Jack Nicklaus probably thought he had seen everything in golf, and then something happened on Wednesday afternoon that brought a tear to his eye.
Jack’s grandson G.T. Nicklaus, who was caddying for the Golden Bear in the Masters Par-3 Contest, stepped up to the tee on the final hole and tried his luck, just for fun. Of course, the ball sailed over a broad lake, landed safely on the green and then trickled and tracked and after the longest while plopped into the cup for a hole-in-one.
Shocking? Sure, but G.T., the 15-year-old son of former PGA Tour player Gary Nicklaus, Jr. and a freshman at Oxbridge Academy in West Palm Beach, has played before crowds before. In the PNC Father/Son Challenge with his grandfather as a playing partner. In the Florida state high school championship tournament, too, where he shot an 85 as an eight-grader a few years ago.
“You always want the best for your kids and your grandkids,” Nicklaus told ESPN. “But when you’ve got a grandson who comes along and the kid makes a hole-in-one at the biggest venue in the world on day when he is caddying for his grandfather…Wow.
“This is very, very special…One obviously I’ll never forget.”
Back in December, when Jack and G.T. teamed to finish 15th at the PNC Father/Son Challenge in Orlando, Jack said “He likes being in front of people. I always looked at playing golf out in front of people as fun, and I think he has pretty much the same attitude.”
The Masters Par-3 is designed to be entertaining for players and their families, with little kids bopping along in tiny caddy outfits and teenagers, like G.T., sometimes playing a shot or two.
For one of the kids to outdo the pros, however, and get the loudest cheer of the day, is almost too much to ask. G.T.’s ace turned into a bigger story than the fact that Tom Watson, 68, won the nine-hole event with a score of six-under-par 21. He’s the oldest champion in the history of the Par-3 and played in a group with Nicklaus and Gary Player.
Here’s one last quote from Jack last December about G.T., one of his and Barbara’s 22 grandchildren.
“G.T. is a big kid and has the potential to be a very talented player,” Jack said. “He is already a nice player, and his game should only get better as time goes on. So only time will tell whether he will be and wants to be a really good player. For now, I just want him to enjoy this experience, just as I will enjoy it.”
On Thursday morning Nicklaus and Player will tee off at No. 1 as honorary starters for the first round of the Masters. Will G.T. carry his grandfather’s bag? Might be a good idea, for good luck.
AUGUSTA, Ga. – What would you do if the wonder of a Masters tournament pass came your way? For most first-timers there is a list of things to do, and William McGirt, a contender to win after rounds of 69 and 73, has checked every box.
Come out early on Thursday morning to watch Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player hit the ceremonial opening tee shots? McGirt, who qualified to play in his first Masters with a victory in the Memorial last summer, was there.
“There was never any question that I was going to be there,” said McGirt, who is 37 and as wide-eyed here this week as any kid outside the ropes. “I don’t care if I was two groups later off the tee, I was going to go watch it. We were right at the entrance to the tee box at the back. I figured if I wasn’t supposed to be there, somebody would tell me, but it was fine, so everybody came right by us and left right by us.”
McGirt came early to Augusta National to soak it all in, arriving on Friday. Given the chance, would you race straight to the merchandise shop as soon as it opened to buy shirts and caps and anything else with a Masters logo? Yeah, McGirt did that.
“AMEX is going to be very happy to have me as a customer,” he said.
And how about that initial drive on tree-lined Magnolia Lane to the clubhouse. OK, none of us will ever get to do that, but McGirt, a mini-tour struggler through much of his career, never thought he would either, so let’s ride along with him.
“One of the most sacred drives in the game,” he said. “Honestly, the first time I made that trip, by myself, I’m pretty sure I teared up about halfway down.”
Too sappy? Oh, come on, you’re loving it. Here’s some more from a guy who is so humble that he described his game to the world’s golf media Thursday as “sneaky short.”
McGirt, for instance, got emotional when he stepped to the first tee on Thursday morning prior to shooting a 69 that was the only score within shouting range of Charley Hoffman’s 65.
“When I heard ‘Fore, please, William McGirt now driving,’ I almost shed a tear,” he said, “but I realized I had to get up there and I had 40 seconds to hit it, so I better get it done quick.”
He parred that first hole and birdied the next. Matter of fact, McGirt had just one bogey all day, on No. 3. In 30-40 mph gusts, that is remarkable, and it follows the native South Carolinian’s pattern of playing his own game and not trying to chase the longer hitters.
“I know what my limitations are,” McGirt said. “I’m not the guy that’s going to stand out there and try to hit it over the trees on 13…I kind of plod my way around the course and take what it gives me.”
