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Baby-faced Nicklaus bludgeons way to first Masters

ESPN staff
April 11, 2013
Jack Nicklaus received the fabled green jacket from Arnold Palmer after taking the 1963 Masters title © AP
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ESPN will be providing live commentary during all four days of the Masters from Augusta National - along with all the news, views and opinion when it gets underway on Thursday.


Tiger Woods may win his fifth green jacket this weekend at Augusta National, but that will still leave him one Masters Tournament title behind Jack Nicklaus - the most successful golfer ever.

On the eve of the 77th Masters we look back 50 years to the 27th iteration, when Nicklaus picked up his first win around the idyllic corner of Georgia.

In 1997, when a 21-year-old Tiger Woods tore apart Augusta National - perhaps on more levels than one - to win the tournament in record-breaking fashion, some were aghast at the damage the youngster managed to do to the course.

For the next few years, 'Tiger-proofing' became a part of the golfing lexicon, as Augusta become the most high-profile of many courses to be lengthened and narrowed to counter the American's perceived advantages.

The phenomenon was not a new one, however. Thirty-four years earlier, the same fears were being raised about another first-time Masters champion.

"At its pink-and-white loveliest, [Augusta] seemed a most inappropriate place to use a bludgeon," Alfred Wright wrote for Sports Illustrated that Sunday evening in 1963. "Yet that is what big, smart Jack Nicklaus did as he became, at 23, the youngest golfer ever to win the most cherished tournament of them all."

Unlike Woods, this was not Nicklaus' major breakthrough. He had won the previous year's US Open shortly after turning professional, and was widely expected to become a star of the game. While his Masters win was something of a surprise, he had - just like Woods would many years later - enjoyed a few years of amateur experience to prepare him for the winners' circle.

"At its pink-and-white loveliest, [Augusta] seemed a most inappropriate place to use a bludgeon, yet that is what Jack Nicklaus did as he became the youngest golfer ever to win the most cherished tournament of them all"
- Alfred Wright in Sports Illustrated

"I played pretty well in '60, played well here in '61," Nicklaus reflected this week. "As an amateur did decently in '62. I was very disappointed, and I think I finished 14th.

"So coming back in '63, I was the US Open champion and I felt like I had really prepared and wanted to play in this tournament."

Nicklaus was well prepared, but fate too conspired to gently push him in the direction of victory. A hip injury earlier in 1963 had required plenty of injections in the following months but, while it would have less pleasant ramifications later in his life, the injury actually aided his Masters play. Forced to ease the pressure on one side of his body, Nicklaus found himself gradually hitting a draw, the shot-type most suitable for right-handers at Augusta, where previously his natural shot-type had been a fade.

"It was actually very fortuitous for me here because I was able to learn how to play around my left side and learn how to hook the ball," he noted.

Not that such a playing style helped him initially. Nicklaus opened with a round of 74 to leave himself with some work to do. A deeply impressive second round 66 ("I don't think I ever played a better round of golf in my life," he said at the time) ensured he made the cut, although Saturday would still require a similar performance.

And then the rain came.

In those days, whole rounds of tournaments were often washed out by rain - events were not delayed, merely shortened. Playing in the deluge, Nicklaus was convinced his round would never end up counting against the final total.

This opinion did not change when he, alongside playing partner Mike Souchak, reached the 13th fairway - which was almost completely underwater. Playing through the ridiculous conditions, Nicklaus eventually putted out at the 18th for a second score of 74, one more impressive than the first.

"That's when I looked at the leaderboard, and I'm colour-blind, and I looked at the leaderboard and I saw these several ones on the board," Nicklaus said. "And I looked at my caddie, Willie Peterson, and I said, "Willie, how many of those ones are red?" And he said, "Just you, boss."

"And that's when I found out I was leading the tournament."

Nicklaus was indeed leading, but only by a slender margin from a group of past and future major winners that included Dow Finsterwald, Julius Boros, Gary Player and Tony Lema - although none of them could hit it as far as the youngest of their group.

