As a modern-day Big Three is being ballyhooed and pundits ponder it should actually be a foursome—Rickie Fowler rightfully says he needs to win a major first to legitimately join Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day—it’s always a fun exercise to look back at special moments from the last and longest lasting Big Three of Arnold Palmer, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus.
This week in particular is a notable one in Big Three history. On Feb. 12, 1963, the threesome finished 1-2-3 for the first time in a PGA Tour event. (By my count it was, symbiotically, the first of three times they had a 1-2-3 finish.) The first was at the Phoenix Open played at Arizona Country Club, where the finish was twice delayed by near hurricane-force winds and rain. Palmer won the event with a 15-under 273 total. It was his third-straight Phoenix victory and second at Arizona C.C. Player finished one stroke back, and Nicklaus was third at 275.
Palmer eagled the par-5 18th to enter the final round one stroke up on his two rivals, but none of the three broke 70 in the last round. That’s what Palmer and Player shot, with Arnold two-putting for par on the 18th and Gary missing a four-foot birdie putt that would have forced a playoff. Nicklaus closed with 71, rallying from a front-nine 38.
The “role” of another golfer, Don January, in Player’s final-hole birdie effort was also notable. Player was grouped with January and Johnny Pott the final round. The latter two were several strokes back as they played 18. With Player waiting to attempt his short putt, January putted and his ball went up to the edge of the cup. Standing next to the hole, January refused to tap in because he thought the ball was moving from the winds and didn’t want to be penalized for hitting a moving ball. January asked Player and Pott if they thought the ball was moving, and both said yes. The three then stood watch over the ball, but when the wait got to seven minutes, January had to finally concede the ball wasn’t moving and tapped in. (The incident helped change the rule wording from waiting momentarily for the ball to drop to today’s 10-second time limit after the golfer has reached the hole.)
Whether the long delay affected Player’s miss is debatable, but the South African said, “January didn’t have a right to wait seven minutes for that putt to drop. It wasn’t going to drop ever, not without hitting it. It was very nerve-racking, especially since I needed a bird to tie Arnold. Imagine a four-footer, and I missed it.”
It’s notable the Big Three finished from oldest to youngest player. (The other 1-2-3 results in tour events came at the 1964 Whitemarsh Invitational with a Nicklaus/Palmer/Player order, and the 1965 Masters with Nicklaus first and Palmer and Player T-2.) The golfers had already established themselves as the elite players in the world, but a down-the-stretch battle at Phoenix in 1963 was the on-course clash that promised future intrigue and excitement for the game.