Recalling the 1971 PGA, The Year It Was Glory's First Shot
As historical milestones go, the 25th anniversary of Jack Nicklaus' rousing 1986 Masters victory will get most of the attention in golf this year. But another Nicklaus anniversary also occurs in 2011: Forty years ago the Golden Bear won the PGA Championship, becoming the first to complete a career Grand Slam "double" -- at least two victories in each of the four professional major championships, a feat subsequently matched by only Tiger Woods.
However gaudy the achievement, it's not just what Nicklaus did in 1971 that is significant but when he did it. The PGA almost always had been played in the dog days of summer (the Nov. 17-22, 1936 slot at Pinehurst, N.C., being a notable exception), but in 1971 it was contested Feb. 25-28 at PGA National GC in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla.
The winter scheduling quirk that put the PGA ahead of the Masters on the major calendar for the first and only time ("glory's first shot?") resulted from a contractual obligation with the course owner and a desire for the PGA of America's flagship event to obtain a more visible profile. "It's simply that the tourists whom we expect will form the bulk of the spectator gallery are there in February and not in August," Robert Creasey, the PGA's executive director, explained to The New York Times in 1970 when announcing the new venue and novel dates.
"Frankly, I think you could make a case for why it should be played at that time of the year," Nicklaus says today. "In 1971 I thought it was the best time and the best thing for the PGA because it gave them the opportunity to start the year off in the majors."
It turned into a memorable week for Nicklaus after he got a suggestion from old friend Deane Beman that perked up his putting. "The tip was to make sure I completed my backswing," Nicklaus recalls, "basically that I shouldn't start my downswing before finishing my backswing. I putted very well that week because of that lesson."
Nicklaus, after shooting seven-under 281 to beat Billy Casper by two, 54-year-old Tommy Bolt by three and Miller Barber and Gary Player by four, called it "the best putting in a tournament in my life." With 29 one-putt greens, it wasn't difficult to figure out why. The first two rounds he was paired with 68-year-old Gene Sarazen, playing in his 50th PGA. The Squire was awed by Nicklaus' power but perplexed by his putting method. "I've never seen a man stand over a putt so long and putt as well," Sarazen said. "People who do this generally finally come apart."
Player stayed at Nicklaus' home in North Palm Beach for the week. The lodging arrangement meant plenty of banter by the pair to the press, Player joking that he would swap plates with Jack when Barbara served dinner. "It was fun stuff," Nicklaus says. "He joked about Barbara putting something in his food. He was convinced Barbara's prune cake eventually got him at the end of that week." Through 54 holes Player trailed by four shots and was Nicklaus' closest pursuer, but a lousy carom on the back nine ended his hopes. "I think I was one behind or tied playing the 15th hole," Player says. "I hit my drive to the right, only about four yards off the fairway. But the ball hit on the cart path and bounced way out-of-bounds."
It would take 17 months, but Player earned some revenge when he captured the 1972 PGA at Oakland Hills. The PGA Championship didn't return to Palm Beach Gardens for 16 years. The 1987 PGA was held in the miserably sticky heat of August in South Florida. "Hotter than Vietnam," was the appraisal of winner Larry Nelson, who had experienced the swelter of southeast Asia.
Hotter than February, for sure.