In an era dominated by Tiger Woods and a field of also-rans, it’s nice to recall a time when real, honest-to-goodness rivalries existed in golf.
And none of those rivalries came close to rivaling the one between Arnold Daniel Palmer and Jack William Nicklaus.
Ian O’Connor, columnist with the Bergen Record, chronicles the rivalry that put professional golf on the American map in “Arnie & Jack: Palmer, Nicklaus and Golf’s Greatest Rivalry.”
Statistically, Nicklaus was the master (no pun intended)—quite possibly the greatest golfer ever, at least until Tiger came along. Jack won 18 majors, Arnie won 7. Jack had 73 PGA wins, Arnie 62.
“Jack was Arnie’s kryptonite,” writes O’Connor, “and the feeling of weakness and inferiority that swept over Palmer in Nicklaus’ presence wasn’t one that sat well with the golfer cut out of the western Pennsylvania hillside.”
And yet, no matter how many times Jack won or how many majors he dominated, Arnie owned one thing that Jack wanted above all else—the collective heart of the golfing public.
The King And the Bear
In many ways, Arnie and Jack were like older brother/younger brother, the King and the Bear, competitors on the golf course and in the boardroom.
It all began in an exhibition match at the Athens Country Club in Ohio in 1958, the 29-year-old Palmer, fresh from a win at the Masters, and the 18-year-old Nicklaus, headed for Ohio State. Palmer won that day, but it was Nicklaus who impressed onlookers with his booming drives.
“Arnie & Jack” covers many of the heralded clashes between Palmer and Nicklaus, like the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills in Colorado. Palmer was a full-blown TV sports star in the early 60s, rivaling Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, and Johnny Unitas. He turned up everywhere from the Perry Como Show to advertisements for L&M cigarettes.
Palmer, with Arnie’s Army in tow, trailed Nicklaus and the immortal Ben Hogan by seven shots with just 18 to play—and came back to win the Open. with a 280. Nicklaus’ total of 282 was the best amateur score in U.S. Open history.
Two years later, at the 1962 Open in Oakmont, PA, a mere .40 miles from Palmer’s Latrobe, PA home, the crowd mocked Jack’s weight calling him “Fat Gut,” “Fat Jack,” and “Ohio Fats.” Nicklaus shut out the distractions, silenced the crowd and beat Palmer in a playoff.
Nicklaus always believed he was the better player…and history would bear out the Bear. But he never really felt the love of the golfing public until the 1986 Masters, when he finally earned the full adulation of the golfing public.
The 1986 Masters
“A great piece of Americana, forty-six years old, coming in with the lead,” is how columnist Edwin Pope described the Masters finish in the Miami Herald. “People were pathetically exuberant, There was a huge amount of people crying, and they weren’t ashamed of themselves for crying. They were just so happy to see this happen, for Jack to end up like Arnold at Augusta. I think Jack felt as good about that part of it as he did about being in the lead.”
O’Connor’s book humanizes the friendship between Arnie and Jack, a friendship strengthened through their wives, Winnie and Barbara.
When Winnie died of cancer in 1999, the Nicklaus family was watching their 30-year-old son Gary attempt to earn his PGA tour card after eight failed attempts. Palmer tried to convince Jack that he should stay with his son, but Jack came to the funeral. After the service, Jack was getting updates on his cell phone. Arnold asked how Gary was doing.
“He’s got a couple of holes to play,” said Jack
“Well, come on, let’s turn on TV,” said Arnie.
“You don’t have to do that,” said Jack.
“I would want to,” Palmer replied.
Gary shot 63 in his sixth and final round and earned his tour card.
Overcome by joy and sadness, the two old rivals fell into each other’s arms and cried.
In “Arnie & Jack,” O’Connor brings those glory days and memories, both happy and sad, back to life.
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