There was a glorious blast from the past in Paramus, N.J., on Sunday, when Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus waged a vintage battle that reminded a worshiping crowd of 25,000 of just how good these two golf legends were. And are.
Trevino ultimately prevailed by two shots to win the U.S. Senior Open, with a 13-under-par 275 at the Ridgewood Country Club. Said Trevino, "I was on a mission today. It's always a feather in your hat when you beat Jack Nicklaus." For his part, Nicklaus was stoic, saying: "That's the way it goes. I had plenty of chances."
In retrospect, Trevino may have won the Open last Thursday, opening day, when he holed an 18-foot bogey putt on 18 for a six-under 67. "The two things that don't last are pros puttin' for bogeys and dogs chasin' cars," said Trevino, who then assessed his chances of winning the Open: "If I win, it will be because I'm aggressive. And if I lose, it will be because I'm too aggressive."
Which was exactly how he won on Sunday. Six birdies, one bogey. Aggressive, but not too aggressive. Over the first six holes, Trevino, who had trailed Nicklaus by a stroke, broke away with three birdies. Nicklaus, meanwhile, dropped a shot at number 3. When play resumed after a 48-minute delay because of lightning and heavy rain, Trevino and playing partner Jim Dent charged around the course; Nicklaus and Gary Player were apparently in no rush.
Trevino led by three going to the par-5 13th, but a bogey there, and Nicklaus's birdies at 11 and 13, cut Trevino's lead to a stroke. Trevino quickly made birdies at 15 and 16 and, when Nicklaus bogeyed 14, Lee's lead went back up to a seemingly comfortable three strokes.
Trevino parred in, then watched on TV as his lead shrank to one stroke when Nicklaus birdied the 15th and 16th. Nicklaus laid up perfectly on 17, leaving himself with a shot of 128 yards to the flag. But he seemed undecided whether to hit a high shot to the green—or to knock down a shot. Whatever Nicklaus's plans, he mishit the ball, and it came up short of the green and short of a birdie opportunity. When his five-foot putt lipped the cup on the right edge, he wound up with a bogey 6 and the tournament was all but over. Originally, Nicklaus had blamed his contact lenses for the bad approach on 17, but he soon admitted, "Aw, I wouldn't have beat him anyway."
The day before, heading into the third round, Trevino had held a one-stroke lead over Dent and was five ahead of Nicklaus and Player. At one point during Saturday's round, Nicklaus had slipped six strokes behind Trevino before he rallied on the back nine with four birdies for a round of 67, 207 for the tournament. Meanwhile, Dent and Player were tied at 208 with Trevino, who had stumbled to a 73. (On Sunday, Player had a 73 and tied for third place, while Dent shot 76 to finish 10th.)
Earlier in the week, Topic A among the fans at Ridgewood had been the possibility of, and enthusiasm for, a born-again confrontation between Nicklaus and Trevino. After all, a lot of people grew up on such moments. Please let it be 1971 again and the U.S. Open at Merion, where Trevino teased Nicklaus with a rubber snake, then slithered away with the championship. Or let it be the 1972 British Open at Muirfield with Nicklaus coming from six behind in the final round only to lose to Trevino by one. Or replay the '74 PGA as Trevino beat Nicklaus at the Tanglewood Golf Club in Clemmons, N.C.
Last weekend it wouldn't have mattered if Nicklaus and Trevino had thrown themselves upon their putters in anguish; the adoring galleries would have cheered their style. In fact, fans applauded just about everything they did. Mediocre-shots by either player routinely drew rave reviews from the disciples. Only Arnold Palmer, who stank up Ridgewood with a' two-round 154 and missed the cut by five shots, got higher audience approval for every breath he took. But Palmer (60 PGA Tour victories) is golf, and his appearances are now mainly ceremonial. Still, Nicklaus (70 Tour wins, second only to Sam Snead's 81) and Trevino (27 wins) have done as much as anyone to define both the sport and excellence. No wonder we thirst for their togetherness.
But it became obvious at Ridgewood that the two have markedly different attitudes toward senior competition. Trevino, who won $90,000 Sunday (he now has earned $598,633 in prize money, with six wins and three seconds in just 13 senior tournaments), is thrilled to be back among his old friends and says he would much rather avoid "playing against the flat bellies" in favor of contesting the "round bellies." Nicklaus seems humiliated to be back among his old friends, even though he has won two of the four senior events he has entered, and $340,000. He has a kind of glum, I'm-here-but-I-don't-like-it-much outlook.
The difference, of course, is that Trevino is resigned to the fact that he can no longer win on the regular Tour, his last title being the '84 PGA. Nicklaus is not similarly resigned (last Tour win: the '86 Masters) and curses the calendar for telling him it's time to report to the seniors. Trevino's eyes glow when he talks of senior golf. Nicklaus's eyes don't.
That was painfully obvious last Thursday when Nicklaus, having opened with an ordinary one-under 71, discussed the senior players. He said things like: "Can you imagine the coverage they are getting?" and "They are being treated well," and "It has been great for them" He obviously does not think of himself as one of them. Asked about his plans for the Senior tour, Nicklaus said, "Maybe I'll play more. Maybe none at all."
Nicklaus will have to perk up his attitude if he is to dominate the seniors as he did the PGA Tour. The senior players are good, and he's not going to win very often on reputation alone. Jack knows it, and admitted as much last Friday afternoon, when, five strokes behind Trevino, he said: "I'm gonna have to get a little bit more with it in the next two days." Which he did on Saturday.
That's Nicklaus these days, straining to hold back the sunset. And hooray for him. He just needs to be a little more chipper when he's among his senior brethren.
As for Trevino, chipper is in his genes. "Hey, I'm playing golf, I've got a great wife, a new baby, and I'm not a bad-look-in' guy," he chortles. Well, three out of four is pretty darn good.
Trevino shot a 73 on Saturday but came roaring back with a six-birdie Sunday to win by two.
Though not thrilled to be a senior, Nicklaus came oh-so-close to victory in his first Open.