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Surprisingly, one of sport’s most contentious, complex, and defining clashes played out not in the boxing ring or at the line of scrimmage but on the genteel green fairways of the world’s finest golf courses. Arnie and Jack. Palmer and Nicklaus. Their fifty-year duel, in both the clubhouse and the boardroom, propelled each to the status of American icon and pushed modern golf to the heights and popularity it enjoys today.
Yet for all the ink that has been spilled on these two essential golf figures individually, no one has ever examined their relationship in this way. Arnie was the cowboy, with rugged good looks, Popeye-like forearms, a flailing swing, and charm enough to win fans worldwide. Jack was scientific, precise, conservative, aloof, even fat and awkward. Ultimately, Nicklaus got the better of Palmer on the course, beating him in major victories, 18-7. But Palmer bested Nicklaus almost everywhere else, especially in the hearts of the public and in endorsement dollars -- Palmer was the top-grossing athlete for thirty years, until Michael Jordan surpassed him.
With dogged reporting and crisp, colorful storytelling, the award-winning sports columnist Ian O’Connor explores this heated professional and personal battle in fascinating, intimate, and revelatory detail. Drawing on unique and exclusive access to Palmer and Nicklaus, and informed by some two hundred new interviews, O’Connor illuminates the two men’s extreme differences and sprawling influence through mini-dramas, such as their little-known first meeting on the course at the topsy-turvy U.S. Open in 1962, their early involvement with marketing and a small agency called IMG, and their intense competition for golf-course designs in their later years.
By the end of this page-turning narrative, which spans five remarkable decades, we see that each man wanted what the other had: Arnold had the adoring fans but wanted the trophies. Jack had the trophies but wanted the love.
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Ian O'Connor is a nationally recognized sports columnist who has twice been named the number-one sports columnist in America in his circulation category by the Associated Press sports editors. He currently writes columns for the Record of New Jersey and FoxSports.com. Previously he penned columns for USA Today and the New York Daily News. He is the author of The Jump: Sebastian Telfair and the High Stakes Business of High School Ball.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
Athens THE ELDERS AT the Athens Country Club had cobbled together a big day to honor one of their own, Dow Finsterwald, and needed to fill the last slot on their VIP list. They wanted a man and settled for a boy instead.
Fred Swearingen, club president, had been struck by a sudden thought. He would call up this hot-shot kid in Columbus and ask him if he would care to play eighteen holes of golf with Finsterwald, the brand-new winner of the PGA Championship, and Dow’s good friend Arnold Palmer, brand-new winner of the Masters.
Swearingen found a listing for Charlie Nicklaus’s drugstore. Charlie answered the phone.
Is your boy interested in playing with the PGA champ and the Masters champ?” Swearingen asked.
I’m sure he is,” Charlie said. He’s right here. I’ll put him on.” Without blinking, Jack Nicklaus told Swearingen he’d be happy to bring his game to the southeast corner of the state. I’ll get my dad to take me,” Jack said.
He was eighteen years old in September of 1958, and his father would drive him to his first face-to-face encounter with Palmer, who was just days removed from his twenty-ninth birthday and just months removed from his first victory at Augusta National, the one that hinted at the dawn of a new era in professional golf.
This wouldn’t be the first time young Nicklaus had seen Palmer in the flesh. At the 1954 Ohio amateur championship outside Toledo, Jackie was a fourteen-year-old qualifier who stumbled upon a dark, solitary figure on the Sylvania Country Club driving range, raging at ball after ball in a biblical rain.
Nicklaus didn’t know the man’s identity; he was mesmerized all the same. Under cover, from about forty yards away, Nicklaus stared at the stranger in the rain suit for forty-five minutes.
Palmer was western Pennsylvania born and bred, made eligible for the Ohio event by his time in Cleveland as a member of the coast guard and, of all things, the fraternity of frustrated paint salesmen. He was pounding his nine-irons, making them turn right to left, commanding them with a musculature that belonged to a middleweight fighter. In his mind’s eye Nicklaus saw a relentless series of angry line drives that never rose more than six feet off the ground.
