Through a combination of Arnold Palmer’s swashbuckling style of play, the sheer will of Gary Player and the absolute genius of Jack Nicklaus, this triumvirate of golf greats catapulted the game into the modern age. .
While the trio came to redefine the way golf was played between the late 1950s and early 1980s, which was unusual for sporting rivals, they also formed lasting relationships along the way – so much so. that Nicklaus and Palmer’s wives were also best friends.
“We’ve been all over the world, Australia, everywhere together. And we’ve basically lived together, playing a lot of TV games and exhibitions together.”
The player recalls having a confrontation with Palmer on one of his courses, but the “affection” they had for each other made it easier to reconcile.
“We walked in and had lunch together and I remember it very well, we were both crying because I think we had such affection for each other that we didn’t want it to have an effect. about our friendship. as well as crying together. “
“This man is going to be a champion”
Palmer was the first of the trio to achieve golf superstar status. Even the great Nicklaus, the man who won the most majors in a professional golfer career, admitted he was part of “Arnie’s army” during his early years.
Nicklaus remembers organizing a driving clinic in Athens, Ohio at the age of 18 with Palmer and passing his rival by 40 yards.
Nicklaus remembers telling Palmer, “I just hit him 40 yards.” Palmer replied, “Yeah, but I shot 63 and you shot 67.”
The South African player remembers seeing Palmer hitting balls off a practice tee in 1957 and thinking, “Well, this man is going to be a champion.”
The player’s prediction was premonitory. A year later, Palmer won his first major title, winning the famous Green Jacket at age 28. He was to don the green masters jacket three more times, as well as winning the US Open in 1960 and the Open Championship twice.
Assisted by his agent Mark McCormack – who would ultimately represent both Nicklaus and Player – Palmer became a global superstar, traveling the world to show off his skills with his clubs and aided by the charisma he “oozed”, according to the South African golf legend.
His passion for the game was overwhelming, according to Player.
“Even as he got older he really couldn’t get past 90, but he still wanted to go out there and play with the members and with the people,” Player said.
Along with Palmer’s rise to prominence was the advent of widespread television across the United States, allowing people across the country to watch him earn his first license.
“They loved the common man who rose to the top and slain all the dragons,” Nicklaus explained.
But it was Palmer’s style of play on the course that really made him such a likeable player in the eyes of spectators. The 18-time major winner Nicklaus calls him something of a “Robin Hood”.
“He looked like he wanted to hit him in the woods so he could hit a spectacular shot and thrill everyone,” he said. “And he did. He hit him a lot in the woods, and he had these spectacular shots that everyone bonded to.
“And he got everyone turned on. He pulled his pants up and had a cigarette sticking out of his mouth.”
The competitive nature of golf’s self-proclaimed “big three” has pushed them towards bigger and better things.
Nicklaus and Palmer have often fought for tournaments, such was the competitive fire between the two, according to the 18-time major winner.
Nicklaus mostly remembers the 1975 Masters, in which they were both near the top of the standings after two rounds.
“We were playing the third round and I shot 73 and Arnold shot 75. And we shook hands on the last hole and he said, ‘We did it again. Here we are pulling ourselves out of the tournament. ”
“I came back, shot a good last round and ended up winning the tournament. But Arnold did withdraw from the tournament. And that’s not the way to play golf.
“You play golf controlling yourself. And you’re the only person you can control, not the terrain. So you have to take that into account, but we didn’t. We were too stubborn. We were too competitive. “
Counting his 18 majors, Nicklaus has secured 73 PGA Tour victories, the third all-time. Palmer has 62 PGA Tour victories, the fifth ever. The player has 24 victories on the PGA Tour, while racking up 116 remarkable international victories.
The player draws similarities between the passion and dynamism of the trio and the competitive spirit that Tiger Woods – the 15-time major winner and tied for most wins on the PGA Tour – brings to the game.
“We were as fierce as any competition the world has ever seen,” Player explains.
“But the point is, we had great affection for each other. When we were on the golf course and we said very clearly, ‘I want to beat you. And if you beat me, I’ll look at you in eyes and tell you well done. ‘”
Change one’s mind
While the Open Championship is one of the most sought-after accolades in golf in the world, it hasn’t always been so.
The player had won the major tournament in 1959, but before Palmer made his first appearance there a year later, very few American golfers had made the trip to the UK to participate in the tournament.
Arriving as the defending Masters and US Open champion, Palmer brought a certain level of hiding to his compatriots who were watching back home en route to a second place finish, according to Nicklaus.
“The Scots loved him. And playing at St. Andrew’s and Kel Nagle beats him all at once. And all of a sudden every American player wanted to go to the British Open,” said Nicklaus.
Fast forward to the 149th Open at the Royal St. George’s in July and 51 American golfers were among the 156 golfers, including eventual winner Collin Morikawa.
Although Player claims the Open “would be what it is today without” Palmer’s influence, he believes the American’s arrival at the event helped bring additional eyeballs back to the States. -United.
“The Open Championship with Ben Hogan and Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen and Peter Thomson and Roberto De Vicenzo and you can go through the list of the hundreds of guys who have helped make the Open this great championship.
“Did Arnold Palmer improve it when he ran into it? Yes. Here is this charismatic man who played so well in America, he certainly did a lot of good at the Open, but we can never give to one man credit for the biggest championship in the world. “
Since his death in 2016, Palmer has been honored throughout the game of golf and even by the US Postal Service – they issued a commemorative stamp honoring the great golfer in 2020.
“I think most guys realized what Arnold did for the game was more than anyone else,” Nicklaus said, paying tribute to his “hero”.
“His influence in the game, his demeanor, the way he behaved, he had to be majestic when he needed to be majestic, presidential when he needed to be presidential, humble when he needed to be humble. Arnold did a great job of And I think we all owe him a lot, ”adds Nicklaus.
“Not only do the pros owe him a lot, golf owes him a lot. It’s been five years, but I miss my boyfriend.
“I spoke to him about two weeks before he passed away. And he was typical himself. I said, ‘How are you, AP?’ He said: “I think I’m getting ready to go out and hit some balls. I feel really good. As good as I’ve felt in a long time, I can’t wait to get out. ”
“He wasn’t any closer to getting ready to hit golf balls than a man on the moon, but he didn’t want me to know anything different. So I gave him credit for that, and for that, I love him. We will miss him forever. “
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