Standing on the tee of the par-5 13th hole of The Woodlands Tournament Course, Jack Nicklaus scanned the four-deep row of fans along the left side and asked if anyone knew how long the hole was. One fan replied, “For you, Jack, a driver and wedge!"
“Those were the good old days," Jack said through a smile.
“Well, this has been a good ole day for us," the fan responded.
For an estimated 40,000 fans, nine of the game’s legends, and anyone who appreciates and embraces golf history and golf greatness, it was a good ole day. And on this day, time seemed to stop, if not rewind itself. Jack Nicklaus reminded thousands in Texas and perhaps millions on TV why he is the greatest player in the game’s history, as the 72-year-old icon conjured up a swing and a game reminiscent of the one who totaled 120 professional victories and a record 18 major championships.
The Golden Bear teamed with friends and long-time competitors Arnold Palmer and Gary Player to win The Greats of Golf—a three-person scramble competition between some of the biggest names in history that was part of Saturday’s second round of the Insperity Challenge, being played outside Houston. The names included Lee Trevino, Dave Stockton, David Graham, Don January, Miller Barber and Gene Littler. With a team score of 11 under, The Big Three took a two-shot win over their fellow greats. But without sounding too cliché, the real winners were the fans who suffocated each hole, fighting for space and an opportunity to catch a glimpse of golf royalty and a memory on their camera or cell phone.
“It was all memorable,” Nicklaus said when asked to pick a special moment from the day. “Everybody was great all day long. The people were wonderful.”
As was the golf.
For Nicklaus, who estimates he plays once a month, the competitive tone was set immediately. He ripped a drive down the first fairway, and then after his partners missed putts from 6 feet, the Golden Bear drained his for a fist-bumping birdie.
A trend developed early. Nicklaus was long off the tee—with a swing that analysts said picked up speed as the day went on—his irons were smothering pins all day, and his putting was clutch.
“It was a blast!” Nicklaus said. “I don’t play golf anymore. But I did play well and I was kind of amazed that I played that well.”
There was camaraderie but also very real competition. Legends don't like to lose. Not when the résumé of The Big Four — Nicklaus, Trevino, Palmer and Player — have 198 wins on the PGA Tour and 40 major championships among them.
"It was great fun," said Nicklaus. "But more than that, it was fun winning.
“I always love competition. If we didn’t have competition, I would have been disappointed.”
When Jack saved the team again and dropped in a 15-foot birdie putt on No. 6, The Big Three was already 4 under. The Golden Bear then hit it to 15 feet on No. 7, setting up a birdie putt by Palmer to push them to 5 under.
At the 10th, Jack hit a 7-iron to 4 feet and Palmer knocked in the birdie for 6 under.
That set off a string of four straight birdies for The Big Three, the last two set up by a shot to 3 feet by Jack on No. 12 and the Golden Bear’s 22-foot birdie putt up and over a ridge on No. 13.
“Jack played beautifully all day,” Player said. “Don’t let him tell you he doesn’t play. I think he keeps a net in his backyard.”
The shot that served as a microcosm to the head-shaking day came on the par-5 15th. After Jack’s drive left the team about 240 yards out, all three players decided to play drivers from the left fairway. Palmer pulled his left. Player then a low draw that found a bunker fronting the right side of the green. Jack then stepped up, cocked his head, and took a lash. The towering shot never left its line, catching a piece of the bunker but rolling up to pin high and 14 feet right. The three then two-putted for birdie and 10 under.
The day eventually had to end, but not without an amazing amount of adulation. Aside from the thousands of fans, a large number of Champions Tour players came out after they finished their rounds to catch what they could of the Greats.
"I knew this was going to be a great day," Trevino said. "And I knew there was going to be a big gallery."
Even after Mike Goodes double-bogeyed the last hole to lose the lead on Saturday, he hurried out on the course to follow The Big Three.
"I'm so thrilled to be here," said Goodes, who rushed out to the back nine after his second-round 67. "I can't wait to shake their hands."
Houston resident and major champion Steve Elkington—who will turn 50 later this year but was not in the field—walked all 18 with his son. There was Ben Crenshaw at the turn, taking photos.
“I love to see them," Crenshaw said. "We can't thank them enough. They've done it all for us. I have been so fortunate to have spent so much time with them, not only playing, but being together. They've been a great part of my professional life."
The numbers grew on the back nine: Andy Bean, Kirk Triplett, Peter Jacobsen and Bruce Vaughan, among others.
“These men have won more majors than I’ve played in,” Vaughan said greenside at 17.
Behind 18, it was a who’s who of Champions Tour stars, including Jupiter’s Olin Browne and second-round leader Tom Lehman.
There was also a little drama waiting at the green.
With the other groups in at 9 under, The Big Three needed to par the final hole for the victory. All three feigned nervousness on the tee box, sticking out trembling hands while winking.
After Jack belted yet another drive, all three hit good shots into the green. They took Player’s approach, which was about 30 feet right of the pin. After all three took a look at the right-to-left read, Palmer stepped up and stroked the putt. The crowd’s cheers began to grow to a crescendo as the ball tracked toward the cup, finally erupting as it dropped in for birdie.
Houston we have a noise problem.
"To see that number of people come out was amazing," Player said. "But also to see the standard of play. We birdied the living daylights out of this golf course. The quality of golf was like we were young. And for Arnie to make that putt (on 18), that was good to see."
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