BENTON HARBOR, Mich. – Days before another major champion is crowned, four players who have won their fair share of big golf tournaments played 18 holes together.
This was no ordinary round, however, for Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tom Watson and Johnny Miller, who teed it up Tuesday along Lake Michigan in Benton Harbor.
As far as they were concerned, the stakes were pretty high.
The event was designed to commemorate the opening of a new course – the Nicklaus-designed Golf Club at Harbor Shores, which has the stated goal of serving as an economic driver for one of Michigan’s most impoverished cities.
Around one-fifth of the residents of Benton Harbor are without a job, and crime is an ongoing concern.
The course sits around a mile from the city’s struggling downtown district and when all is said and done is expected to be the centerpiece of a larger project that is to include hundreds of homes, a marina and shops and restaurants.
The idea is to “change the community through the game of golf,” Nicklaus said.
If all goes according to plan, he said, the Harbor Shores development project will create jobs and housing, increase the tax base and lure tourists to Benton Harbor, which sits around 100 miles from Chicago in the state’s far southwestern corner.
The four champions played in rotating two-man teams in a skins scramble format and were competing for a $1 million purse.
Watson won the most cash, but the entire million is going to the Boys & Girls Club and The First Tee of Benton Harbor.
“It never ceases to amaze me what this game has done for people,” Watson said.
The day wasn’t all about charity and economic development, though.
There was fun to be had, too, and some golf to be played on the 6,861-yard, par-71 course that once was home to a toxic waste dump and factory space.
Now, lush green fairways wind through wetlands, along the Paw Paw River and within shouting distance of Lake Michigan.
The quartet made 15 birdies, and the Watson/Palmer team posted an eagle on the par-5 15th hole, but the best shot didn’t even count.
Nicklaus, just messing around on the 10th hole, dropped a ball down and nailed a 100-footer – uphill no less.
The players interacted often with the crowd of 3,000-plus and even held a golf clinic ahead of time.
The atmosphere was in sharp contrast to another golf event being held this week in the upper Midwest – the PGA Championship at Whistling Straits in Wisconsin.
A lot of attention will be paid there to the slumping Tiger Woods, but he wasn’t forgotten on Tuesday in Michigan. During the pre-round clinic, Miller took a shot at Woods.
“Jack, I don’t think Tiger’s going to get your record, by the way,” he said, referring to Woods’ pursuit of Nicklaus’ 18 major championships.
The crowd erupted into applause, and Nicklaus – in the middle of a practice shot – joked that he “hit 10 yards farther when you said that.”
Nicklaus then turned to the fans and said that “nobody ever wants their records to be broken,” but that “if somebody comes along and plays better and breaks your record, ‘Congratulations and well done.’
“That’s the way it should be,” he said.