When the talk turns to who is going to win next week's Masters golf tournament in Augusta, Ga., or next year's, or some Masters of the far-distant future, there may be no point in thinking beyond the three men snuggled into the wide green coat on the cover, Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. In the past eight years (see chart) these three have collected seven of the green jackets handed out annually to the new Masters champion. In fact, since Jack and Gary joined the parade that Arnold started in 1958, the rest of the field has been hard put to even finish second. Scoring averages show that golf's Big Three have dominated Augusta to an astonishing degree. Palmer has averaged 71.48 strokes per round in the Masters, Nicklaus 71.54 and Player 71.79. Next on the list—out of those who have played 25 rounds or more—is Ben Hogan at 72.31, then Bill Casper at 72.88. No other golfer is under 73. The Lemas, Venturis, Littlers, Heberts, etc. have been on hand merely to fill out the twosomes that toil in vain around Augusta National each year. Compared to the U.S. Open, which has been won by 13 different golfers in the past 13 years, or the PGA, which shows 16 different winners in its last 16 years, the Masters is hardly more in doubt than Batman's tussle with each week's guest villain.
All of this raises interesting questions—questions that are being discussed increasingly by golfers, including the touring pros themselves. Is the Masters a bad golf tournament because only three men now seem able to win it? If so—saints save us from the thought—should the hallowed Augusta course be redesigned? Is it an antique that, because of some unfortunate features, has been outmoded by modern power golf? (One noted pro has called it the most unfair course on the tour, and a famous golf architect, the late Dick Wilson, once said, "The tournament is fine, but they don't really have a golf course.") The questions are good ones, and conversations with the people most immediately involved reveal some interesting thoughts.
The country's other most prestigious tournament, the Open, is played on a different course each year, but one that is always reshaped and regroomed especially for the event. Fairways are narrow, the rough is deep and bunkers are numerous. In a U.S. Open the golfer hits the ball straight or he might never get to hit it again. If playing in the Open is like shooting rapids in a canoe, the Masters is like a brisk ocean sail. There is always plenty of room to maneuver, though if one gets on the wrong tack it can take a long time to move from point to point. At Augusta the fairways are mammoth—70 acres, as compared to about 35 on most courses. There are a mere 45 bunkers, only six of which are fairway traps designed to catch tee shots. The long hitter, and especially one who can hook the ball, can blast away without a qualm. This gives Palmer and Nicklaus a spectacular advantage.
"It amounts to at least 10 strokes a tournament," says Jack Burke, who won a green coat in the balmy days of 1956. "About 12 strokes," says Jimmy Demaret, who must wonder now how he ever managed to parlay short hitting and a natural fade into three Masters titles. "About 12 strokes just on the par 5s," says Billy Casper. The reason their estimates are so high, of course, is that Nicklaus and Palmer take every advantage of their added distance by being superb with their irons as well.
Gary Player is a somewhat different case, but only slightly. He can hit the ball long; he almost keeps up with Palmer at Augusta. "He is a tremendous iron player," says Demaret. "He is unusually successful at Augusta because he is an excellent fairway wood player," says Byron Nelson. "He is a marvelous chipper," says Bobby Jones, Augusta National's eminent president. So much for Gary Player.
But what about Palmer and Nicklaus? Is it fair that they should be able to hit the ball so far and not be penalized when they hit it off line? Nicklaus himself has pointed out (SI, April 6, 1964) that the terrain at Augusta is such that the long hitter, in addition to his carry through the air, often receives much greater roll on his drives than the golfer with only average length. A good deal could be done to decrease this advantage.
"I think they should narrow the fairways," says Demaret. "I'd like to see more of a premium put on a straight tee shot." Demaret suggests drastic surgery to accomplish this. The only driving hole that would escape his renovation is the 7th, already a tight par 4 of 365 yards. Demaret would plant trees and put bunkers on 13 holes, with the 18th in line for the biggest overhaul.
"The 18th should be trapped by a series of bunkers running down the left side of the fairway," he says, "and the hole should be shortened so that the average hitter can at least get to the top of the hill."
