It was that same Sawgrass music again. Dueling bogeys. And it was the same Jack Nicklaus again. There has never been anything quite so spectacular in the world of professional golf as what Jack has been up to lately. Not since the gutta met the percha, anyway. If you wanted to look for a pattern to it last week at Sawgrass, you had to start out by taking A1A to the first swamp on your left, then chartering a canoe and asking to be dropped off at the factory where they make grits out of lost Titleists.
The big news from Sawgrass and the Tournament Players Championship was that Nicklaus won another title without making birdies or eagles out of everything but the loose change in his pockets. At Sawgrass, which is just down the coast from Jacksonville, a man is lucky even to make pars, and Jack made enough of those in Sunday's final round to shoot a 75 and beat Lou Graham and all those other guys who were charging after him with their backup lights on. Explaining his three-over-par 75, Nicklaus said, "When I know that all I have to do to win a tournament is shoot even par, my shots tend to look very commercial. I'm liable to look like anybody else you might see out there."
Nicklaus' one-shot triumph concluded a fascinating stretch of golf over a period that he has for some time considered his "Masters preparation." In Jack's past four tournaments he has finished second, first, second and first, in that order, and has won the pleasant sum of $155,600. Nicklaus now will fish, rest and work on his game this week in the Dominican Republic, and spend all next week practicing at Augusta for the following week's Masters, which signals the start of golfs "major championship" season.
Chronologically, his 2-1-2-1 streak went like this: Nicklaus appeared to be all set to trample Gil Morgan and win the Los Angeles Open at Riviera, but with four holes to play he suddenly staggered into a double bogey and a bogey to blow it. The next week he went to Inverrary, outside Fort Lauderdale, and merely birdied the last five holes to wipe out Grier Jones' three-shot lead and captivate half the population of the Eastern seaboard. Two weeks later at Doral in Miami he had two holed-out wedge shots for eagles and a chip-in birdie over four holes on the final 10 only to lose to Tom Weiskopf by a stroke. And then came Sawgrass where Nicklaus went the last 18 without a single birdie but still won the TPC for the third time in five years.
"Something's going on," Jerry Heard said seriously. "It's got something to do with the devil."
What's going on? The obvious conclusion is that Tom Watson's success has made Nicklaus start getting up an hour earlier these days. Just as Lee Trevino had awakened him years ago, and as Weiskopf and Johnny Miller had later. If that is true, it has nothing to do with holing out wedge shots. Those things are luck, even if Jack claims he predicted two of them to his caddie, Angelo Argea. As Walter Hagen once said, "A shot two feet from the pin is skill. A shot that goes in is unconscious."
For all of this, however, the main thing is that Nicklaus did what he had to do to win at Sawgrass. On that horrid, almost unfair layout, it seemed proper that only Nicklaus could survive. On the final hole Jack had to work his way out from behind a tree trunk, nail a seven-iron out of the rough and onto the green, which was 160 yards away, and then get down in two putts from 30 feet for the par 5 that gave him a total 289, one over par for the 72 holes—and one better than runner-up Lou Graham.
In the annals of brilliant golf charges, it may be written that Jack won his third TPC by playing two-over-par golf for the last seven holes and topping Graham who charged home with two-over-par golf for the last five holes. Compared to Jack's birdie barrage at Inverrary, it was about as thrilling as an insurance symposium, but Sawgrass does that.
Nicklaus won on a golf course where exactly one round was shot below 70—that being Mike McCullough's 69—and where the two players who scored holes in one, Grier Jones and John Mahaffey, needed them to post their blazing 77s.
From Thursday's start, the players found Sawgrass to be precisely as they left it a year ago. A swampy, scrubby, windy, chilly, narrow pain in the three-wood. They had been told it would be easier this year, that some changes had been made in the architecture. Several reptiles supposedly had been exterminated, too. There was, however, one thing that couldn't be corrected: the basic design of the layout. Sawgrass is a non-links course by the sea. If there was a run-up shot out there anywhere, or a place where the golfer could get underneath the wind, no one could find it. Sawgrass was target golf under links conditions, and this made for high scoring and bitter locker rooms.