This was two days before the start of the state championship, and Nicklaus was the only other competitor on the course. The storms hadn’t let up. Jackie was soaked, but he couldn’t tear himself away from a scene that could’ve been cut right out of a Tiger Woods credit-card ad nearly half a century later.
There are no rainy days.
Palmer didn’t even know young Nicklaus was there. Arnold was unwittingly giving the heir to his future throne a lesson in hard-earned royalty. Nicklaus loved the raw commitment, the brute strength. He had never seen anyone attack a golf ball quite like this.
Finally, Jackie stepped inside the clubhouse. Who is that guy out on the driving range?” he asked. Man, is he strong.” A voice identified Palmer as the defending state champ.
Palmer would make it two in a row long after Nicklaus lost to someone named Dale Bittner on the nineteenth hole. Bittner was a fleeting thought, gone just like that. Nicklaus went home to tell friends and neighbors all about the golfer swinging in the rain, the carnival strongman who crushed opponents with his frighteningly large hands.
Four years later, when Charlie Nicklaus made the seventy-five- mile drive with his growing boy for the date with Palmer, Jack had left his awe back at home, left it there in a closet cluttered with everything else he’d outgrown.
The guy had basically just started winning majors,” Nicklaus said. Did I know Arnold Palmer was a good player? You’re darn right. But was I ever in awe of what he did? Probably not.” No, the teenage Nicklaus wasn’t short on confidence. He had built himself a remarkable youth record.
He’d won the Ohio State Open as a sixteen-year-old competing against pros. He’d already played in two U.S. Opens, making the cut at Southern Hills in Tulsa. He’d won a national Jaycees championship, and he’d contended in his first pro tour event, standing one shot off the lead after two rounds of the 1958 Rubber City Open before placing twelfth.
Jack wasn’t about to make any fuss over Palmer, who had only” one major professional championship to his name to go with the one U.S. Amateur title he captured in 1954. Nicklaus would let the people of Athens do the fussin’ for him.
Palmer was quite a catch for a community in the Appalachian foothills, a college town of fifteen thousand residents, about half of them students at Ohio University. To the coal miners and farmers of the depressed pockets surrounding the sanctuary of higher edducation, Palmer’s arrival, according to George Strode, sports editor of the Athens Messenger, was like the second coming of Christ.” The son of an Attttthens attorney, Finsterwald was the one who booked the main attraction. His friendship with Palmer was born of the matches they played as college rivals, Dow a star at Ohio U., Arnold a star at Wake Forest.
Palmer shot 29 across the first nine holes they shared. In one Ohio-Wake match, with Arnold and Dow tied at the turn, Palmer declared, I’ll bet you a tub of beer I shoot 32 or better on the back side.” Palmer shot 31. The pecking order in their relationship established forevermore, Palmer and Finsterwald became what one pro described as asshole buddies.” Dow told everyone to count Arnold in. Give him a call,” Swearingen said.
Hell, give him a call yourself,” Finsterwald responded. Here’s his number. He’s there right now.” Sure enough, Arnold was home in Latrobe, Pennsylvania, and eager to participate in a day to honor Athens’s favorite son. Swearingen told Palmer he’d send him a plane ticket, fly him into Columbus, and pick him up at the airport for the drive into town.
You’ve got an airport in Athens, don’t you?” Palmer asked.
Well, we’ve got a landing strip at the university,” Swearingen answered.
I don’t need a ticket then. I’ll fly right in.” If Palmer hadn’t chosen golf as his vocation, he likely would’ve become a commercial pilot. At first he was scared to death to fly. He was an amateur golfer en route to Chattanooga on a DC-3 once when he was startled by a ball of fire rolling up and down the aisle. I immediately found out it was static electricity,” Palmer said, and that’s when I decided I would learn to fly and learn to understand what was happening.” He overcame his fear of flying out of necessity he wanted to spend as much time at home with his family as he could, and driving from tour stop to tour stop was no way to accomplish that.
So he earned his pilot’s license. Over time the only thing Palmer loved as much as the sight of his ball soaring toward the green was the sight of a plane streaking through the sky.
