Arnie: Palmer-Nicklaus, golf's greatest rivalry

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On the day of Arnold Palmer's most heartbreaking loss, Jack Nicklaus was there for him.

Nov. 20, 1999, Doral Golf Resort & Spa, Gold Course. Jack and Barbara Nicklaus are watching their son Gary try to earn his PGA Tour card. Nicklaus’ cell phone rings. It’s Palmer, with sad news. Winnie, his wife of 45 years, has passed away from cancer. We’ll fly right up, Nicklaus says. No, stay and watch Gary, Palmer responds. Nicklaus insists  we’ll come.

Nov. 22, 1999. A memorial service is conducted for Winnie Palmer at Unity Chapel in Latrobe, Pa. Afterward, the mourners repair to Latrobe Country Club for a reception. Palmer suggests to Nicklaus that they turn on a TV and see how Gary Nicklaus is doing in the final round.

Nicklaus has been getting updates by phone from his son’s coach, Rick Smith. He appreciates Palmer’s gesture, but says it isn’t necessary. Palmer insists  we’ll watch.

They turn on the TV and watch Gary play his final few holes. When his final putt drops, it completes a 7-under 63 that, on his ninth trip through Q-School, finally results in a PGA Tour card. In Latrobe, Palmer and Nicklaus embrace. There are tears.

Arnold Palmer, who turns 85 on Sept. 10, and Jack Nicklaus, 74, have been rivals on and off the golf course for more than a half-century. On the course, each achieved a status the other couldn’t match: Nicklaus the game’s greatest player, Palmer its most popular. “Jack had the trophies that Arnold wanted, but Jack didn’t have the love of the fans that Arnold had,” said Ian O’Connor, author of “Arnie & Jack.”

“Each guy wanted what the other had. And they couldn’t have both.”

Yet instead of letting jealousy make them bitter enemies, they became lifelong friends. Their rivalry morphed into a relationship, one that, like all relationships, had its ups and downs. But it endures to this day.

"Did Arnie and I agree on everything? No, we had some differences," Nicklaus said. "But I will promise that if I ever had a problem, Arnold Palmer has always been there for me and vice versa."



ARNOLD PALMER was early in his journey to the top of the golf world when he first met the man who would knock him off that perch.

It was 1958. Palmer had already won the first of his four Masters titles and would become the PGA Tour's leading money winner that year. He was in Athens, Ohio, for a day honoring his good friend, Athens native Dow Finsterwald, who had won the 1957 PGA Championship. There was to be an 18-hole match featuring Finsterwald and local amateur Howard Baker Saunders against Palmer and a precocious 18-year-old Ohio amateur named Jack Nicklaus.

“I had been hearing about Jack Nicklaus coming up as a junior and some of the wonderful golf that he had been playing,” Palmer said.

Nicklaus had never met Palmer, but he had seen him a few years earlier, in 1954. "We were playing the Ohio Amateur in Toledo at Sylvania Country Club,” Nicklaus said. “I was on the golf course on Tuesday and it was pouring down rain. I was the only person on the golf course and nobody was out there practicing. Nobody else was stupid enough to be out there – I was 14 years old. I finished my round and there was one guy on the practice tee. I stopped and watched this fellow hitting balls. I said, ‘Boy, is this guy strong.’ He had these Popeye forearms and he was just hitting these 9-irons about 8 feet high. I watched him for about 10 minutes and he didn’t know I was there. I walked into the pro shop and I said, ‘Who in the world is that on the driving range?’ ‘Oh, that’s our defending champion, Arnold Palmer.’"

Four years after the 14-year-old Nicklaus was so impressed by Palmer, the 18-year-old Nicklaus had a different attitude. "Did I know Arnold Palmer was a good player?" Nicklaus told O'Connor. "You're darn right. But was I ever in awe of what he did? Probably not."

One thing that helped change Nicklaus’ view of Palmer: At 18, Nicklaus now was longer. Off the tee, Palmer could intimidate almost everyone. Except Nicklaus.

"On the first hole, a par 4 that was about 335 (yards), Arnold drove the green," Finsterwald recalled. "Jack drove it over the green."

"He was a good sport and he hit the ball long and straight,” Palmer said. “Jack and I got to know each other pretty well on those 18 holes.”

They crossed paths again in the final round of the Phoenix Open Invitational in February 1962. Palmer had a double-digit lead and Nicklaus was in a tight battle for second place. "It was actually the first time I played with Arnold in a tournament," Nicklaus said. "We walked off the 71st green and Arnold was going to win the golf tournament. He turned around to me, put his arm on my shoulder and he says, ‘You know, you can finish second here now. All you have to do is take your time.’ He says, ‘Be relaxed. Just play smart. Birdie the last hole.’”

Nicklaus did, tying for second. He never forgot Palmer’s gesture. “It was a nice little olive branch to throw out to somebody."


Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer

Jack and Arnold prior to the start of the final round in the '62 U.S. Open (AP)

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THE FIRST historic shots in the Palmer-Nicklaus rivalry were fired in the 1960 U.S. Open. Palmer had won his second Masters title and was optimistic about the Open, in which he had finished four shots out of the lead the previous year. At Cherry Hills Country Club near Denver, Palmer charged from seven shots back on the final day to win. Nicklaus, still an amateur, finished second. His playing companion, Ben Hogan, told reporters, "I played with a kid today who could’ve won this by five, if he knew what he was doing.”

Palmer and Nicklaus dueled again in the 1962 U.S. Open. Nicklaus was only a rookie on Tour, but this would turn out to be the zenith of their rivalry.

The setting was Oakmont Country Club, located in a northeast suburb of Pittsburgh. Less than an hour from Latrobe. Palmer country. Arnie's Army of fans was prepared to do whatever was necessary to help their general win. Nicklaus was the enemy, and the USGA, knowingly or not, made it easy for the fans to harass him and support Palmer at the same time by pairing the two in the first two rounds.

“They were horrendous to Jack, calling him Fat Jack, applauding when he missed, really rooting against him in a very negative manner," said Bob Ford, Oakmont's longtime head pro. "Arnold’s caddie, Johnny Garbo, passed away when he was 90 but he was our starter from when I took over till a couple years ago and he talked to us all the time about how uncomfortable he was and how uncomfortable Arnold was with how rude the crowd was towards Jack.”

Nicklaus' father, Charlie, was in his son's gallery, accompanied by Ohio State's legendary  and legendarily volatile  football coach, Woody Hayes. At one point Hayes, of all people, had to restrain Charlie from going after a heckler.

After 36 holes Palmer was tied for the lead with Bob Rosburg, with Nicklaus in a three-way tie for fourth, three shots back. Nicklaus caught Palmer in the final round, setting up an 18-hole playoff on Sunday. Nicklaus won, 71 to 74.

Ford thinks the fans, while trying to help Palmer, instead hurt him.

“I think emotionally he was really upset with his hometown crowd treating his fellow competitor in a negative way,” Ford said, pointing out that Palmer had an inordinately high 11 three-putts. “I think emotionally it really hurt him, the crowds.”

Nicklaus blocked out the fans’ behavior. "It never did register," he said. "I mean that’s the phenomenon everybody can’t understand  how can you not hear the gallery? I say I was playing golf, I paid no attention to anybody. I’m a young kid, 22 years old with blinders on. I had one thing in mind and that was win that golf tournament."

"Jack worried about himself and what his objectives were," Palmer said. "He played that way and still does. It obviously worked for him very well."

In addition to focus, Nicklaus had confidence. It came from his U.S. Open track record  he had finished second in 1960, fourth in 1961  and from a couple of practice rounds he had played at Oakmont the week before:

"I sort of felt going into Oakmont that that was my tournament, nobody else’s. ... I really liked what I took from the practice rounds and I said this is going to be my week."

Despite the best efforts of the pro-Palmer crowd, it was indeed Nicklaus' week. "As I've said many times, I may have had to fight Arnie's Army, but I never had to fight Arnold. Arnie was always considerate, always a great friend, always a great competitor."

When it was over, Palmer issued a prophetic statement: "Now that the big guy is out of the cage, everybody better run for cover."

Palmer was devastated by the loss, but quickly shook it off and won at Troon a month later. Nicklaus, playing in his first British Open, was no factor, tying for 34th place. Palmer was shut out in the majors in 1963 while Nicklaus won the Masters and PGA Championship, but Palmer again rebounded to win the Masters in 1964. It was his seventh and last victory in a major.

Palmer and Nicklaus never again had a duel to match the drama and intensity of the 1962 U.S. Open. They finished 1-2 in majors five times, but three of the second-place finishes weren't close. Nicklaus beat Palmer by nine shots in the 1965 Masters and by four in the 1967 U.S. Open. Palmer beat Nicklaus by six in the 1964 Masters. Only the 1960 and ’62 U.S. Opens could be classified as “duels.”


THE PALMER-NICKLAUS RIVALRY came down to one simple fact: They were the two best players on Tour for most of the 1960s. From 1962, when Nicklaus recorded his first win, through the end of the decade, they were virtually dead even in Tour wins (Nicklaus led, 30-29). Looking at 1962-64, the period bookended by Nicklaus' first major and Palmer's last, they won six of 12 majors (three apiece) and combined for five runner-up finishes.

With a decade’s difference in their ages, it was perhaps inevitable that Nicklaus should pull away from Palmer in overall wins and majors. "That made a big difference," said Thomas Hauser, author of “Arnold Palmer: A Personal Journey.” "The first few years probably worked in Arnold's favor, but Jack was a prodigy and caught up to Arnie pretty early in the game. If it had been reversed and Jack had been 10 years older, who knows how that rivalry would've played out?

"If Jack hadn’t come along, who knows how long Arnold would have reigned?"

Many believe it was more than age that stopped Palmer from winning majors after the 1964 Masters. Confidence shaken by Nicklaus  and by Palmer’s blowing a seven-shot lead in the 1966 U.S. Open  is a popular theory. Another suggestion is less obvious.

