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Nicklaus-Palmer still the standard in golf rivalries

Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer at 1962 U.S. Open
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WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. – Jack Nicklaus says if he were in a high-stakes match in Las Vegas in his prime, the most compelling opponent would be Arnold Palmer. Never mind that he considers his toughest rival to be Tom Watson. Or that he finished runner-up to Lee Trevino in majors four times in seven years.

With apologies to the super-hyped exhibition between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson on pay-per-view, any talk of rivalries in golf starts with Nicklaus and Palmer.

''I rarely lost to Arnold,'' Nicklaus said last week before an American Cancer Society benefit. ''We never ended up coming down the stretch every much.''

Nicklaus was a runner-up to him six times, including the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills as a 20-year-old amateur.

But unlike Woods-Mickelson, who never really squared off in a major until Woods' fifth year on the tour, Nicklaus famously beat Palmer in a playoff to win the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont in Palmer's backyard.

''Arnold and my rivalry became more from the two us,'' Nicklaus said. ''We would play together a lot. We were paired a lot. And usually we beat each other up and we ended up giving the tournament away. That's why they talk about the rivalry. Everyone was interested in who won that day, not who won the tournament.''

Nicklaus was reminded of the 1970 U.S. Open at Hazeltine, where the tournament scoreboard had the names Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player at the bottom the entire week. None of them finished in the top 40.

''I've never seen a tournament ever do anything like that,'' Nicklaus said.

Nicklaus also finished runner-up in the majors four times to Watson, all coming down to the final few holes, none more dramatic than Turnberry in 1977.

''Watson was the toughest,'' Nicklaus said. ''He was a kid with blinders on. I love the way Tom played.''

Trevino won by four shots at Oak Hill in the 1968 U.S. Open, then beat Nicklaus in a playoff at Merion in 1971 and denied Nicklaus the third leg of the Grand Slam a year later by beating him at Muirfield. And in 1974, Trevino got him by one shot at Tanglewood in the PGA Championship.

''He thrived on competitive moments,'' Nicklaus said.

But Palmer? That was different.

He said the rivalry started in 1958 when Nicklaus, an 18-year-old amateur, was invited to take part in a day honoring Dow Finsterwald.

''On the first tee we had a driving contest,'' Nicklaus said. ''Arnold drove it on the green. I drove it 30 yards over the green. I never let Arnold forget that. I'd say, 'Hey AP, we had one driving contest, I hit it 30 yards by you.' He'd say, 'Yeah, but I shot 63 that day and you shot 67.' To me, that was the start of our rivalry. Ever since we played, we always had fun with that.

''I'd say, if I hadn't shot 39 on the last nine holes at Cherry Hills, no one would have ever heard of you.' And he'd say to me, 'If I hadn't three-putted nine times in '62, nobody would have ever heard of you.' That was our banter.''

There was no social media back then. Or pay-per-view.

Doug Ferguson is a national golf writer for The Associated Press.