He flew into Athens with his wife, Winnie, and Swearingen picked them up in his station wagon and tossed Palmer’s Wilson bag into the back of the car. He drove Arnold and Winnie to the home of Jean Sprague, Finsterwald’s cousin, where they would spend the night and then rise early on the morning of September 25, 1958, so Arnold could pay tribute to his best friend and play golf with Jack Nicklaus for the very first time.
Swearingen would plan the day around a parade and a match involving two-man teams. The fourth competitor was a local amateur, Howard Baker Saunders, a six-time Southeastern Ohio Golfing Association champ out of Gallipolis and a lead player on the Ohio State team fifteen years before Nicklaus filled the same role. Saunders would’ve turned pro if he hadn’t suffered from osteomyelitis, an infection of the bone that left him with a bad limp. With one leg shorter than the other, Saunders wore one shoe with a five- inch heel to level his playing field.
He would ride along in the Finsterwald parade. Court Street was packed for the morning festivities, as Swearingen celebrated his own birthday with a gift to Dow: a July Fourth supply of marching bands. The route was less than a mile long and yet stamped by so many monuments to Americana a family department store, a courthouse, an armory, a car dealership, a bookstore, Swearingen’s sporting goods store, and the bars forever kept busy by hard-partying Ohio U. boys and girls.
This could’ve been a homecoming football parade. Finsterwald, Palmer, Nicklaus, and Saunders rode in their own convertibles, tops down, waving like returning war heroes at a delirious crowd of twelve hundred. The mayor presented Finsterwald with a key to the city. Speeches were given, autographs were signed, pictures were taken. Michael DiSalle, busy running a successful campaign for the governorship of Ohio, joked that he had picked the wrong day to be in Athens.
No politician could match the golfers’ star power. And nobody cared that more people had come to see Arnold than to see Dow.
When the hourlong ceremony was complete, Swearingen had the golfers go fishing before it was time to head to the club. He grabbed some rods out of his store; gave them to Finsterwald, Palmer, and Nicklaus; and steered them to a pond full of catfish.
Finsterwald and Palmer knew their way around the hills and streams of Appalachia, but Jack was a city boy,” Swearingen said.
Jack cast his line over the hillside and got it caught in some rocks. He refused to go down and loosen it: he was afraid a snake or two might be waiting for him.
No, Jack wasn’t roaming any hills in Columbus,” Swearingen said. The only hills he ever roamed were at Scioto Country Club in that real nice suburb of his, Upper Arlington.” Over time Nicklaus would grow sensitive to any talk that he was a rich little daddy’s boy, especially when the talk was inspired by Palmer’s past. Arnold was the son of a greenskeeper, the sod-stained child on the other side of the country club glass. People adored his Horatio Alger tale and assumed Nicklaus never spent a day of his youth with any tool in his hands that didn’t come out of a shiny new golf bag.
But as an eighteen-year-old prodigy driven by blind ambition, Nicklaus carried something of a pauper’s chip on his shoulder. Remarkably enough, the kid refused to treat his first meeting with Palmer as a brush with uncommon skill and fame. He merely saw the reigning king of Augusta National as just another hurdle to clear, just another guy to beat.
I don’t think he was so excited to play [Palmer],” Swearingen said.
Nestled atop a sun-splashed hill, five miles from the parade route, Athens Country Club was a playground for the university professors and administrators, and for the doctors, dentists, and businessmen who had them as patients and clients. Theirs was a simple nine-hole Donald Ross course, with alternate tees used for scoring on the second nine. When the layout was doubled up, the test measured 6,382 yards and a par of 72.
The course was lined with pine trees and graced by the acoustic charm of chirping birds. With a single dirt road running into the club, barely wide enough for two cars passing in opposite directions, Athens hardly looked like the center of the golf universe.
But with the heart of the tour season already accounted for, this was the biggest game on the schedule. The skies were benign and the temperatures were in the upper sixties. Somehow, some way, a gallery of about fifteen hundred fans poured onto the scene. Fans parked along the seventh fairway. In fact, they parked in the yards of everyone who lived just off the golf course.
