Editor’s note: In the April issue, in the last story Dan Jenkins did for Golf Digest before his death at 90, he introduced our Greatest of All Time Invitational—The GOAT. The top 32 in the mythical event advanced from stroke-play qualifying at Augusta National to match play at venues around the world. In the May issue and online daily from March 20 through April 3, Senior Writer Guy Yocom is documenting the 30 match-play results leading to the final at Pebble Beach. Who will become the champion? The winner will be revealed online April 4 and in the June issue. Screenwriter Mark Frost, whose books have included The Greatest Game Ever Played and The Match: The Day the Game of Golf Changed Forever, will write two versions of the final with different winners.
Jack Nicklaus vs. Seve Ballesteros
St. Andrews (Old) Scotland
When Jack appeared on the tee wearing a replica of the argyle sweater he wore during his 1978 Open Championship victory at St. Andrews, cheers erupted not only from the gallery, but from the florid-faced denizens inside the R&A clubhouse. Seve, making his plea for special mojo from the golf deities, arrived adorned in the same navy-blue, V-neck sweater he’d worn when he won the Open at the Old Course in 1984. Such a din was unusual at the Home of Golf, and starter Ivor Robson for the first time had to raise his voice so the player introductions could be heard.
Seve had the honor, and when his drive at the first nearly bounded into the Swilcan Burn, Nicklaus judiciously chose a 1-iron. A deft pitch by Seve led to a birdie and 1-up lead, and he increased the advantage to 2 up with a chip-in for birdie at the difficult fourth. Ballesteros sustained the margin through nine holes, his ball-striking far better than many anticipated. “He’s out-Nicklausing Nicklaus!” said TV commentator Henry Longhurst, briefly setting down his martini.
Seve was in full flight, striding imperiously down the fairways, head held high, chin jutted forward. Jack knew there was but one way to break Seve’s momentum—his own incomparable game. At the shortish par-4 10th, he bludgeoned a driver into the heart of the green and made birdie for a win. At the mean, par-3 11th, the wind blowing hard from right to left, he hit a towering cut 6-iron that held its line and stopped four feet from the flag. The birdie that followed squared the match.
There was no blood on the next two holes, but on the par-5 14th, Jack obtained his first lead of the match when Seve found the Hell Bunker—his first serious tactical miscue—and took four to reach the green. That gave Nicklaus a 1-up lead going to the par-4 17th, the famous—and infamous—Road Hole. With Nicklaus on the green, Seve played a low, running hook that drew too much. His ball didn’t merely find the Road Hole Bunker, it nestled close against its sod face. Seve’s most lofted wedge was 56 degrees, and not even his imagination and gifted hands could save him.
When Seve failed to escape on his second try, he emerged from the bunker and offered a congratulatory handshake to Jack. The St. Andrews townsfolk, awed by the drama of the match, hoisted both players on their shoulders, as they had Bobby Jones at the 1927 Open Championship at the Old Course. They carried them all the way to the clubhouse.
Tiger Woods vs. Arnold Palmer
Bay Hill Club & Lodge, Orlando
The fact that Arnold Palmer owned Bay Hill, was royalty there, played hundreds of casual and tournament rounds there and even won there in 1971, was mitigated by one fact: Tiger Woods won eight times at Bay Hill, frequently with outrageous ease, and possessed a game that was perfect for the Dick Wilson-designed layout. Arnold liked Tiger and had worn his hand raw patting him on the back after his many triumphs, but when Arnie’s Army greeted him with a thunderous ovation on the first tee, his competitiveness came out.
“I hope you brought your ‘A’ game today, even if these people are hoping you bring something less,” he said.
“I’m humbled, Arnold,” Tiger said. “Let’s show them what we can do.”
The players each opened with five scratchy pars, the weight of the competition clearly removing them from their comfort zones. At the long par-5 sixth, which was playing downwind, Tiger carried the menacing lake, then hit his approach to five feet. The eagle gave him a 1-up lead, which he held through the 11th hole. At the par-5 12th, Arnold hit a screaming tee shot, then threaded a low 3-wood onto the green, 20 feet from the hole, then rammed the eagle putt home with his rear-shafted blade putter to square the match.
Tiger appeared unfazed. Tugging at the corners of his red shirt—he chose his Sunday outfit just for the occasion—he knifed a wedge to three feet at the par-4 13th. There, a disruption occurred. As Tiger stood over the birdie putt, a fan’s camera clicked audibly. Tiger’s caddie, Steve Williams, who was filling in for an injured Joe LaCava, seized the device and hurled it into the water near the green. Arnold frowned at the act, and so did Tiger. But Woods recovered, made the putt, and was back to 1 up. He went 2 up with another birdie at the par-3 14th, and the only hope for Arnold was to stage one of his charges.
The King had a 10-foot birdie putt for a win at the 15th and then a 20-footer for eagle and a win at the par-5 16th, but neither putt fell. Arnold buckled at the knees in anguish after both misses. When Tiger hit a 4-iron to 25 feet at the 17th and executed a routine two putt for a halve, the deal was sealed. The 2-and-1 victory sent Tiger to The GOAT final.