Jack Burke would like to see 1, 3, 5, 9, 10, 11, 13, 14, 15 and 18 tightened, but points out that another significant difficulty for the short hitter lies in where the cups are placed. "They try to toughen the course by putting the flags where you don't dare shoot at them," he says, "especially from a long way off. But if you don't shoot for the flags you three-putt a lot. There is hope for the short or average hitter only if he has an unbelievable four days of putting." Doug Ford is against adding bunkers, but he says the par 5s should be lengthened (Nicklaus once hit over the par-5 15th with a drive and a seven-iron).
Even Gary Player thinks the course might well be tightened (largely because of his friend Jack Nicklaus), and he has a sensible suggestion as to how much. "I just believe in the word fair," he says. "I don't think a very long hitter like Nicklaus should have to hit the same narrow area in the fairway that shorter hitters do. In other words, if we both hit the bail 10° off line and I have 25 yards of fairway to shoot at, then give Jack 35. But don't give him 50 or more, which is what he has now at Augusta. Until they narrow the course it is going to be mighty difficult for anyone to ever beat Nicklaus. I think he is going to win the Masters more times than any man who ever lived. A guy like him comes to the last hole needing a 4 to win. He'll just aim it down the left and hit hell out of it. Wherever it goes he only has to hit a wedge to the green. How can the average pro beat Nicklaus there? Put him on an Open course and there are 10 guys who can play him. Nobody can at the Masters."
Tony Lema—somewhat surprisingly, since his long game is well suited to Augusta—agrees that the course should be tightened somewhat, but he brings up another point. "It wouldn't give anyone else a better chance," he says. "Those three would still win."
It goes without saying that Arnold Palmer likes the course just as it is. "I think it is pretty tight now," he says. "Tee shot position is already very important. When you hit a bad drive you may not realize it at the time, but you are being penalized exactly according to the size of your error. You may wind up missing the green with your second shot or getting on so far from the pin that you three-putt. The penalty is assessed at the other end. You know who will be hurt by fairway traps, don't you? Well, not the ones who've been winning."
The fact that the Open has had so few repeat winners Palmer finds easy to explain. "You have to be a good golfer to win the Open," he says, "but luck is a big factor there. You can drive the ball into the fairway, it takes a bad kick and you have an impossible lie in the rough."
Nicklaus tends to agree. "The good thing about Augusta," he says, "is that if you play reasonably well you will do reasonably well. Less is left to chance."
In spite of the talk about changing Augusta National, Nicklaus and Palmer have nothing to fear. The two men who run the Masters—Clifford Roberts, the New York investment banker who serves as tournament chairman, and Club President Jones—are not about to tear up their fairways to plant trees, grow rough or dig holes for sand traps. They would as soon paint a mustache on the Mono Lisa.
"This is a members' course," says Jones with a good deal of vehemence, when asked if he thought tightening the course would make the Masters a better tournament. "I do not know whether it would or not, and I do not care. We built the course for the enjoyment of our members, and we intend to keep it the way it is."
"We listen to every suggestion," Cliff Roberts said recently, "and we make improvements, but what we are not willing to do is to put in some temporary, unusual set of conditions that do not ordinarily exist. We do not grow any unusual rough. We do not narrow the fairways. We play the course just as it is, and I think it is a great tribute to the course that more often than not the golfers who are generally recognized as the ablest players are the ones who win the Masters. We do not want a set of conditions that will prevent the best player from making the best score. We don't have to spend money building bunkers or maintaining them. We don't have to look at the ugly things the year round. If the best players don't come to the top at the Masters, that's when we are going to get disappointed. When the obvious flukes and the unknowns begin winning the Masters is when we will begin wondering what is wrong with our golf course."
Cliff Roberts has made an excellent point. Excluding the Big Three, only one U.S. Open champion since 1953 has won another major title. But the Masters is scarcely the only important championship Palmer, Nicklaus and Player have to their credit. The list includes three U.S. Opens, two PGA Championships and three British Opens, as well as almost $1.5 million in official prize money. They are the decade's finest golfers, and they ought to win the Masters.