"At first when I heard it I kind of laughed, but Dan Jenkins brings it up," said veteran golf journalist Jaime Diaz, editor-in-chief of Golf World. "Arnold quit smoking in 1964. And Arnold, in his book, mentions how it changed his internal feelings and his ability to handle his nervousness. It just changed him a little bit, and at that level a little bit is a lot. I don’t think that’s a coincidence, either. Maybe he didn’t draw the connection at the time. And who knows if he’d go back and still keep smoking, because he was determined not to. But he was not quite as tough at the end of tournaments afterwards. And that happens in the decline, or at least in the later years, of anyone’s career. But Arnold wasn’t old enough in my opinion to just start losing it. Physically he still drove it beautifully, and played wonderfully, but he just didn’t make the same putts."

Though no longer winning majors, Palmer continued to win regular tournaments. His last win on the PGA Tour was the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic, when he was 43. It was his fifth win in the event, going back to the inaugural tournament in 1960. On Feb. 11, 1973, an unusually rainy Sunday in California's Coachella Valley, playing in a threesome with John Schlee and Nicklaus, Palmer came from one stroke off Nicklaus' co-lead beginning the final round to beat his old rival and Johnny Miller by two shots.


Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus

Nicklaus puts the green jacket on Palmer in 1964 (Getty)


INEXTRICABLY INTERTWINED with the Palmer-Nicklaus rivalry was their friendship. Thrown together in part because they both were represented by Mark McCormack, they quickly found that they enjoyed each other’s company. "We traveled a lot together," Nicklaus said. "I remember we played a lot of exhibitions. Arnold used to come pick me up in Columbus in his Aero Commander. We’d go fly to Indianapolis, Chicago, Des Moines, Texas, Oklahoma  wherever it might be. We became very close friends. Played a lot of bridge on the plane.

"Nineteen sixty-three was the first year that I qualified to play in the Tournament of Champions. So we go to Las Vegas, which is where it was held at that time. Arnold says, ‘If you’re gonna come to Vegas, you gotta learn how to shoot craps.’ So Arnold took me over to the dice table and it cost him a lot of money to teach me how to shoot craps. I got a big kick out of that. I don’t think he won it back the rest of the week.”

Their wives became friends as well, and whenever their husbands had issues with each other, Barbara Nicklaus and Winnie Palmer laid down the law.

"If Arnold and I had a difference, Winnie and Barbara got together and would say, ‘Hey, you two, this is the way it is,’" Nicklaus said.

"I think I was very fortunate when Jack came out on Tour that Arnie and Winnie were there," Barbara Nicklaus said. "Arnie and Jack have always been wonderful friends and Winnie has been a great friend to me. She always has kind of been my role model and my idol out there. Any questions I had I could go to Winnie."

“We were such good friends with the Nicklaus family, we really were," Palmer's younger daughter, Amy Saunders, said. "I mean Mrs. Nicklaus is like my mom and she’s just such a lovely person. I knew the kids growing up, particularly their daughter, and Hilton Head was always a yearly tournament that we always made sure we got there because it was such a fun time of year and we were always able to go. We had a house that we stayed in that was comfortable and familiar and the Nicklauses and a lot of families would be there and we really we got to know them more on a personal relationship. So I don’t think we ever experienced the competitive spirit that was there in the golf.”

Palmer's sister Sandra Sarni offered a slightly different perspective. Asked what the Palmer household thought of Nicklaus at the beginning, she laughed: “I don’t think I can answer that question," she said. "I like him now, and I love his wife, Barbara. She’s terrific."


ONE OF THE DEEPEST divisions between Palmer and Nicklaus surfaced in later years, when each had established his own tournament. Nicklaus skipped Palmer’s tournament to play in South Florida events, and made critical comments about Palmer’s Bay Hill course. Palmer reciprocated by not playing in Nicklaus’ Memorial Tournament.

In 1993 the Memorial chose Palmer as its annual honoree. After the ceremony, at dinner that night, Palmer and Nicklaus had a long, frank discussion that seemed to thaw the chill between them. "People at that dinner told me it was like two old soldiers telling war stories," O'Connor said.

As their post-playing careers evolved, Nicklaus and Palmer continued to compete with each other, whether it was over golf course design, endorsements  or beverages. Palmer has long mixed his iced tea with lemonade, a drink that came to be known among golfers as an "Arnold Palmer." A version licensed with that name began to be sold in 2001. The Arizona Beverage Company, which distributes the Palmer drink, introduced a new line of Nicklaus-branded lemonades just before the 2012 Masters.

"Jack will still come to me and say 'How many ‘S K U's' or ‘skus’ [stock keeping unit, that applies to sales] does Arnold have in his drink?'" said IMG's Alastair Johnston. "I said 'A lot more than yours, Jack.'"

Competition  friendly competition  is the core of their relationship. Always has been, always will be.

"Arnold and I have been the most fierce competitors two guys can imagine, on the golf course, off the golf course,” Nicklaus said. "Neither one of us likes to lose."