Saturday, February 27, 2010

As each new year begins, professional golfers fine-tune their considerable skills in preparation for the season's four major tournaments--the Masters in April, U.S. Open in June, British Open in July, and PGA Championship in August.

Savvy fans know that a pro may win a dozen Houston Opens in his career...but without a major victory it is a career without distinction. That's why Tiger Woods' goal since he was knee-high to Mike Douglas has been to shatter Jack Nicklaus' all-time record for most victories in majors: 18.

Yet in nearly 400 majors played since the inaugural British Open in 1860, only two have ever been contested in Florida: the PGA Championships of 1971 and 1987. Both were held at the PGA National East course in Palm Beach Gardens (now Ballen Isles Country Club), and both tournaments made history.

The 1971 event was held February 25-28 in an attempt to escape summer's crushing heat. It was the first and only time the PGA Championship was contested as the season's first--not final--major.

Jack Nicklaus, 33, was America's top golfer and the pre-tournament favorite. Born and raised in Ohio, Nicklaus (above, left) had only recently migrated south, the better to work on his game full time. He built a home for wife Barbara and son Jackie at Lost Tree Village in North Palm Beach, five miles from the East Course.

For Jack, there was additional motivation besides the $40,000 first place check. If Nicklaus could win the tournament, he would become the first golfer ever to win all four majors twice each. (Other than Jack, only Ben Hogan, Gary Player, and Gene Sarazen held career victories in all four majors--a list Tiger joined in 2000).

Sure enough, Nicklaus shot 69-69-70-73 to beat former Masters and U.S. Open champ Billy Casper by two shots. It was Jack's first win in Florida as well. "The gods of golf," he said afterwards, "were smiling on me."

The 1987 PGA Championship, held August 6-9, was historic too. Larry Nelson (right) beat Lanny Wadkins in a playoff on Sunday, but for fervent fans, the real history occurred Thursday, during the tournament's first round.

That's when, for the first time in their respective careers, Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, and Tom Watson played together as a threesome. Tournament organizers had hoped to cash-in on the three's marquee-value, but failed to factor-in Florida`s unforgiving heat: Watson shot 70 and Nicklaus and Palmer each shot 76--poor scores indeed.

"It felt like 140-degrees," Watson told reporters later. "The heat got to me today more than any other round I can remember--I felt rubbery." On the putting greens, Palmer had to time his stroke between beads of perspiration dripping off the bill of his visor. "In my 57 years," he said, "I've never been this wet."

Nicklaus was in no mood to talk. He brushed past reporters without a word and strode to the parking lot, slammed his clubs into the trunk, peeled out of the driveway, and headed back to the cool comfort of Lost Tree Village.

Jack Nicklaus had just discovered a truth Sunshine State duffers have known all along: When it comes to playing golf in mid-summer in Florida, it's not just the's the futility!

--Ken Brooks
Yesterday in Florida magazine, Issue 18