Yet the nagging question remains. Is it for the best that fortune has conspired to fix one of the world's greatest golf tournaments so that only three men have a real chance to win? Or is the U.S. Open, with its varying demands and its sometimes fluky winners, a better contest? To this Cliff Roberts simply says: "They are different kinds of shows. You pay your money and you take your choice."
The latest word on this year's choices at Augusta is offered on the following pages, where the Big Three are considered along with the men likeliest to surprise them. Or perhaps this is the year Gene Sarazen wins and the fix-Augusta talk dies forever.
The 1965 Masters was the occasion on which Jack Nicklaus broke the tournament record by three shots with a 271—but it was more than that. It also marked the point at which he publicly began to smile and pout and display visible proof that he was more than a golfing machine, to show that he cared whether he knocked an approach shot into a pond or into the cup. Not that Nicklaus became any Red Skelton, but he did set a personal tournament record for cheery smiles and facial contortions, and the galleries reacted to him as never before. They learned, at last, that he is a rather ebullient young man. As a golfer, Nicklaus has always been at ease on Augusta's wide fairways. Now, after seven tournaments there, he has learned to enjoy himself before its big crowds.
Yet it would seem that next week Nicklaus will need whatever additional edge he can get. In the first place, he appears to have prepared for this Masters as if it were a weekend member-guest affair. Prior to his recent three-week swing through Florida, his only tournament of the winter was the Bing Crosby pro-am in January, and that was more of a party with friends than a competitive effort. He finished the Crosby by hooking two shots into the Pacific Ocean on the 18th hole and started the Doral Open in Miami six weeks later by hitting his first tee shot into a lake. Between these two splashing performances he attended a PGA school in San Antonio and spent most of a month in South Africa, where he went fishing and played a series of exhibitions with Gary Player.
If what happened in the veld is any portent, this could be a hard year for Jack. Player beat him by 14 strokes in their six matches, he was attacked by a swarm of bees and he cracked the head of the driver he had used since he joined the pro tour in 1962. Nicklaus estimates that he hit more than 15,000 shots in competition with his old driver and another 45,000 in practice. As the Masters drew near, the MacGregor company, whose clubs Nicklaus uses in the U.S., was having a hard time producing a replacement with the same loft and feel as the one he had become so attached to. Nicklaus also has changed putters. He is trying a Slazenger-Nicklaus model that, in truth, looks just like Palmer's.
But do not be deceived by his troubles, or his public nonchalance. In 1964 Nicklaus finished second at Augusta and felt so depressed that he played poorly, for him, all summer. Last year he won by nine and was so elated that he didn't settle down until August. He is now trying to guard against either reaction with his seemingly casual approach to the Masters. He will be ready. He will go to Augusta for intensive practice a week before the tournament, just as he did last year. His iron game is already "pretty decent," and he says he is "chipping very well, which is unusual for me." His driving is still a problem, but how much of a difficulty can it be? He sprayed tee shots all over the course at the Citrus Open two weeks ago and still finished second. Can he become the first man to win the Masters twice in a row? Listen to an expert, who says, "You'd make a lot of money backing Nicklaus, if you could find anyone to bet against you." Who is the expert? Gary Player.
Watching Arnold Palmer play golf has always been dramatic and still is, but the scene of the drama has shifted. His shots from the tees and fairways are as authoritative and spectacular as ever, but they are nothing to the struggle that takes place once he reaches the greens. There the full repertoire of his competitive moods is currently on display: the determined, grouchy, aggravated how-can-this-keep-happening-to-me? and the warm, Arnold's-in-his-heaven aura that comes when a putt goes in. The question is which of the two Palmers will the Masters see the most of next week—the one in the two pictures on the opposite page, whose birdie putt on 18 rimmed the cup on the first day at Augusta last year, or the one above, who had just started the second day by sinking an 18-footer for a birdie.
