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Palmer, Nicklaus, Player, Casper—the very best—seem always to be at or near the top in the Masters, which is a key reason why this one is everybody's favorite golfing show

Listen America, just in case nobody has noticed, this obviously is the year of the big name in professional golf, a year for A. D. Palmer, J. W. Nicklaus, G. J. Player and W. E. Casper. As in J. C. Snead, of course. A little roguish humor there, folks. Sorry. Anyhow, the big names are with us again, restoring the credibility of the sport. Or helping to. For example, Palmer wins at Palm Springs and Orlando, Nicklaus takes the PGA, Player grabs Jacksonville and Miami, and Casper three times comes second. Meanwhile, Slammin' J. C. Snead pops up to win at Tucson and Doral, but he is only the uninvited nephew and irrelevant to the point. It's the bigger names—like Sam, the uncle—and what they've accomplished that you want to put together with the thought that coming up next week is the 35th Masters Tournament, golf's annual dream sequence. That's what stirs the spirit. Think about it. Palmer, Nicklaus, Player and Casper, all pruned and prettied, all readier than usual for Augusta. When has the chance to be inoculated with dogwood seemed more inviting?

Not that the Masters has ever been dull, even when a Herman Keiser or an Art Wall sneaked in. Drama of high order nearly always erupts, bringing everything down to the last nine holes, sometimes the very last green, and nearly always with a big name involved. The Masters has a way of wrenching out the names in golf, even when the names have been in relative hiding in the winter tournaments that lead up to Augusta, as they have been the past couple of years. And even as the Augusta National course continues to undergo subtle changes. If you want to get technical, it is hardly the same course that it once was—how many know that the back nine was originally the front?—but no matter. It lies there as part of golfing America's subconscious. Comes the Masters, then, and it is time for Palmer, Nicklaus, Player and Casper, just as it used to be for Hogan, Snead, Nelson and Demaret.

Proof enough is to look back at the last 13 tournaments, starting with Palmer's first win in 1958. Golf's current Big Four—and Palmer, Nicklaus, Player and Casper add up to nothing less—won the Masters nine times in those 13 years. This corresponds to another interlude in history, a 15-tournament stretch from 1937 through 1954 when Hogan, Snead, Nelson and Demaret won the Masters 10 times. Even when the names are not winning, they are seriously challenging. Hogan finished in the top ten 14 straight times at Augusta, nine of those times in the top five, four times second. Nelson played 12 in a row in which he was never worse than eighth. Palmer was in the top four nine times in 11 years.

As for today's mighty quartet, the evidence is that in eight years out of the past 11, at least two of them—Palmer and Casper or Player and Nicklaus or another combination—have been in the top five, essential to the plot, having plodded doggedly through the pine shadows and around the dark ponds, moving through the thousands of spectators late on a Sunday afternoon.

No one knows exactly why the Masters has been dominated by the name players. There have been grumbles that Cliff Roberts and Bob Jones have tried to tailor the course to suit them. There is the old tale that a severe pin position on the 18th was never used again after Hogan three-putted the final green in '46, allowing Herman Keiser to win. The charge doesn't hold up. While it's statistically true that the eight greatest players since Bob Jones—Hogan, Snead, Nelson, Demaret, Palmer, Nicklaus, Player, Casper—have won the Masters 19 times and finished second 13 times, their record in the U.S. Open is almost as overwhelming. The same eight have taken 11 Opens and finished second 15 times.

Which means the answer may lie in the fact that the name players get up for things like the Masters and the Open. Especially the Masters, which is always the first of the four major titles (except for this year, when the PGA was played in February—a one-year scheduling freak). The explanation may rest somewhere in the words of Arnold Palmer, who says, "Each year when you see the course again, you feel this great rush of energy and excitement. The Masters is our game elevated to its highest level. The course looks beautiful and inviting, and the press is there by the hundreds, like nowhere else. The course is a familiar old enemy that fights you back, and I like that. There's something really wrong with your game that week if you can't get charged up."

As it happens, Palmer has more reason to be charged up for next week's Masters than in some recent years. He is simply playing his best golf in a long while. He won $98,178 in the first three months of 1971 and he has won two tournaments before Augusta for the first time in years. Of the 10 tournaments he's played in, he has been 19th or better in nine of them. Besides, he doesn't want Nicklaus to become the first man to win the Pro Slam so long as he. Palmer, is breathing.

Jack's game isn't exactly sour. He was up for the PGA even though he hadn't played much. Now he has the Slam incentive, the urge to overtake Jones in lifetime major cups (he has 11 to Jones' 13) and the notion of tying Palmer's record of four Masters victories (Nicklaus has three). Like Palmer, Nicklaus can reach the par 5s in two, which in turn can reduce Augusta's par from 72 to 68—for them. There are those who are annoyed by this, but they forget that long, accurate driving is the first requirement. The course is giving them nothing.

Player, too, is ready. He has, rather remarkably, won seven of his last 12 tournaments, including five out of seven abroad before coming over for the PGA. Player gets a face-lift at Augusta like everyone else. In his 14 visits to Georgia, he's been in the low eight 10 times. Why? Same as Palmer. Player says, "Only a dead man can't feel the urgency of wanting to play well there."

Then there's Casper, who finally won the Masters last year in his 14th bid. Although appearing in only seven events this winter, he finished second three times, including a closing rush at Nicklaus in the PGA—a biggie—and he has yet to be out of the low 25 anywhere.

"That's quite a club to be a member of," Casper says of his 1970 Masters win. "I was beginning to think I'd never do it, but now that I have I feel I can always play well there. I think my game's as good as it's ever been."

And so is the course—as good as ever.

Substantially, Augusta National is the same layout it was four decades ago, except that the trees have grown larger and some greens have been raised and others lowered and a couple moved, such as the 10th and 16th. The back nine was the front nine originally, but when Jones and Roberts recognized the dramatic potential of all that water over there and saw it was a tougher nine, they changed it around in 1933, before the first tournament was played.

The scoring potential has never actually changed, according to Cliff Roberts, the only chairman Augusta has ever had. "We have tightened the course," he says. "It is certainly not as wide open as it was. However, this is offset now by the course being in much better condition." The greens are slower than they once were, but certain holes are longer and some demand more accurate driving.

Last year Augusta's most popular hole, the double eagle 15th, turned up with its tee moved back and to the right and with two huge mounds—an elephant burial ground, somebody called them—on the right, just where many tee shots used to come to rest. Reason: too many golfers had been reaching the 15th green in two.

"We tightened up 15 in order to justify its continued classification as a par 5," Roberts explained, "and to protect the authenticity of Gene Sarazen's double eagle."

The change was drastic, but the hole became a more genuine par 5. This year the elephant mounds have come down, to be replaced by a series of less obtrusive but equally effective little mounds. "Chocolate drops," Roberts calls them. Hopefully, the ideal has been achieved. It's a tougher driving hole than it used to be, and the old gambling aspects of it have been retained: the chance to hit over the water on your second shot and gain ground. On Nicklaus or Palmer or Player or Casper.

Never have the names seemed more eager for the Masters or looked as sharp. And the course is there waiting, elegant as ever.

So? Right. Looks like a Gibby Gilbert week from here.