Growing up, Jack Nicklaus admired Arnold Palmer.
The charismatic Palmer had a flair for the dramatic, and his unorthodox swing and down-to-earth manner appealed to fans.
“He was a blue-collar player in many ways, a common-man’s guy,” Nicklaus said last summer for an NBC special. “He could always figure out how to make it happen. And he did make it happen. He willed the ball into the hole. And the people willed the ball in the hole with him. …”
Palmer’s arrival coincided with an explosion in the popularity of television, and his three Masters Tournament wins in a five-year span put him at the top of the golf world. Nicklaus, an elite amateur with two U.S. Amateurs to his credit, turned pro in late 1961.
The men clashed as professionals at the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont. In front of “Arnie’s Army,” which desperately wanted to see its hero beat the upstart, Nicklaus won an 18-hole playoff by three shots for his first professional major.
Fifty years ago, when the golf world arrived in Augusta in April 1963, the stage was set for another major showdown. Could Palmer keep his crown, or would Nicklaus wrest it away?
SEISMIC SHIFTS at the top of golf occur about once every generation.
At the Masters, the torch had been passed from Horton Smith and Gene Sarazen to Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan. They, in turn, had passed it to Palmer. The “Pennsylvania strongboy” had won three Masters from 1958-62, and it didn’t appear he would be passing the torch, or the green jacket, anytime soon.
A poll of past Masters champions on the eve of the 1963 tournament revealed Palmer as the overwhelming favorite to win again.
Palmer did not pick himself. He had another golfer in mind.
“Jack has been playing very well,” Palmer told reporters before the tournament started. “In fact, he’s been playing terrific.”
Though much of the pretournament talk had been of Palmer and Nicklaus, they struggled in the opening round as winds gusted up to 20 mph. Each shot 2-over-par 74, leaving them five shots off the pace of co-leaders Bo Wininger and Mike Souchak. Quietly lurking one shot off the lead was 50-year-old Sam Snead.
Though Nicklaus was considered a threat to win, he didn’t have a very good track record at Augusta. Since 1959, when he made his Masters debut as an amateur, he had played 14 consecutive tournament rounds without breaking 70. The opening round of 1963 was his 15th time at 70 or above, and he had more rounds over par (eight) than he did at par 72 or below.
The big-hitting Nicklaus was expected to overpower Augusta National’s long holes and dominate the course, but he had to learn how to putt the tricky greens.
“I loved the golf course right from the start. I played very well at Augusta in 1959,” Nicklaus said. “I missed the cut, but I hit 31 greens in regulation. And I had eight 3-putts. I noticed that Arnold was leading the tournament and he had hit 19 greens in regulation. I said, ‘Oops, I guess you better learn how to putt these greens.’ So that was the first thing I learned.”
When he turned pro for the 1962 season, Nicklaus finished tied for 15th at the Masters.
“I was a little disappointed in 1962,” he said. “I came in with the attitude I could win.”
Maybe one reason Nicklaus didn’t play well in the first round in 1963 was that he had been suffering from bursitis in his left hip.
“I’ve taken a hundred shots and other kinds of treatment,” Nicklaus said before the tournament.
So, instead of playing his normal controlled fade, a left-to-right movement of the ball, Nicklaus altered his swing. He shot 67 in Tuesday’s practice round and was 4-under for nine holes Wednesday.
“I was forced to play right to left,” he said. “Probably the best thing that happened to me.”
In the second round, Nicklaus put on a ball-striking clinic. By his own estimate, he had missed just three shots the entire round.
He birdied Nos. 7 and 8 to make the turn in 34, then continued his hot play with birdies at Nos. 12, 13, 15 and 17. His 6-under 66 was just two off the course record held by Lloyd Mangrum.
“It’s the first time I have shot below 70 here,” Nicklaus said after the round. “I played real good, you can’t play much better.”
Although Nicklaus said his hip felt fine, he did have another matter he was concerned about. His young wife, Barbara, was not at the tournament with him; she was expecting their second child the following week.
The 66 vaulted Nicklaus into a tie for second with Jay Hebert. Both trailed Souchak, who shot 70 on Friday, by one shot.
SOMETIMES CHANGE is accompanied by adversity or disruption.
Golfers sometimes have to ply their trade in extreme conditions. Any Masters patron can tell you that weather conditions in early April can vary wildly, and heavy rains and thunderstorms are not uncommon.
On Saturday, April 6, 1963, as Souchak and Nicklaus teed off at 1:36 p.m. for the third round, heavy rain pelted Augusta National and made some parts of the course unplayable.
“Playing conditions were as bad, probably, as they ever have been at the Augusta National not to have play called off,” Johnny Hendrix wrote in The Augusta Chronicle.
Nicklaus was sloppy early, with bogeys at Nos. 2, 6 and 7. The lone bright spot was a birdie at No. 5.
Souchak had no such luck.
