golf universe.
At approximately 12:10 EST Tiger Woods addresses a short bogey putt on the 18th green of the Stadium Course at Sawgrass. Tens of thousands of spectators are crowding the course, watching the greatest player in today's golf put the wraps on The Player's Championship. The Nike ball is rolling. In. Victory.
I'm a mere twenty-five miles to the south of Ponte Vedra at World Golf Village where the two greatest players of yesterday's golf are hitting balls into the range, warming up as hundreds of people begin to gather. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer will tee off in roughly one hour in a rare head-to-head match for Shell's Wonderful World of Golf, a made for television affair that will air April 3 at 8 pm EST on ESPN. This is only the second time that Nicklaus and Palmer have played each other for the Shell telecast, a series that dates back to the 1960's.
The venue for the historic match, possibly the last time the two will ever square off directly against each other, is World Golf Village's The King & The Bear, a new course co-designed by the two competitors and the first collaboration in their prolific architectural careers.
The King & The Bear is also the site of the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf, a Senior PGA Tour team event that will officially begin on Friday. This year, in honor of the tournament being moved to their course, Palmer and Nicklaus will play together, also a first. Considering their competitive history together-they've gone after each other their entire careers-these are relatively new experiences for them. That this week and this place represent such firsts could indicate how thick the rivalry between these men is.
It's a rivalry that is one of sport's greatest, spanning back over 40 years. The first whiff of it came in 1960 at Cherry Hills when Nicklaus, an amateur, finished second as Arnold made his famous charge. It caught flame at the 1962 Open at Oakmont where Nicklaus defeated Palmer in an 18-hole playoff virtually in Arnie's back yard, a defeat that still bothers him. They say now that they're friends, but perhaps it's only recently, after so many years of beating each other, that the two men can truly let their guard down.
As they make their way to the tee, shuttles from off-site parking lots arrive in train, dropping off spectators near the course entrance. They're funneled through the white merchandise and concession tents before flowing out toward where the two golfers are now waiting to play. I'm estimating the average age of the spectators today to be around 60 years old, retirees. Who else is free to attend a golf exhibition on a Monday afternoon in Florida? Plus, these are their guys, Jack and Arnie, the heroes with whom they learned the game. The younger set is up the road at Sawgrass, watching their guy.
The first hole is quite a spectacle, the largest single gathering of a crowd that will total nearly 5,000 when it's tallied. I'm hoping it's not like this all day or else I'll never get close. They ring around the tee box, three and four deep, watching the introductions. The technical crew sets the tone as the cameramen and photographers hustle for position here just as they'll do hole after hole throughout the day. A team of spotters and producers in blue shirts direct the workers as well as the golfers. This is show business, television.
Gary Player, commentator for Shell, is omnipresent with microphone in hand, alternatively standing to the side watching or joking with his old rivals. He wears his traditional sharp black garb, clean and pressed, and with the exception of gray streaks in his dark hair he looks the same as he did 25 years ago. He is so casual and relaxed. Throughout the day he'll walk the holes with his friends, never straying far from the action, reclining back on his elbows off the sides of greens, speaking softly into the mike.
Arnold looks dapper. He cuts a handsome figure, wearing tan slacks and a maroon sweater over a Masters-green golf shirt. His shoes are stylish two-tones, black and white, and his hair is a swirl of white. Jack looks like, well, Jack-not quite as handsome, snug yellow sweater, white shoes, white Golden Bear cap. Some things never change. Though neither man is tall they both cut impressive, athletic figures, still. The look strong, even at 71 and 61 years old respectively.
Finally, they are allowed to hit and there is something magical about the moment, watching the two put balls into play. I feel like I've achieved elevated status or have somehow been allowed to tap into a sacred force. How many times have these two men battled-in tournaments, Majors, practice rounds, business, charities, in their minds? The number of times they've challenged and pushed each other, the depth of their competition, must be beyond comprehension.
Though this is an exhibition, there seems to be something at stake. There's no doubt they take this seriously. Arnold is quiet and I wonder what he could be thinking. Does it ever get old for him? I look at Jack and a disturbing thought comes to my mind that I wish would leave: I hope he doesn't crush him.
