Palmer and Nicklaus in their Golf Lives

Palmer and Nicklaus in their Golf Lives

Palmer and Nicklaus

The two most talented golfers of the 1960s made their marks as the decade opened. In 1960 Arnold Palmer won the Masters and the U.S. Open and earned $77,000 to lead all professional golfers. Second place in the U.S. Open went to a twenty-year-old amateur, an undergraduate at Ohio State named Jack Nicklaus. He shot a 269 over the seventy-two holes of the tournament. Nicklaus’s last year as an amateur was 1961. He won the U.S. amateur title that year by eight and six strokes respectively in the final two rounds. He was prepared in 1962 to enter a head-to-head competition with Palmer to determine who was the greatest golfer of the decade and, arguably, of all time.

Palmer in 1962

Palmer won his third Masters title and the British Open for the second year in a row in 1962, but Nicklaus beat him in a playoff at the U.S. Open. Promoters seized the opportunity to exploit their rivalry by arranging the World Series of Golf at the Firestone Country Club in Akron, Ohio. Devised for a television audience, this event pitted the three best golfers of the year against one another in a thirty-six-hole competition. Nicklaus won with a 135; Palmer and South African Gary Player tied for second, with 139s.

$100,000 Winners

In 1963 Palmer and Nicklaus became the first professional golfers ever to win over $100,000 in a single year: Palmer won $128,230; Nicklaus trailed with $100,040. Palmer did not win a national title in 1963. Nicklaus won the Masters and the Professional Golf Association (PGA) championship, and he won the World Series of Golf against Palmer and U.S. Open champion Julius Boros.

Palmer and Nicklaus by Ten for the United States

In 1964 Palmer beat Nicklaus in a close match at the Masters, and the two tied for second behind Bobby Nichols in the PGA championship. They paired up to win the Canada Cup international competition by ten strokes. Nicklaus had eclipsed Palmer by the middle of the decade, and he demonstrated his prowess at the 1965 Masters tournament, where he beat Palmer, who came in second, by nine strokes. In 1965 Nicklaus won $140,752 in PGA prize money, breaking Palmer’s record set in 1963. He won the Whitemarsh, Memphis, Thunderbird, and Portland tournaments.

Nicklaus on a Roll

In 1966 Nicklaus became the first golfer ever to win back-to-back Masters tournaments. With his victory in the British Open, Nicklaus had by his fifth year as a pro won the four major golf titles in the world: the Masters (three times; he would later win twice more, establishing an intimidating record), the U.S. Open (he won again in 1967, 1972, and 1980), the PGA championship (he also won in 1971, 1973, and 1980), and the British Open (which he also won in 1970 and 1978). Nicklaus lost the World Series of Golf in a playoff to Gene Littler. Palmer did not qualify.

A Record Year

Arnold Palmer may not have been Nicklaus’s equal on the golf course by the late 1960s, but he was still among the leading money winners on the tour. In 1967 his PGA earnings of $184,065 were just behind Nicklaus’s $188,998. Palmer won the Los Angeles Open, the Tucson American Classic, and Thunder-bird tournaments. Nicklaus, though, won money and set records. In the U.S. Open he shot a 275 for the seventy two holes, breaking a twenty-year-old record and finishing
Arnold Palmer Archive Photos, Inc. Reproduced by permission.  four strokes ahead of the second-place finisher, Palmer. Nicklaus also won the Bing Crosby, Western Open, Westchester Classic, and the World Series of Golf. He was at his peak.

Arnie’s Army

Palmer’s age had caught up with him by the end of the decade. He had suffered bursitis in his hip since 1966, and in 1969 he had to play in the qualifying round to earn the right to compete in the U.S. Open. Chief among the critics of the decision not to award Palmer an automatic bid to the Open that year was Jack Nicklaus, who had a gentleman’s respect for his friendly rival. Less gentlemanly were members of Arnie’s Army, the collection of fans who followed the popular Palmer from hole to hole in his tournament appearances. Palmer qualified for the Open, but he finished well back. He did muster the strength to win the last two tournaments on the PGA tour, though, vindicating the loyalty of his army. Palmer was the only golfer in 1969 to win back-to-back tournaments. He never won another of the four major titles, but he continued to attract the respect and attention of fans for the next two decades.

Women’s Golf

Women’s golf did not attract the sponsorship or the audience that men’s golf did. The outstanding lady golfer of the decade was Mickey Wright. She won the Ladies Professional Golf Association championship a record four times—in 1958, 1960, 1961, and 1963—and she took the women’s U.S. Open four times as well. In 1964 at the Tall City Open, she shot a 62, the lowest score for eighteen holes in the history of women’s golf. Three other women have since matched that feat, but none has ever shot a better game. Then she retired in 1965 to attend college. No other woman controlled the women’s game during the decade as Wright did.

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