This has been a good winter for Palmer, which is a marked change from a year ago. "Yeah, I guess I've been playing a little better." he will admit, almost reluctantly, before getting to the subject that really consumes him. "And I've been holing some long putts. But I'm missing way too many short ones. If you don't make at least 75%, of the four-to six-footers you are not going to win many tournaments. I'm lucky if I make half of them." Palmer is now trying to take the putter blade back a very short distance and then push it solidly through the ball and at the hole. He can do it on the practice green, but, he says, "I just can't seem to do it out on the course. I get over the ball, and for some reason I keep thinking that I'm going to pull the putt off to the left." It is just possible that Palmer has become, is now, and forever will remain a bad short putter—and will be a winner in spite of it.
One thing Palmer seems to have straightened out, at last, is his work-vs.-play conflict. He vowed at the beginning of the 1966 season not to let his vast array of business commitments interfere with his competitive ones. He would give each activity its own time. The plan has worked brilliantly. In his first six tournaments he finished first, second, third, second, 34th and fourth. He is getting to tournament sites early, is much more relaxed and is concentrating well. The only time he mixed business and competition was at Phoenix, and that is where he finished 34th.
As he comes into next week's Masters, Palmer fairly reeks of the sweet smell of success. Nicklaus may have his game in shape, but Palmer has had his in shape all winter. He is sharp, and his driving looks like something programmed at Cape Kennedy. His attitude is mightily self-assured, and why not? He always wins the Masters in the even-numbered years—1958, 1960, 1962, 1964. A final plus is that Palmer is even more at home at Augusta National than his chief rival, Nicklaus. The galleries may be warming to Jack after a long cool spell, but Augusta is where Arnie's Army first marched.
"I always feel great there," says Palmer. "The course is kept in such good condition, and the atmosphere is wonderful. I guess you could say I feel that in the Masters I have some kind of home-court advantage."
Gary Player looks the same at any golf tournament. He wears his characteristic black costume, he frowns while concentrating on the course and is smiling and chatty after a good round. But Gary Player at the Masters is a completely different golfer from the one who plays at the U.S. Open or almost any other tournament. At the Open he is prudent and cautious—an approach to the game for which he is noted. He hits the ball straight, and he weighs all the percentages. At the Masters he is more like a pirate wielding a cutlass. He slashes the ball as hard as he can, he hooks his tee shots, he cuts boldly across corners and over creeks.
"It's the only chance I've got against long hitters like Nicklaus and Palmer," he claims. (A slight exaggeration. First, Player is not a short hitter; second, he has often proved that he can hit a fairway wood as close to the pin as most pros can a five-iron.) "I know that I have to take risks or I can't win. This also means that I must prepare differently for the Masters than for other tournaments. For the Open I am always concentrating on establishing my rhythm, on developing shots that will land softly, on keeping the ball in play. At Augusta I must worry much more about hitting the ball far than hitting it straight. I work on increasing my club-head speed every time I swing. I work on hooking the ball to get more roll."
Changing the nature of a golf swing can be treacherous, but Player has proved he is a superb technician who can get away with it. In the last 10 months he has won tournaments on four continents. In June he won his first U.S. Open and then, despite recurrent neck injuries, went on to take the World Match Play title (England), the Canada Cup (Spain), the World Series of Golf (Akron), and the Australian Open. He made $70,000 in only 13 official appearances on the U.S. PGA tour. Then he warmed up for his return to the U.S. this March by winning three tournaments in South Africa.
The fact that Player's 1966 American debut was hardly a success—he missed the cut at Orlando—does not indicate what can be expected of him at Augusta. It always takes a little while for him to adjust to conditions here, including getting accustomed once more to the larger American ball. He also has a problem with altitude. "I practically have to learn how to judge distance all over again," he says. "Golf with a small ball at 6,000 feet in Johannesburg is not the same game as it is here with a big ball at sea level. But I feel quite confident. My game will certainly be ready by the time the Masters starts."
One new reason for Player's confidence is his putting. Last year he changed his stance, placing both feet close together. "My putting has improved beyond all recognition," he says. "I used to be very streaky, sinking everything one day and nothing the next. Now I can say to myself in all sincerity that I'm a good putter, a consistently good putter." This will be especially important on Augusta's big greens.