For a moment I feel hopeless for Palmer, I want this game not to happen. We all know that Jack is still capable of competing at a high level-he was one stroke off the cut at the PGA, the last major to be played. But Arnold, well, it's been a while. I don't want to watch him have a bad day.
When Arnold parks his second shot eight feet below the hole on the par four first the crowd whoops. It's got to make him feel good. Jack has left his second short of the green. He chips past the hole and misses the comeback. Palmer misses but taps in for par to take the early lead on the Nicklaus bogey. A moral victory, I think.
At the second both are in the fairway, about 165 yards out. The wind is crossing from the left. Palmer's shot is low and boring but has no chance of holding the left side of the firm green. Nicklaus, from five yards closer, hits a beautiful, high shot over the top of the pin, 25'. When Palmer cannot get up and down and Nicklaus two-putts, they are even at +1.
I'm battling the crowd for position, trying to anticipate the best vantage points. I'm familiar with the course and believe this gives me an advantage over other spectators who haven't yet played The King & The Bear. I know the best place to watch the third is from the right side of the green, and from there I can quickly get to the fourth fairway where the tee shots will arrive. Palmer's shot at the long par three third flies low and left again, and Nicklaus hits another brilliant, towering iron, this one to 10'. Palmer makes a great up and down and Nicklaus inexplicably misses. Though they're even through three, I sense Nicklaus' impending formidability.
I'm level with his ball as Nicklaus stripes a drive down the center at the fourth, leaving himself just a wedge from120 yards. Palmer finds the bunker to the right and has a difficult 150 yards in. He hits an arrow from the sand that bounds over the green into the gallery while Nicklaus plants one 15' right of the hole, a right-to-left breaker. I can't help but feel that Palmer is on the verge of getting overwhelmed. But after Nicklaus' birdie putt curls low and Arnie gets up and down again, standing knock-kneed and pigeon-toed to ram in a six-footer for par, I start to wonder. Palmer is scrambling and Jack has missed three makeable putts.
Looming near the greens and off the tee boxes along with Player is the legendary broadcaster Jack Whitaker and I can hear people nearby saying quietly, pointing, "Is that Jack Whitaker?" More often than not he stands alone, wearing a blue blazer and golf shoes, and occasionally he steps into the camera frame to talk to Player or set the scene. He is quiet and consistently appears lost in his thoughts, perhaps composing the words to his next piece, waiting. When he's on camera he is succinct and smooth, nailing his first takes. Then he drives off in a cart and reappears somewhere ahead.
For the most part Player does the talking and interviews. He seems to be enjoying himself more than the players are. On the fifth tee, a par five that doglegs right over water, the Big Three, as they were called in their day, do a little piece for the camera and talk about the course. My viewing strategy has failed as I'm too far away to hear what they are saying and I've trapped myself on the opposite side of the small lake. When they resume play I have difficulty following their drives.
It turns out Nicklaus drove it through the fairway into a bunker and Palmer is in position A. After Jack plays out safely to about 100 yards, Palmer guns it with a fairway wood. From across the lake I see the ball rocket on line over the water and land on the front edge of the green and pitch forward. He's home in two. Nicklaus' third shot comes up short and spins back, leaving himself with a 50' putt for bird. He two putts again from there.
Palmer has 40' uphill. I've had that putt, and mine broke right, but from the other side of the lake I can't tell. He strokes it, it's rolling fast, and I can't see if it's breaking, then suddenly-IN! Palmer makes eagle. The roar is amazing-two hundred fifty-and sixty-somethings shouting and cheering. What a moment.
Palmer dumps his ball into the sprawling bunker short on the next hole, the par three sixth. Nicklaus, meanwhile, undaunted by the eagle, sticks it to six feet. Palmer nearly holes his bunker shot and makes par, and Nicklaus misses his birdie to remain two strokes down. Though Nicklaus is playing better I no longer feel protective of Palmer.
The crowd is surprisingly divided. I assumed that this would be a pro-Palmer gallery for sentimental reasons, one last hurrah for Arnold's Army. But Jack has plenty of his own supporters who seem genuinely frustrated at his inability to make putts. They seem like avid, serious folks. One man in a red Ohio State Athletic Department sweater curses when Nicklaus fails to convert on six.