Par on Thursday for the best field you could possibly assemble turned out to be 75-point-something. Par on Friday was 76-point-something because a new element had been added. Cold. As in freezing, particularly for those players who had to start early. On Saturday, when it was once again cold and breezy, par was judged to have been 76-point-something. And suddenly the players, who hope to see the TPC become a major championship, were beginning to say that Jacksonville is always like that at this time of year. Let's just hold it in Aspen, they said. The point many of them were trying to make is that the dates of the TPC perhaps ought to be changed.
Ed Sneed, who is one of the players' representatives on the PGA Tournament Policy Board, said, "We want the TPC to become a major, but I promise you that you can't have a major if two of our best players have taken an oath that when they come back next year, if the weather is the same again, they're going to withdraw." Sneed was speaking of Trevino and Weiskopf. Trevino, whose ailing back tends to stiffen up in cold weather, withdrew last week even though he had been among the fortunate (or unfortunate) to make the 36-hole cut.
Nicklaus and Ben Crenshaw were the two celebrities who were tied for the lead at two under par with five others after the first 18, the others being John Schroeder, Victor Regalado, Gary Groh, Bobby Wadkins and Gibby Gilbert.
It was on Friday that most of the field began sinking into the Sawgrass swamp, which had become a strange combination of polar ice cap and alligator farm. Some big names shot even bigger numbers. Like Weiskopf's 80. Tom Watson, the player of the year in 1977 and the player of the winter in 1978, missed the cut just as he had done the week before at Doral. Also leaving town early were Johnny Miller, Ray Floyd, Billy Casper, Dave Stockton and Lanny Wadkins.
After 36 holes Nicklaus and Crenshaw were still tied for the lead with identical rounds of 70 and 71, and both were playing superbly. Now Graham had entered the picture, too, creating a three-way tie with his rounds of 71 and 70. For a while it appeared that Graham would share the lead with Nicklaus after Saturday's third round, but then Jack banged in a 22-foot putt for a birdie on the 18th hole and was one shot up at two under par.
From off the tee Graham hasn't missed more than two or three fairways in his whole life. Which is why you can put Graham on a Medinah, where he won the 1975 U.S. Open, or a Southern Hills, where he finished second in the 1977 U.S. Open, or a Sawgrass, and he will be a contender. Also, Graham is a low-ball hitter, and this was helping him in the wind. Add to it the fact that Graham is one of the tour's better chippers and manipulators—he got "up and down" about five times on Friday, and chipped one in on Saturday—and you had just the man to keep Nicklaus awake on Sunday.
For his part, Crenshaw had suffered some sort of a recurring nightmare during the third round. He was paired with Nicklaus, as he had been in the last round of the Masters a year ago when he fell apart. This time Ben didn't fall apart, but his putting stroke left him and he slowly got infected with the 77 disease. In numbers, he was not so far back that he couldn't have won the tournament with a low round on Sunday, but Sawgrass was hardly the place for one to be encouraged about any such prospect.
Nicklaus may well have won the championship at one hole in the third round—the par-4 16th where he salvaged a bogey from a situation that would have led any normal human being to a 12. First, Jack drove into a horrible spot behind a clump of trees, and it looked as if it would take a group of Japanese gardeners on their hands and knees to find his ball. He gouged it out with some weird type of body-English wedge shot and barely cleared a pond up by the green. But this ball was almost lost, too, being buried in a tangled patch of jungle. Nicklaus slashed at it, and if the ball moved, nobody could see it. One could envision Nicklaus in there for the next several days. He lay 3 already and there was no power mower on the way.
Well, what Jack did was somehow rip the ball out of the jungle on his next lusty swing. He got it up on the green about 20 feet past the hole. And, then, naturally, he rolled in the putt for a 5.
Yeah, it was a bogey, but it was a beautiful bogey. And, after all, Sawgrass was an appropriate place for a bogey to win a golf tournament.
Graham's low, straight tee shots kept him close.