With a hot putter and his bold approach, Gary could turn out to be more than a match for all the length of Nicklaus and Palmer.
As he stands here on the 6th tee at Augusta, Billy Casper seems to be overshadowed by his surroundings. This, in a strange way, has been his history at the Masters. He has consistently come into the tournament as a strong contender and yet, because of bad early rounds, has never been able to mount a strong challenge.
This year, of course, his figure has changed, and his Augusta habits may change, too. His exotic diet (SI, Feb. 7) has led to a loss of 50 pounds and. at 175, Casper has never felt better. In the past his failures at Augusta might seem to have had an emotional basis—a viewpoint with which Casper himself is inclined to agree. He is preparing for this Masters much differently. He had a good winter, winning at San Diego, but then left the tour following the Phoenix Open in February. He has found he is allergic to a spray used on the Bermuda grass of Florida golf courses, and says it was playing in Florida that always made him sick at the Masters, even last year when he was already much thinner. So this year he played in the Philippine Open and then went on to a two-week tour of Vietnam, visiting American encampments there and giving demonstrations. He planned to come home in late March and start a rigid practice program. This too is different, for Casper does not believe in much practice. Like Nicklaus, he will get to Augusta a week early for still more preparation.
The fact that Casper fades his tee shots is considered something of a handicap at Augusta National. He cannot change that, but he will make some small modifications in his game to suit the course. He is going to try to hit the ball higher and to hook his irons more. Though regarded as one of golf's finest putters, Casper is more concerned about his putting than anything else. "It is the weakest part of my game." he insists. "I've already changed putters four times this year. I'm not hitting the ball solidly and I can't seem to get a line to the hole." If true, this could cause considerable trouble at Augusta, where putting is so important. But his rivals on the tour guffaw at Casper's statements. They are watching Casper's frame of mind, not his putting stroke. If he stands on that first tee with a lean and hungry smile, he could cause anybody trouble.
As far as this Masters is concerned, Bruce Devlin has won the battle of the cripples. Two normally worthy challengers, Tony Lema and Ken Venturi, have to be downgraded—Lema because of a sore right elbow and Venturi because he has not yet regained the full sense of feel in his hands. But Bruce Devlin can now walk the fairways or kneel down to line up a putt without worrying about aching legs, and so he joins Casper to form a Little Two with the best chance to knock off the Big Three.
Last year Devlin was a sick golfer, a rather peculiar thing to say about someone who finished second by a stroke in four tournaments, earned $67,658 and ranked sixth on the PGA money list. But the only title Devlin won on the U.S. tour was that of richest runner-up. Part of this failure to finish first could be attributed to a case of severely painful varicose veins. Until 1963, when he began to enjoy some success as a professional golfer, Devlin, who comes from Canberra, Australia, was a part-time pro and a full-time plumber. The heavy sinks and bathtubs he lifted put such a strain on his thin legs that varicose veins developed.
"The circulation in my legs was so bad," he says, "that after 12 or 14 holes they would be tired and aching. It was painful, and it affected my swing. My legs got lazy and my footwork was slow. My backswing and pivot became restricted. I'd get a good round going and then lose it in the last few holes."
Last September, Devlin entered a Houston hospital and had an operation that required 29 incisions and 116 stitches. Then he returned to Australia and spent two hours every day for three weeks wading hip deep in the Pacific Ocean to strengthen his legs. The operation and the sea cure had a therapeutic effect on his golf. Starting on the Australian tour, he finished fourth and sixth, and then won his last two tournaments on consecutive weeks. Following a nine-week layoff at home, in which he pushed lawn mowers and floor polishers but never touched a club, Devlin rejoined the U.S. tour in March and picked up right where he left off, finishing second at Pensacola. "My legs feel so good now," he says, "that I can hardly keep up with myself. My swing has a new freedom and tempo."
Devlin has the kind of game that suits Augusta National. He is a long hitter, and he moves the ball from right to left. Two years ago Devlin finished fourth in the Masters and last year, despite his ailments and a bad second round, tied for 15th. As he plays himself into shape in the tournaments leading up to the Masters, he is working on increasing his distance.
