Nicklaus Challenged, Challenger as Senior

TIMES STAFF WRITER

There are mixed emotions among his fellow golfers as Jack Nicklaus prepares to play in his first official tournament on the Senior PGA Tour.

Nicklaus will tee off Thursday in the first round of the Tradition at Desert Mountain in Scottsdale, Ariz.

There will be a cold reception from some seniors--especially Dave Hill, because of Nicklaus' comments. Some thought he had demeaned the 50-and-over group.

But a majority, including Lee Trevino, Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Chi Chi Rodriguez, welcome Nicklaus.

The Tradition is one of just three senior events Nicklaus plans to play as a "rookie," and his presence has made the field for the 72-hole, $800,000 tournament the best in the brief history of the senior tour.

The tour has grown quietly from two tournaments with a total purse of $250,000 in 1980 to 42 with almost $18 million in prize money this year.

Then Nicklaus shattered the seniors' serenity, telling Golf Digest he really wasn't much interested in joining the old-timers. For one thing, he thought he could still win on the regular PGA Tour.

It was especially upsetting to many when he said: "Fellows who were marginal players on the regular tour are now doing quite well as seniors. I don't find it a challenge to play against the same guys I've beaten for 30 years."

Hill was outraged.

"I always thought Jack was quite a guy," Hill said. "I don't any longer. He's an . . . I hope that some of us marginal players can hammer him at Scottsdale. I'm going to be doing my best.

"One thing I'd like to know: Who does Jack consider a marginal player? Is Tom Kite (the all-time leading money-winner) a marginal player? I won 12 tournaments on the regular tour, and so did Kite."

Dave's younger brother, Mike, who won the only senior tournament this year Trevino entered and didn't win, said he wasn't much concerned about Nicklaus.

"I don't think he'll play much," Mike Hill said. "But that's all right. We're better off having fellows like Lee, who feels he should put something back into the sport."

Palmer, 60, flashed a knowing smile.

"I felt the same way when I turned 50," he said. "I thought I could still beat the juniors. I wasn't ready to admit I couldn't win on the regular tour. Once I understood, I have had nothing but fun. It'll happen to Jack, too."

Nicklaus has said he has a challenge again, adding: "My goal is to be the first to win on both tours (in the same year). I don't know why I can't. I feel better than I have in years. I really think the exercise program I've been on has brought my game back close to where it was 20 years ago."

He made the statement before he played in his first three events on the regular tour this year. At Pebble Beach, he finished at 300, beating only one player who made the cut. At Doral, in Florida the first week in March, he shot 289, one over par, but still beat only six golfers. He missed the cut in the Players Championship.

Trevino expects a big effort from Nicklaus in the Tradition.

"I'll tell you one thing," Trevino said. "He'll be ready. He said those things just to get the seniors riled up. He needs a challenge, and that's what he got.

"You know he'll be ready at Scottsdale. I welcome him. He brings out the best in all of us. I seem to play better when he's out there. I'm fortunate that I'm at the top of my game right now. I'm looking forward to the challenge."

Nicklaus might have a bit of a home-course advantage, having designed the 6,837-yard Cochise layout. Last year, the seniors voted it the best-conditioned course on the tour.

Another reason Nicklaus is playing in the tournament--which is trying to become the seniors' Masters--is that it does not have a pro-am. One of Nicklaus' magazine comments was, "I don't want to play pro-ams on short courses with no roughs."

Several seniors were asked if they could remember winning a tournament head-to-head from Nicklaus. Most couldn't.

"The main thing I remember," said Al Geiberger, who won 11 events on the regular tour and has won five on the senior circuit, "is sitting in the locker room and watching on TV as Jack won a tournament."

Gene Littler, who will be 60 in July, had some success against Nicklaus.

"When I won the Canadian Open in 1965," Littler said, "Jack was a shot ahead of me with two or three holes to go, and I caught and passed him.

"There was a three-way playoff in the World Series of Golf in 1966 with Nicklaus and Al Geiberger and I won it."

He added facetiously: "I did well against him. I must have beaten him 20 times. Come to think of it, I don't think he lost 20 tournaments."

Rodriguez wondered if some of the seniors had forgotten just how good Nicklaus is.

"He is the greatest of all time," Rodriguez said. "Actually, he didn't play the regular tour. If he had, he would have won 200 tournaments. We shouldn't get him upset. You know what a Bear does when he gets angry. He eats you up."

In another recent interview in Golf World, Nicklaus backed off a little in his comments on the senior tour but did not retract what he had said.

"I never intended to belittle the tour or the players," Nicklaus told the magazine. "They are friends of mine. I have been beating them, but they beat me, too. I guess the main problem is I think I can still win on the regular tour."

The Tradition will be the start of something for Nicklaus. Throughout his career, while his children were young, he never played in more than two successive tournaments. But following the Tradition, he'll play in the Masters and then the Senior PGA. He will wind up his senior schedule with the Senior TPC in June.

After that, his plans might depend on how he fared against his old--and young--friends.

Copyright © 2019, Los Angeles Times
EDITION: California | U.S. & World
64°