On the seventh tee I'm close enough to touch them. Both Nicklaus and Palmer are tan and appear physically fit. I notice their hands. Each man has large, strong hands that wrap around the club with a fit and level of comfort I'll never have. There's a lifetime of intimate knowledge, of feel, in those solid grips.
Jack hits golf shots that are glorious. They explode off the club low and rise in perfect scientific arc. His iron shots soar high and you can nearly hear them spinning, buzzing. One gets the feeling that despite the power there is little left to chance in that ball flight. His driver is massive, a black boulder approaching 400cc at the end of the shaft.
Arnold plays the ball low, lashing at it of course, hitting his irons down and trapping it against the earth. Watching the way the ball leaves the driver there appears no way he can play with Nicklaus, but he's sneaky long now, and normally behind his younger competitor by only five or ten yards. It seems like Palmer is willing his ball to where Jack's is, and then willing it into the hole on the greens.
Oddly, to me, it's Nicklaus who does the chatting. He comments each time Palmer drains a putt, offers golf banter and post-analysis of his own shots, and ribs Palmer's caddy when the pin gets stuck in the cup in the seventh green. Palmer smiles but he's tight-lipped. I can't tell if he's merely focused any more than I can tell if Jack is trying to simply add color to the broadcast, perhaps forcing it a little. Maybe this is the way they always are.
Palmer bogeys seven and nine against Nicklaus pars and they both turn the corner in 37. Despite his three-putt at the seventh, Palmer gets around the front in 14 putts, hitting only two greens. Nicklaus on the other hand is the essence of steady. He struck the ball terrifically on the front but has nothing to show for it.
In my mind the match changes for good on the tenth. The television crew wants to do another spot with Whitaker and Player, which takes a few minutes to set up, and then they ask Jack to do a voice over with Player describing the hole, a 436-yard par four. Though he does it, Jack seems perturbed, jibing one of the production managers when he is finally let to hit his tee shot.
He kills it down the right center. Palmer, who's been left out of the formalities on this hole, follows suit down the center, but not as long. I watch Palmer eat a sandwich as he walks to his ball. A fan runs up to him and says, "Way to go, King."
Both men play their seconds to the back of the green a few yards apart, but Palmer has the more difficult putt from the fringe, maybe 20' downhill.
As he's done all day he races the putt past the hole. He's trying to make everything, putt or chip, and has yet to leave anything short. Now he's left himself with some work. Nicklaus rolls his putt long too, but with Palmer looking at six feet for par, he's got to like his chances to take his first lead of the day. Palmer's putt rattles in, however, and they remain tied at +1. It's starting to become evident that Arnie is in control of his game.
Jack hits it 18' left of the pin on 11, a 163-yard par three, but his putt lips out. He can't believe it-nothing will drop. Palmer, who played his best iron of the day to 6'-a distance he's become familiar with-stalks his putt. I watch Player, who is sitting on the butt of Nicklaus' bag, talking into the mike. His lips are moving, and he's got to be saying that Palmer will make. I'm sure he senses, as we all do, that the ball will drop, a slight left-to-right breaker. When it does the crowd cheers loudly for him and he heads to the 12th with the momentum and the lead once again.
Nicklaus must feel like he's snake-bit. He's played well, reeling off 10 straight pars, but the tide is turning. He nails his drive on twelve but only passes Palmer by a few yards. When he three putts here he suddenly finds himself trailing by two. But he's still talking, still giving voice to his play, suggesting out loud that they'll do all right if his partner plays like this over the weekend.
On 13, a 557-yard par five, Palmer plays his long third shot from the greenside bunker 30' past the pin. Nicklaus is on the front edge in two, in prime position to two-putt and get a stroke back. Palmer's putt is tricky, slightly downhill and side-hill. He's donned a green cap, the same deep green as his collar, embroidered with "Bay Hill 2001" across the back and his umbrella logo on the front. On the side there is a small green emblem I can't make out. When he steps back to line up his putt, five feet from me, I notice it's a shamrock.
He steps to the ball, locks his knees, and strokes the putt. It's racing, needs to slow. I hear Nicklaus, who is standing near the hole when the ball gets there, say "Bingo" just before the roar. IN! The ball pops against the back of the cup and disappears. We go nuts. I think to myself that that was the coolest thing I've ever seen on a golf course. Arnold Palmer, smelling blood, chasing aggressively after a slippery downhill 30 footer, and canning it. He's all smiles.