"I know how strong Palmer, Nicklaus and Player are," he says, "but I don't feel I am giving much away. I'm not about to back off. I'm driving well, and I'm also putting well. When you're sharp at both ends like that, you've kind of got a lock on this game, don't you?"
Devlin's only drawback—and it should not be overlooked—is that in the U.S. he has not yet developed the winning habit. This could also mean that he is about due.
THREE MORE TO WATCH
Doug Sanders was feeling strong, playing well and signing all his scorecards at this time last year, and he went on to make one of his best showings at Augusta, a tie for 11th. This year he is feeling stronger and playing even better. The logical conclusion is that he will substantially improve on his 1965 Masters performance. If wholesome living guarantees birdies, he surely will. After years of the joyous life, Sanders is no longer the tour's playboy. He has become the image of dedication, a Gary Player with wavy hair. Now, like all the rest of the pros, he talks about his aches and pains, his anguish and discomfort, then limps out and shoots a 59 or so. He has already won twice this year, including last week's Jacksonville Open.
Sanders has always been considered a sure loser at Augusta on the theory that he is a short hitter. But this is not exactly true. "I prefer tight courses where you have to work the ball around corners, but when I'm playing well the long hitters aren't that much longer than I am," he says. "Where I do lose distance is with my long irons."
He is a fine putter, but his chief strength is his ability to drive with great accuracy, to "work the ball." Therefore, he will try to duplicate Gary Player's plan and attack the course boldly. "I'm going to cut all the corners," he says, "take every edge." This requires a lot of nerve, but Sanders has plenty. If he can manage 72 holes without a mistake he can win. It is a big order but it is not impossible.
Gay Brewer rates as one of golf's least successful winners. In his 10 years on the tour he has won eight tournaments, including last December's PGA National Four-Ball, but has received hardly a ripple of public acclaim. It is typical of Brewer's career, for example, that while he was winning the Pensacola Open last month Doug Sanders was winning the headlines for not signing his scorecard and getting disqualified.
One reason for Brewer's obscurity may be the inconsistent nature of his career. His first decade as a pro was a history of super one day, ghastly the next. Now his game, at last, has changed. At 34 he has developed into a consistently good player. He scored four of his victories in the last six months and has been playing well when he wasn't winning.
"I think my game has picked up in all departments," he says, "and so has my mental attitude. That is because I've been putting so well. I am putting a great deal better than I ever have going into a Masters."
In addition to his deftness on the putting greens, what makes Brewer a challenger at Augusta is that he is long off the tee. "There are not too many who can outhit me when I get souped up," he says. And right now he is souped up. Off his past performance chart—his highest finish in five Augusta starts was a tie for 11th in 1962—he is decidedly a long shot next week. But make no mistake; this is a new Gay Brewer. No longer can he be ignored at the Masters.
Frank Beard has become, at 26, as good a young player as there is on the tour. He is, like Cassius Clay, backed by a group of Louisville businessmen, and he has paid off their faith in him handsomely. Even a severe—if short—attack of encephalitis, which kept him off part of the tour in 1964, has failed to impede his progress. He came back last year to win the Texas Open, finish third in the U.S. Open and earn $52,000 in prize money. He is off to another strong start this year.
Beard's swing is so compact and consistent that his golf has a machinelike quality. "It doesn't usually make any difference whether I'm playing an easy course or a tough one," he says. "I always seem to hit the ball about 20 feet from the hole." He is a good putter. On his way to an eighth-place finish at Augusta last year he averaged only 31 putts a round. Also, even though he concentrates on keeping his drives in play, he does not lack length. "He hits about as far as I do," says Palmer.
Beard is an unusual realist. "I grew up that way," he says. "I always try to see things just as they are. You don't gain confidence by getting up in the morning and talking big about what you're going to do. You gain it by working hard and doing what must be done."
Realistically speaking, does Beard have a chance at Augusta? "I'm never going to beat Nicklaus when he's right," Beard says. "He's too long. But there aren't many others I can't beat on that course."