Revisiting Jack's win at the 1963 PGA Championship

By Jason SobelAugust 5, 2013, 5:11 pm

Fifty years ago this summer, Jack Nicklaus almost didn't win 18 majors.

That magic number, the historically significant one which also reeks of irony and coincidence and a pinch of perfection considering its relevance in the game, wouldn’t have happened if on 18 separate occasions a few bounces didn’t go his way or a few putts hadn’t precipitously dropped into a few side pockets. Record books would have been irrevocably altered had he failed to win just one of these, and that includes the one that took place a half-century ago. Seventeen would just sound … unfinished.

Never mind that he was only 23 at the time. Never mind that he was nearly a quarter-century from winning the last of those titles. Never mind that his career was filled with close calls on each side of the ledger, his runner-up results even exceeding his victory total.

Never mind that he barely even realized his 1963 PGA Championship win gave him a major at each of the three U.S. venues, joining an elite club which had previously only consisted of Ben Hogan, Gene Sarazen and Byron Nelson.

“I was too stupid to think about that at the time,” Nicklaus says now, thinking back to that tournament. “[I] was just trying to win the golf tournament.”

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The chubby, cherubic Ohio boy wasn’t chasing history that week at Dallas Athletic Club. If anything, he was running from it. One week earlier, Nicklaus bogeyed the final two holes to finish in third place at the Open Championship, one stroke out of a playoff between Bob Charles and Phil Rodgers.

Still feeling the sting, he traveled stateside to find July temperatures in Texas staggeringly different than those at Royal Lytham & St. Annes.

“Going from a 50-degree championship or a 55-degree championship to a 100- or 110-degree temperature, it was a big change,” he recalls. “I think a lot of the guys … the weather just absolutely beat them down.”

How hot was it? An account of the event from Sports Illustrated titled, “Hottest Man in a Furnace,” posed a litany of ways. Three players withdrew simply because they couldn’t stand the heat. Gary Player, forever outfitted in his ubiquitous black, instead wore white. Dow Finsterwald offered up a dramatic mental image: “There have been lots of times when my shirt was soaked through, but today I sweated my pants through. I can’t remember ever doing that before.”

Nicklaus remembers the week for another reason, too. Prior to the opening round, the tournament held a long-drive contest for the competitors. (One can only imagine this was canceled in subsequent years due to too much frivolity for the players and overexcitement for the fans.) He won with a mammoth drive of 341 yards and received a money clip that was engraved, “DRIVING DISTANCE WINNER.”

He remembers this because the money clip has stayed in his pocket every day for the past 50 years.

Think about that for a minute: For all of the accolades and treasures heaped upon Nicklaus during his career, the one which has remained closest to him, joining him on journeys around the world, along for the ride on experiences fit for a king, is a money clip for winning a long-drive contest.

“That drive was 341 yards, 17 inches. I do remember that, too,” he says proudly. “That was an 11-degree wood driver, 32 ¾-inch Dynamic Edge shaft. Everybody used the same golf ball, so nobody had a preference on what golf ball was hit.”

Blame the humidity, a collective Open Championship hangover or simply the vagaries of the game, but once the tournament started, its leaderboard featured an eclectic amalgam of performers ranging from superstars (Nicklaus) to near-superstars (Finsterwald) to international stalwarts (Bruce Crampton) to long-forgotten up-and-comers (Dave Ragan).

On the first day, Nicklaus’ round of 69 was good enough to best any of his touring pro buddies, but left him three strokes behind Dick Hart, a little-known assistant pro from Hinsdale, Ill. In Round 2, Nicklaus struggled to a sun-soaked 73, calling it “the worst scoring in the history of golf.” He remained three strokes behind Crampton after the third round, his prodigious length off the tee recalling long-bombing pros of the modern era.

“Jack was getting tremendous distance,” the Sports Illustrated story stated. “He rarely had to take anything out of his golf bag but his driver, wedge, putter and towel.”

That was hardly the sole account from a half-century ago that sounds significantly similar to current events. At one point during the week, Nicklaus was asked about pace of play and produced an answer that would be talk show fodder for weeks in today’s world.

“I’ve never learned to get comfortable over a putt,” he admitted. “I stand there and stand there and never feel quite right. I can hear somebody in the crowd saying, ‘Why doesn’t he go ahead and hit it?’ I know I’m taking a long time, but I just can’t bring myself to putt fast. I won’t hit a ball until I’m ready.”

Nicklaus blamed his tardiness on the greens – astonishingly enough – to a lack of confidence, even going so far as to suggest an inferiority complex compared with the short games of his stiffest competition.

“They may tell you I am, but I don’t think I’m as good a putter as Arnold [Palmer] or Gary [Player],” Nicklaus said at the time. “They’re fantastic. I’m not all that bad, but I could be a lot better.”