“Souchak shot 79 in that round because he thought it wasn’t going to count,” Nicklaus said.
Hebert led after nine holes but fell apart on the inward nine and finished with 81.
Nicklaus stayed patient and made par on his final 11 holes to shoot 2-over 74. That was nearly two shots better than the field’s average and gave him a one-shot lead over Ed Furgol going into the final round.
“Nobody thought anyone was going to finish the golf tournament,” Nicklaus said. “In those days, they didn’t go as far as you would go and then resume. They would wash the whole round out.”
Nicklaus kept close tabs on the leaderboards. At one point, he saw a bunch of golfers who had “1” listed next to their names. The colorblind golfer couldn’t distinguish between red (for under-par scores) and green (over par), and he turned to his caddie, Willie Peterson, for help.
“I said, ‘Willie, how many of those 1s up there are red?’ And he said, ‘Just you, boss.’ ”
ON SUNDAY, Nicklaus picked up where he had left off and continued with another string of pars. This one lasted the first seven holes and left him two clear of the field.
Bogeys at Nos. 9 and 12, however, left the door open for someone to make a run. Snead was first, making birdies at Nos. 14 and 15 to take the lead. At 50, Snead was threatening to shatter all kinds of age records if he could hold on to win.
“I think the crowd probably wanted Sam to win the tournament at that point in time,” Nicklaus recalled.
Snead’s putter betrayed him at No. 16, where he 3-putted for bogey. A missed green at the final hole also cost him a stroke, and he finished with 71 and a total of 288.
Palmer, who started the round six strokes back, also shot 71 and was out of contention. But Gary Player was making a charge at Nicklaus. He got to 4-under for his round before making bogeys on his final two holes.
Playing two groups in front of Nicklaus was Masters rookie Tony Lema. The affable pro from California had started the day three shots behind Nicklaus but was rapidly catching up. Lema birdied the 18th hole to complete his round of 70 and was the clubhouse leader at 1-under 287.
Standing on the 16th tee, Nicklaus also was 1-under for the tournament. He fired at the pin tucked in the top right, and his ball settled about 12 feet away. He knocked that putt in to take the outright lead.
After a par at No. 17, Nicklaus took extra precautions on the final hole. He blew his drive way left and received a drop from an area that was trampled by the gallery. He hit his approach about 30 feet above the hole, then coaxed his birdie putt to 3 feet of the cup.
“This one he must sink to win today,” the announcer on the highlight movie said.
With the Masters on the line, Nicklaus calmly rolled in the par putt. He took off his baseball-style cap and tossed it toward the heavens, and it fluttered for a few seconds before landing safely on the back of the green.
“Up goes the cap, there’s a new king of the fairways,” the announcer said.
GREAT POMP AND circumstance usually accompany regime change. The Masters is no exception.
Nicklaus had his obligatory TV interview with club co-founder and Chairman Clifford Roberts. Then he was off to the practice green, where he received his green coat.
At the jacket ceremony, the defending champion slips the jacket onto the new winner. It was only fitting that Palmer was the one who helped Nicklaus into his first green coat.
At age 23, Nicklaus was the youngest winner of the Masters, topping the mark set by 25-year-old Byron Nelson in 1937.
For Nicklaus, it was the second of an unrivaled 18 professional majors. He would go on to win five more times at the Masters.
“That week was very important because it established that I could win at Augusta,” Nicklaus said.
After his final putt, Nicklaus was walking off the green when Ralph Hutchison, the announcer for the 18th hole, approached him.
“I did something that I hadn’t done before,” Nicklaus recalled. “Ralph Hutchison said keep your ball and give your ball to Bobby Jones at the ceremony.”
Nicklaus did, and he completed an important circle not only for him but for his father, too.
Charlie Nicklaus had grown up in Columbus, Ohio, and idolized Jones. He saw Jones when the U.S. Open came to Scioto Country Club in 1926, and he instilled in his son Jack the same qualities that he admired in Jones: sportsmanship, integrity and hard work.
Jones first saw Nicklaus play in 1955 at the U.S. Amateur.
“He was the most impressive player at age 14,” Jones said.
Jones, who also was a child prodigy, did not have a positive effect on Nicklaus’ game that day. The youngster lost the match to Bob Gardner, 1 down.
“Bob Jones was a pretty special person in my eyes and my dad’s eyes,” Nicklaus said. “More for my dad’s eyes than for my eyes. Jones was his idol. To win Bob Jones’ tournament at 23 was pretty special.”
In the next day’s Chronicle, a photo and an illustration stood out among the images used to tell the story of Nicklaus’ win.
The first was a picture of a beaming Charlie Nicklaus with his arm draped around his son’s shoulders. The headline read, “That’s my boy!”
The second was an illustration that featured the familiar outline of the United States ringed with people. A giant golf tee rose out of Augusta, and a likeness of Nicklaus’ head was attached. The headline summed up the week’s events simply.
“The new Master of golf,” it read.