Nicklaus says, "I've always said you were the best putter I ever saw," and it's hard to tell if he's kidding or not. Then, from the front fringe, he three putts, lipping out a five footer for bird.
Still, when Nicklaus makes par on 14, even with Palmer dialed in and burning the edge of the cup from 35', it's not over. Jack is three down with four to play. Palmer's approach shot on 15 has just flirted with the water and settled in the rough over the green. Jack stiffs a wedge to 8'. He looks over the line carefully and takes his time, but still misses. Palmer gets up-and-down once again. Now the match is over. Nicklaus' body language says it all. He's exasperated and cannot believe that not a single putt will fall.
Jack has had a day like we all have from time to time, a day when we hit good shots and are all over the cup yet come up empty. There is no consolation for him, though. This is on film, headed nationally first, then to the archives. The day belongs to Arnie. The question now is simply by how much.
After Palmer tells Player that the 18th, a 563-yard par five called the "Bear's Claw" is "really a three-shot par five," he proceeds to rip his drive down the center, leaving 250 yards to go. In heroic fashion, and perhaps in response to the enthusiastic prodding of the gallery crowding the fairway behind him as they did back in the day, he decides to give it a go. He nukes a low, boring Callaway 3-wood over the crushed coquina waste area into the rough just ten yards short of the green. From there he pitches up to 12'.
Nicklaus, now five down after lackluster bogeys at 16 and 17, and who himself has played a tremendous second shot to the right of the green, chips up to 8'. He putts first to give Arnold the stage, and lips out, mercifully, for the last time today.
On several occasions throughout the round Nicklaus has joked that this type of play from Arnold would benefit them in the upcoming tournament. I can't help but think that in five years, in twenty years, no one will remember or care who wins the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf 2001.
But in five or twenty years this very match will still be replayed on television and cable for a new generation, reminding them that before Tiger there was The King and The Bear, just as us golf addicts now watch with keen interest older Shell matches between Ben Hogan and Sam Snead, or Gene Littler or Gary Player. And how exciting, and perhaps more poignant, will it be even then to see the legendary Palmer at age 71 beat for perhaps the last time the ever-younger Nicklaus. No Jack, this isn't simply a tune-up for the Legends tournament, this one's for the vaults. Somehow I think he knows it too.
I'd never seen either Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus play before. To me, I wasn't going to miss it. It would be like if my grandfather said that he passed up an opportunity to see Babe Ruth in his last game-I'd never understand how. This kind of thing doesn't come around too often.
And what a treat. Tee-to-green Nicklaus played incredibly. He hit 16 of 18 greens (counting two that were inches onto the fringe, not technically a green-in-regulation by Tour statistics), but needed a gaudy 39 putts to shoot 76. Nevertheless, he still rifles the ball around a golf course and proved that he's got the game to go low if he makes putts.
Palmer is one under but only hits seven greens on the day, though he's cleaned up with a nifty 28 putts and has gone after everything he's looked at. Watching him line up his putt on 18, a putt that if it drops will give him 70 to break his age, I have goosebumps. I feel guilty about fearing Nicklaus' power for him, and thrilled that I'm standing where I am, ten feet off the green with a perfect view of the putt. I want it to go in so badly. When he strokes it the gallery begins to cheer immediately.
The ball rolls and we shout for it to disappear, to drop, for one more putt. It's tracking, right in the heart, and stops. For the first time all day Arnie's left one short, by inches. The gallery groans. You know it's killing him, and it shows. But as he walks toward his ball the applause begin, then the cheers, then the standing ovation. Thank you Arnie. Even Jack is clapping.
It's over. I can tell my children and grandchildren that there was golf played in the time before Tiger, and that I once saw the two greatest golf rivals who ever lived go head-to-head on a cloudless March afternoon, acting once again like it was 1962. Someday they'll watch the old tapes (or whatever they have then) of this day and know that I was there, contributing to that cheer. I can tell them that, six hours after Tiger did the same thing, I was looking on with chills when Palmer, too, stood over a tap-in putt for victory. In.
March 26, 2001