On Sunday, he was. Nicklaus eagled the par-5 opening hole and by the time Sunday’s back nine was in full swing, the tournament had become a three-man race. Crampton lost his lead on the 12th hole, then made a mess of things on 14, essentially eliminating himself from contention.

That left Nicklaus and Ragan. Tied late in the contest, Nicklaus drilled a 30-foot birdie putt on 15 followed minutes later by a fluffed chip and two-putt bogey by Ragan on 17. Those nearly concurrent events led to a two-stroke triumph for Jack.

Ragan won three PGA Tour titles and was a member of that year’s Ryder Cup team, but never did claim a major. If he’s spent the past 50 years enduring fitful nights of sleep while wondering what might have been, though, he doesn’t let on.

Reached at Inverness Country Club in Birmingham, Ala., where he still gives lessons, the 77-year-old is asked about lingering memories from the 1963 PGA Championship.

“Where did we play that one?” he asks, exhuming the notion that such a narrow defeat may have been festering in the inner compartments of his mind for all this time.

When reminded, Ragan recalls with impressive clarity the events which transpired down the stretch.

“I enjoyed every minute of it,” he says. “I really thought I was going to win. On the last hole, I missed a short birdie putt. A few minutes later, [Nicklaus] hooked it into the rough on 18. He decided to lay up, pitched out and then knocked it on the back of the green. It hit and spun immediately back to about 10 feet above the hole.

“I thought, ‘Maybe he’ll be nervous and knock it by and miss the next one.’ Ah, shoot. He drilled that baby right in the heart.”

Even so, Ragan holds no ill will toward the man who prevented him from major championship glory, a man he still refers to as “a good friend.”

“One day I was talking to him,” Ragan recalls. “He says, ‘Hey you remember Dallas? The tournament there?’ And I just said, ‘Oh, vaguely…’”

As for Nicklaus, it may have just been one of 18 – not as important as the first one; not as significant as the last one – but his set would forever feel incomplete without a trophy from that year’s tournament.

“The golf course may suit a lot of guys' games, but that's not what the game is,” he says now in reference to that week. “The game is to change yourself to fit the golf course and that's why you play different courses every week. Obviously I was able to do that that week, as were several other guys that were close.

“I guess I was lucky and prevailed.”

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Stock Watch: Spieth searching for putting form

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:50 pm

Each week on, we’ll examine which players’ stocks and trends are rising and falling in the world of golf.


Patton Kizzire (+8%): By today’s accelerated standards, he’s a late bloomer, having reached the Tour at age 29. Well, he seems right at home now, with two wins in his last four starts.

Rory (+7%): Coming off the longest break of his career, McIlroy should have no excuses this year. He’s healthy. Focused. Motivated. It’s go time.

Chris Paisley (+5%): The best part about his breakthrough European Tour title that netted him $192,000? With his wife, Keri, on the bag, he doesn’t have to cut 10 percent to his caddie – she gets the whole thing.

Brooke Henderson (+3%): A seventh-place finish at the Diamond Resorts Invitational doesn’t sound like much for a five-time winner, but this came against the men – on a cold, wet, windy, 6,700-yard track. She might be the most fun player to watch on the LPGA. 

New European Ryder Cuppers (+2%): In something of a Ryder Cup dress rehearsal, newcomers Tommy Fleetwood and Tyrrell Hatton each went undefeated in leading Europe to a come-from-behind victory at the EurAsia Cup. The competition come September will be, um, a bit stiffer.


Jordan’s putting (-1%): You can sense his frustration in interviews, and why not? In two starts he leads the Tour in greens in regulation … and ranks 201st (!) in putting. Here’s guessing he doesn’t finish the year there.

Brian Harman’s 2018 Sundays (-2%): The diminutive left-hander now has five consecutive top-10s, and he’s rocketing up the Ryder Cup standings, but you can’t help but wonder how much better the start to his year might have been. In the final pairing each of the past two weeks, he’s a combined 1 under in those rounds and wasn’t much of a factor.

Tom Hoge (-3%): Leading by one and on the brink of a life-changing victory – he hadn’t been able to keep his card each of the past three years – Hoge made an absolute mess of the 16th, taking double bogey despite having just 156 yards for his approach. At least now he’s on track to make the playoffs for the first time.

Predicting James Hahn’s form (-4%): OK, we give up: He’d gone 17 events without a top-15 before his win at Riviera; 12 before his win at Quail Hollow; and seven before he lost on the sixth playoff hole at Waialae. The margins between mediocre play and winning apparently are THAT small.

Barnrat (-5%): Coming in hot with four consecutive top-10s, and one of only two team members ranked inside the top 50 in the world, Kiradech Aphibarnrat didn’t show up at the EurAsia Cup, going 0-3 for the week. In hindsight, the Asian team had no chance without his contributions. 

