Jack Nicklaus carries a crisp, new $50 bill he and his partner had just sheared from some sheep named Orville Moody and Tom Wargo in a $10 skins game.
The partner had won most of the skins.
It wasn’t all that unusual.
“Every time we play, Arnold plays great,” Nicklaus said. “I don’t know what happens, but he plays well.”
It’s no secret what happens. Nicklaus brings out Arnold Palmer’s competitive persona, a fair trade-off, because Palmer lights Nicklaus’ fire. They are two of the most competitive golfers ever, and the competition never ends despite advancing years.
“I owe you money too,” Nicklaus, 58, said to Palmer, 68, at Riviera while the two were preparing for the U.S. Senior Open. “You are going to take money from your own partner?”
“With a great deal of pleasure,” Palmer answered, and they both laughed, because they have been trading the same $10 or so for about 40 years, since Palmer more or less invented golf, at least for television and the masses, and Nicklaus came along to help make it attractive to well-heeled sponsors.
Their game varies, from an 18-hole U.S. Open playoff at Oakmont in 1962--Nicklaus won with a 71 to Palmer’s 74, which was shot with three stitches in his hand--to a skins game practice round at Riviera. But there is a common thread, regardless of time or place.
“I don’t know. I guess we’ve played thousands of rounds with each other,” said Palmer, laughing, “and it’s always competitive. We never play for much money, a $10 Nassau or something, because I don’t want to hurt him.”
Said Nicklaus: “We always play for something.”
It’s funny, because both are wealthy and neither is about money.
“I’ve never been interested in that,” Nicklaus says. “Look where I am on the regular tour, something like 30th or 31st or someplace [on the money list]. Money was never the issue with me.”
A sawbuck is the way they keep score, and both are about competition. It’s a large part of the reason they’re around this week at Riviera. They aren’t here for nostalgia, or at least not much. Neither has won at Riviera. It’s a void in their careers, and in that of the golf course.
“I just enjoy coming here,” Nicklaus said. “I don’t know if it’s nostalgic for me because I’ve never won here.”
He had to search his memory for a major event at Riviera, trying 1984, then 1985 until being prompted about the 1983 PGA Championship.
Nicklaus remembers the club and distance on shots hit in winning tournaments 20 years ago, but he finished second at Riviera in ’83, so who cares when it was?
Palmer has won three times in Los Angeles, but all came at Rancho Park, in L.A. Opens.
“I want to win,” says Palmer, who hasn’t in a tournament in a decade, since the 1988 Crestar Classic on the Senior PGA Tour, and who no longer has the game to win over four days.
“That’s why you play: to win. I keep practicing, keep fooling with my clubs.”
He keeps looking for the fountain of middle age.
“I can play a round of golf today and shoot 71 or 70 and look back at it and 20 years ago, I would have had 65 in that same round,” he says. “And that is the thing that’s missing, the ability to score, which I keep hoping will pop up and scare me. But it just hasn’t in the last year or so.”
Though he hasn’t won in two years, Nicklaus has the game, says Graham Marsh, last year’s senior Open champion.
“You have to rate Jack’s chances as being extremely high,” says Marsh, after listing Gil Morgan and Hale Irwin as the tournament favorites. “The thing that I guess is important with Jack these days is how well his hip is doing. . . . That, I think, is a critical factor for him right now.”
It is, and it’s why, two weeks ago, he announced he was breaking his streak of major tournaments at 154 by skipping the British Open. The timing wasn’t right, he said, and being competitive in the U.S. Senior Open was more important at this stage of his life than doing a cameo at Royal Birkdale.
“It was an incredible streak,” Palmer said, “but everything has to end.”
“I know I’m never going to play like Jack Nicklaus of 35 anymore,” Nicklaus said. “I’d just like to play as well as I can for Jack Nicklaus of 58.”
It’s why he is shutting down tournament golf after the senior Open, looking for an answer to a hip that requires daily hourlong therapy but still isn’t responding. Four 18-hole rounds of walking are going to tax the hip, and a cart, though allowed on the Senior PGA Tour, isn’t an option for a USGA event.
With Nicklaus, it isn’t an option at all.
“All of a sudden, you get a little bit lazy,” he said of cart golf. “Pretty soon it gets to become a habit.”
Not for him. It was tough enough coming to grips with senior status at 58, eight years after he qualified chronologically.
A duty to the game is a factor, but competition as a senior is the thing that will keep him going, keep the juices flowing once the hip issue is resolved, through replacement or therapy.
Palmer, who feels a responsibility to continue promoting the game, still feeds off it at every level.
“Arnold just loves being out there,” Nicklaus says. “And he loves to play. I mean, he goes home for a week, he plays golf every day. I go home for a week, I do everything else but play golf.
“I love tournament golf, and I love to compete. And I think Arnold loves just to be there and loves being a part of it.”
It’s hard to envision Palmer without golf, even without competition.
“I find it boring without something at stake,” he says. “Even if it’s $1.
“But if I can’t play at all, well, I guess at that time it’ll be when they’re shoveling dirt over the lid. I love the game.”
And he loves the $10 he gets from Nicklaus, even loves it when he has to give his partner/rival $10, almost as much as he could love a trip up the 18th fairway on Sunday with a tap-in for victory.
“I suppose anything short of a win isn’t going to make a hell of a lot of difference in my life,” he says. “Certainly, I would like to play well, let’s say it, first of all. And second, I’d like to win.”
You have to believe the order is just the opposite, and you know it is for Nicklaus, together again with Palmer in a major tournament--albeit a senior major--at Riviera.
Or for $10 anywhere.