The key to Nicklaus' win was perhaps not his length, though, but his mental approach. The Ohio native was described as like an "airline hostess" in his genial demeanour off the course, but few failed to observe his particular focus when at the business end of the tournament.

In his US Open breakthrough his concentration had proven impervious to signs, including one reading "Hit it over here, fat boy", a characteristic that would stand him in good stead throughout his career. Going into the final round, a friend asked Nicklaus if he was feeling big and strong heading to the first tee. "Yeah - big and strong and tough and mean," was the reply.

Nicklaus was prepared for a fight, and he got one. For much of the afternoon, it came from the most unlikely of sources - 50-year-old Sam Snead tearing up the course after starting down the field.

In scenes that Nicklaus would emulate in the twilight of his own career 23 years later, Snead briefly took the lead to the rapturous applause of the patrons. But a water-ball at the 16th, and costly follow-up bogey at the 18th, ultimately put paid to his chances.

Prior to those mistakes, however, his form had unsettled Nicklaus - who bogeyed the short 12th and dropped out of the lead.

"Snead had birdied a couple of holes in a row and the crowd was cheering. It probably bothered me," Nicklaus said that evening. "I came off a seven-iron a little and hit it into the trap in front of the green."

At this point Gary Player had also moved ahead of Nicklaus, although bogeys at 17 and 18 would ultimately prove costly for the South African.

With others falling at the final hurdle, Nicklaus came on strong. A birdie at the 13th got him back under-par for the tournament, before another birdie at the 16th restored his lead. Coming to the last with two putts for the win from 25-feet, he somewhat needlessly left himself a three-footer for the title. Fortunately, he slid it home.

Jack Nicklaus, pictured practising with Arnold Palmer and Gary Player on the Wednesday before the 1963 Masters © AP
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Lema, finishing less ineptly than the others, ultimately took second - with Boros and Snead tied for third.

Arnold Palmer had won the tournament 12 months earlier, yet here was golf's most popular player already bemoaning the changing of the guard. Although Arnold would take back the Augusta throne a year hence, perhaps he saw the writing on the wall - in a few years, Nicklaus would have truly usurped 'The King' as golf's premier player.

"It seems everybody is playing better than last year, and I'm not playing as well," Palmer noted afterwards. "I must be getting old. I don't seem to be getting the distance I used to."

As Wright astutely wrote: "Nicklaus apparently has resolved to start a new era before that of Palmer (and to a lesser extent, Player) has even begun to ebb. If you did that in show business, they would murder you for stepping on the other fellow's lines. But Jack may get away with it."

And get away with it he did - although, as the 18-time major champion recalled on Tuesday, it actually took the Golden Bear another 35 years to get a green jacket he could truly call his own.

"Arnold put a green jacket on me, and it was a size 46 long," Nicklaus remembered of his 1963 breakthrough. "I could have used it for an overcoat. I was a 43 regular.

"[So] the next year I came back and they didn't have a coat for me, and they said, here, use this one. It was [former governor of New York] Tom Dewey's coat. Tom Dewey was a 43 regular. The coat fit me perfect, and I wore that for about ten years.

"They kept putting Tom Dewey's coat on me every time I won the Masters."

This state of affairs was only belatedly rectified:

"It got around to 1998 and we were doing the fountain, and I told [then-Augusta chairman] Jack Stephens the story about never been given a green jacket, I've won six times and nobody has ever given me a green jacket. And he said, "What?"

"I said, 'I'm the only guy that's ever won this tournament and never got one.'

"So anyway, I went home that weekend, came back, and there was a note in the locker, you will go to the pro shop and get your green jacket. So now I have a green jacket."

What happened next?

Nicklaus went on to win five more times at Augusta, with his last triumph - in 1986 - perhaps the most famous of all.

With 18 major titles to his name, it is still Nicklaus's record that Tiger Woods and all other golfers aspire to.

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