YOU KNOW the problem with the Tradition? It's got only one
tradition: Jack Nicklaus. Four other players have won the Senior
PGA Tour's highest and driest tournament since its premiere in
1989--Don Bies, Lee Trevino, Ray Floyd and a very surprised Tom
Shaw--but hardly anyone outside cactus country remembers their
wins. The Tradition is Nicklaus. It's supposed to be the
seniors' first major of the year, but it's really just the
tournament Jack wins to tune up for the Masters.
Sunday, as inevitabilities rained on Scottsdale, Ariz., the
56-year-old Nicklaus successfully defended the title, claiming
his fourth Tradition in seven tries and the 100th tournament of
his professional career. He did it by firing a second
consecutive seven-under-par 65 over the Cochise Course at Desert
Mountain, leaving his only serious challenger, Hale Irwin,
dazed, as if a dust devil had spun Irwin's undershorts around.
Irwin, who tops the Senior tour money list, led Nicklaus by
three shots after the first 10 holes of the final round, shot 69
but wound up losing by three. The rest of the Tradition field,
led by Floyd, finished nine or more strokes behind Nicklaus's
16-under-par 272. As Irwin said, "He was chipping and putting at
a barrel, and the rest of us were going at a pinhead."
The biggest barrel, obviously, was the par-5 12th hole, which
Nicklaus played to a cumulative six under par over three days,
using his putter about as frequently as Michael Jordan uses a
comb. On Friday, Nicklaus chipped in for birdie. On Sunday he
chipped in for eagle. On Saturday, to goose an otherwise sleepy
afternoon, he made the feathers really fly with a double eagle.
Albatrosses, as the British call them, are so rare that even
liars don't report them. They are so randomly distributed that
only Gene Sarazen's double eagle in the final round of the '35
Masters is deemed historic. Before last week Nicklaus had made
two in his distinguished career--a driver/three-wood as a
teenager at Scioto Country Club in his hometown of Columbus,
Ohio, and a driver/four-iron at the '65 Jacksonville Open. On
Saturday he needed only an eight-iron from 159 yards on the
500-yard hole. A pile of rocks blocked Nicklaus's view of the
touchdown: the bounce, the roll and the sideways topple into the
cup. "Pretty good aim," he would joke.
Only then did Nicklaus become news. Thursday's story was Ed
Sneed, the former touring pro and ABC-TV foot soldier. Sneed
aced the par-3 17th and birdied the 18th to tie Irwin for the
first-round lead at 65. Alas, he would finish 57th. Friday's
tale was a gusty northeast wind that blew off hats and bent
flagsticks. J.C. Snead, who would hold a one-shot lead by day's
end, belted a downwind drive of 403 yards on the 14th hole while
other pros reported eight-irons traveling anywhere from 90 to
200 yards, depending on nature's whim. "We don't hit it 390, not
at our age," said 59-year-old Butch Baird, after watching fellow
59-year-old Larry Mowry drive within three yards of the green on
the 390-yard 1st hole. "We can't even dream that long."
The wind aside, the 1996 Tradition seemed more tranquil than
usual. Fewer spectators jumped gallery ropes, slid noisily on
desert gravel or skewered themselves on cacti. Explanation:
After a two-year flirtation with single-day ticket sales, the
Tradition reverted to a policy of issuing tournament badges
only, ensuring a savvy crowd familiar with the course. "This is
a unique golf course because the gallery is limited to one side
of each hole," said tournament chairman Mark Kizziar.
In other words, the Tradition is better on television.
But television, with its quick jumps and commercial breaks,
misses nuances. That happened on Saturday, when Irwin had to
swallow Nicklaus's double eagle. Irwin, playing with Nicklaus,
had already seen his four-shot edge on the Bear cut in half on
number 11, where he bogeyed and Nicklaus holed a putt from off
the green for birdie. Nicklaus's deuce on 12 meant Irwin had to
birdie the hole to tie for the lead at eight under. Irwin did
just that. He added two more birdies on the way in to lead
Nicklaus by one. Yes, the cameras caught Irwin congratulating
Nicklaus as they walked up the 12th fairway, but they didn't
capture the stiffening resolve of the former All-Big Eight
defensive back. Asked about Nicklaus's eight-iron at a postround
press conference, Irwin curtly replied, "I'm here to talk about
me, not one shot by Nicklaus."
On Sunday it looked as if Irwin would do all his talking with
his sticks. Through the first 10 holes he built his lead to
three strokes and seemed every bit the three-time U.S. Open
champion--driving long, putting true. But then Irwin made three
straight bogeys, on 11 through 13, and those slips, coupled with
the inevitable Nicklaus eagle at the12th, put the defending
champion up by two strokes. The rest of the way in, Irwin looked
desperate and Jack invincible.
"I just hit the ball as good as I can hit it," said Nicklaus,
who credited technique and technology. A week of two-a-day
lessons with Scottsdale-based swing coach Jim Flick, he said,
had him swinging freely and confidently--something he was not
doing in February when he won the GTE Suncoast Classic, another
Senior tour event. Nicklaus also claimed to be getting 30 to 40
extra yards out of his new Air Bear titanium driver, which is
2 1/8" longer and somewhat lighter than the
persimmon-and-stainless-steel drivers he previously used. "My
son Gary gave me a little push," Nicklaus conceded. "He said, 'I
don't think you're taking advantage of technology.'"
A more plausible explanation is that Nicklaus keeps winning
simply because he has never tired of winning. When he scored the
double eagle on Saturday, he raised his arms and grinned like a
schoolboy. Asked if such shots were still a thrill, he snorted
and said facetiously, "Just a little."
On Sunday, with the Tradition's little silver cup up for grabs,
no one seemed willing to get in the great man's way. Floyd began
the day two shots off the lead but went out in 40 and drowned in
Nicklaus's backwash. Tom Weiskopf had contended all week but
shot 75. Bob Murphy had also been in the hunt yet could do no
better than par. Only Irwin could sustain a challenge, and
Irwin, after watching Jack finish with a gratuitous birdie on
18, said, "I felt like it was my opportunity to prolong the
legacy of Jack Nicklaus."
That's a fitting epitaph, when you think about it, for
practically every prominent golfer of Irwin's generation.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECK Nicklaus had birdie and eagle as well as double eagle at 12. [Jack Nicklaus]
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY ROBERT BECKIrwin led by three with eight holes left, shot 69 and became another footnote in the Nicklaus legend. [Hale Irwin]