The sides were picked, and Palmer considered the strongest player was paired with Nicklaus considered the weakest, if only because of his age. The four participants were warming up when the mischievous forces of fate intervened.
Nicklaus and Palmer would go head-to-head after all.
As Palmer and Finsterwald were swatting practice drives from the elevated tee on the 321-yard first hole, Nicklaus and Saunders were sent to the nearby ninth green to hit balls toward the ninth tee. Jack swung away with all his teenage might and immediately caused a stir.
A witness approached Kermit Blosser, the Ohio U. golf coach and de facto master of ceremonies. Hey,” the man told Blosser, you ought to get that Nicklaus kid to hit against Arnold on number one. He’s really moving it down there.” Blosser knew all about Jack; he’d tried and failed to sign him to play for Ohio U. Charlie Nicklaus had already locked in on a vision for his son’s future. Jack was attending Ohio State, Charlie told Blosser, because he wanted his boy in OSU’s pharmacology program.
Blosser figured he’d send Jack to the school of hard knocks instead. He summoned Nicklaus to the first tee, where Palmer was flexing his comic book arms. The golf coach had a microphone, and he was about to become a play-by-play man. A short, precise driver known for his cautious, anti-Arnold game, Finsterwald stepped to the side as Palmer accepted the good-natured challenge. This was a heavyweights-only fight, and Finsterwald didn’t make the cut.
The fairways were dry and running hard, allowing the mad bombers to add an extra fifteen or twenty yards to their prodigious drives. Palmer and Nicklaus took a few warm-up swings. Jack’s technically sound form appeared torn from the pages of a manual, with one exception: his right elbow flew away from his side, like that of a free-throw shooter gone awry, and Palmer couldn’t help but notice the flaw.
Arnold wasn’t in any position to mock another player’s mechanics. His swing was punctuated by the least aesthetically pleasing follow-through in golf. In the immediate wake of impact, Palmer abruptly jerked his club above his head and appeared to begin wrestling with a rattlesnake, a gushing water hose, or both.
Nicklaus, meanwhile, enjoyed a full follow-through that featured none of Palmer’s gyrations. Their games were as different as their backgrounds and body types. Nicklaus came from German stock, Palmer from Scotch, Irish, and English. Nicklaus had thighs that looked like redwood trunks; Palmer had hands that could crush a watermelon.
On this day in Athens, Palmer showed up tan and fit. As always, he was distracting the ladies with his rugged, man-of-the-earth looks.
Palmer carried himself with a John Wayne swagger and an Errol Flynn flair. He didn’t walk to his tee shots; he marched. After surveying his target and flicking his cigarette to the grass, Palmer approached his ball as if he were a cowboy loading up at the O.K. Corral.
He’d hitch up his pants, puff out his chest, and defy the smooth and effortless strokes of the greats before him. Palmer wasn’t interested in the sweet science of Sam Snead’s swing, nor was he hoping to match Ben Hogan’s relentless quest for technical perfection.
He was just trying to land his ball on the moon.
Nicklaus? He looked like an extra on Palmer’s movie set. A little plump kid with real short hair,” Swearingen said. The blond Nicklaus walked around with a God-awful buzz cut, and his pale skin could blotch up in the summertime; it would never accommodate Palmer’s even tan.
Arnold and Jack both stood about five feet ten, so they looked each other squarely in the eye when they shook hands on a tee box for the first time. For all of Palmer’s smoky, leading-man looks, Nicklaus might’ve had an advantage here: even as a kid his piercing blue eyes had already cut through many a foe on the first tee.
Blosser had arranged for four of his Ohio U. players to serve as caddies, and he had Dow Reichley, Bill Santor, Larry Snyder, and Charlie Vandlik make their way down to the first green to shag the driving-contest balls. I know they had a bet,” Reichley said of Palmer and Nicklaus. I don’t know how much it was for.” Something more important than a few bucks was on the line here. Palmer was a pro, Nicklaus an amateur....
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