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Langer not playing to pass Irwin, but he just might

By Tim RosaforteJanuary 16, 2018, 1:40 pm

Bernhard Langer goes back out on tour this week to chase down more than Hale Irwin’s PGA Tour Champions record of 45 career victories. His chase is against himself.

“I’m not playing to beat Hale Irwin’s record,” Langer told me before heading to Hawaii to defend his title at the Mitsubishi Electric Championship at Hualalai. “I play golf to play the best I can, to be a good role model, and to enjoy a few more years that are left.”

Langer turned 60 on Aug. 27 and was presented a massage chair by his family as a birthday gift. Instead of reclining (which he does to watch golf and football), he won three more times to close out a seven-win campaign that included three major championships. A year prior, coming off a four-victory season, Langer told me after winning his fourth Charles Schwab Cup that surpassing Irwin’s record was possible but not probable. With 36 career victories and 11 in his last two years, he has changed his tone to making up the nine-tournament difference as “probable.”

“If I could continue a few more years on that ratio, I could get close or pass him,” Langer told me from his home in Boca Raton, Fla. “It will get harder. I’m 60 now. It’s a big challenge but I don’t shy away from challenges.”

Bernhard Langer, Hale Irwin at the 1991 Ryder Cup (Getty Images)

Langer spent his off-season playing the PNC Father/Son, taking his family on a ski vacation at Big Sky in Yellowstone, Montana, and to New York for New Year’s. He ranks himself as a scratch skier, having skied since he was four years old in Germany. The risk of injury is worth it, considering how much he loves “the scenery, the gravity and the speed.”

Since returning from New York, Langer has immersed himself into preparing for the 2018 season. Swing coach Willy Hoffman, who he has worked with since his boyhood days as an as assistant pro in Germany, flew to Florida for their 43rd year of training.

“He’s a straight shooter,” Hoffman told me. “He says, 'Willy, every hour is an hour off my life and we have 24 hours every day.'"

As for Irwin, they have maintained a respectful relationship that goes back to their deciding singles match in the 1991 Ryder Cup. Last year they were brought back to Kiawah Island for a corporate appearance where they reminisced and shared the thought that nobody should ever have to bear what Langer went through, missing a 6-footer on the 18th green. That was 27 years ago. Both are in the Hall of Fame.

"I enjoy hanging out with Hale," Langer says.

Langer’s chase of Irwin’s record is not going to change their legacies. As Hoffman pointed out, “Yes, (Bernhard) is a rich man compared to his younger days. He had no money, no nothing. But today you don’t feel a difference when you talk to him. He’s always on the ground.”

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McIlroy: Ryder Cup won't be as easy as USA thinks

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 1:18 pm

The Americans have won their past two international team competitions by a combined score of 38-22, but Rory McIlroy isn’t expecting another pushover at the Ryder Cup in September.

McIlroy admitted that the U.S. team will be strong, and that its core of young players (including Jordan Spieth, Justin Thomas and Rickie Fowler) will be a force for the next decade. But he told reporters Tuesday at the HSBC Abu Dhabi Championship that course setup will play a significant role.

“If you look at Hazeltine and how they set the course up – big, wide fairways, no rough, pins in the middle of greens – it wasn’t set up for the way the Europeans like to play,” McIlroy said, referring to the Americans’ 17-11 victory in 2016. “I think Paris will be a completely different kettle of fish, so different.”

At every Ryder Cup, the home team has the final say on course setup. Justin Rose was the most outspoken about the setup at Hazeltine, saying afterward that it was “incredibly weak” and had a “pro-am feel.” 

And so this year’s French Open figures to be a popular stop for European Tour players – it’s being held once again at Le Golf National, site of the matches in September. Tommy Fleetwood won last year’s event at 12 under.

“I’m confident,” McIlroy said. “Everything being all well and good, I’ll be on that team and I feel like we’ll have a really good chance.

“The Americans have obviously been buoyant about their chances, but it’s never as easy as that. The Ryder Cup is always close. It always comes down to a few key moments, and it will be no different in Paris. I think we’ll have a great team and it definitely won’t be as easy as they think it’s going to be.” 

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Floodlights may be used at Dubai Desert Classic

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 16, 2018, 12:44 pm

No round at next week’s Dubai Desert Classic will be suspended because of darkness.

Tournament officials have installed state-of-the-art floodlighting around the ninth and 18th greens to ensure that all 132 players can finish their round.

With the event being moved up a week in the schedule, the European Tour was initially concerned about the amount of daylight and trimmed the field to 126 players. Playing under the lights fixed that dilemma.

“This is a wonderful idea and fits perfectly with our desire to bring innovation to our sport,” European Tour chief executive Keith Pelley said. “No professional golfer ever wants to come back the following morning to complete a round due to lack of daylight, and this intervention, should it be required, will rule out that necessity.”

Next week’s headliners include Rory McIlroy, Sergio Garcia and Henrik Stenson.