What it’s giving him so far is the kind of thrill he could only get at Augusta National.
“It’s kind of neat to hang around late in the afternoons and walk out on the porch outside the locker room and watch as everybody’s leaving,” he said. “I think that’s one of the most beautiful sunsets. And the same thing with the morning sunrise. To sit out there on that porch and watch the sun come up is pretty darn special.”
[McGirt actually attended the Masters a few times in his youth but didn’t step on the course other than the way other patrons do, when using the crosswalks on the fairways. His first memory here was 1988, the year Sandy Lyle won.
“I remember it was super hilly,” said McGirt, who was 8 at the time. “We watched Mr. Palmer and Mr. Nicklaus come up 18, and I remember there was a guy who was at least 6-feet-6 who put me on his shoulders so I could watch Greg Norman tee off on No. 1. Other than that, I remember I was dead tired when we got in the car to go home.”
Whether he stays near the top of the leaderboard this weekend or falls off the map, it probably will be the same way. McGirt is giving it everything he’s got, inside the ropes, with great shots like his hole-out from the bunker at No. 4 on Friday morning, and out.
“I don’t know if this is a one-time thing or if I’m going to be back every year,” he said. “I’d love to be back every year but I’m not going to walk away and say, ‘Gosh, I wish I would have enjoyed it more or I wish I would have doine this or I wish I would have done that.’
“It’s just something that I’ve dreamed of my whole life, playing in this tournament, and I’m going to enjoy it. Plain and simple.”
If you can’t root for a guy like this, you’re probably not following and watching the Masters in the first place.
AUGUSTA, Ga. – Tiger Woods isn’t playing this week and Danny Willett, the defending Masters champion, is not really playing well enough right now to be a major threat to repeat. Makes it tougher to predict who will be the sensational international headline at Augusta National this time around, but I’ll take a stab at it anyway.
Take a look at Jon Rahm, the rookie from Spain with the mammoth distance off the tee and the confidence to contend in his first Masters.
He’s all of 22 but that shouldn’t disqualify him. Tiger and Jordan Spieth both were 21 when they got their first green jackets. Rahm was the low amateur at his first U.S. Open, just like Tiger was the low amateur at his first Masters.
Besides, Rahm already has a victory on the PGA Tour this year, and he got it in dramatic fashion, making a 60-foot eagle putt on the final hole to win the Farmers Insurance Open at Torrey Pines in January.
More recently, at the WGC Match Play event in Texas, Rahm reached the championship match against world No. 1 Dustin Johnson. The match started badly, with Rahm 5 down very early, but he rallied to push it all the way to the 18th green before losing 1 down.
“Once I got back in the groove,” Rahm said Tuesday at Augusta National, “I learned that when I’m playing good, I can take on the No. 1 player in the world.”
That boldness, the kind once displayed by Rahm’s golfing hero Seve Ballesteros, is bound to make a difference in the Masters, a tournament marked by great risks and great rewards.
“I’m going to tee it up believing that I can win,” said Rahm, who played a practice round Tuesday with Phil Mickelson. “I might do it. I might now but that’s how I do it. That’s what I did at Torrey Pines.”
Still looking for a good reason to believe in Rahm, whose college coach at Arizona State was Lefty’s brother Tim Mickelson? How about this?
Rahm accelerated his mastery of English by absorbing and repeating the lyrics of rap songs by Eminem and Kendrick Lamar.
“It was not necessarily to learn new words but to help with pronunciation and enunciation and to able to pronounce certain words and be able to talk faster, without pausing,” Rahm said. “It really helped me out to be able to keep up with some conversations.”
The kid’s a fast learner, and he doesn’t mind trying new things, like trying to be the first player since Fuzzy Zoeller in 1979 to win the Masters on his first visit here.
Rahm tees off Thursday at 1:41 p.m. with Rory McIlroy and Hideto Tanihara, a 14-time winner on the Japan Golf Tour and a semifinalist at the recent WGC Match Play event.
If you’re wondering why a rookie rates such a feature pairing, Rahm has risen to No. 12 in the Official World Golf Rankings, just behind Sergio Garcia and ahead of Masters champions Willett, Mickelson and Bubba Watson.
When I covered the Masters last April it was tough seeing Arnold Palmer unable to participate at the ceremonial first-tee event on Thursday morning. He made it out for some photos and watched from a chair at Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player got the tournament started.
Arnie still had the full devotion of the crowd, however, just as he did in 2004 when he played his 50th and final Masters. I had the privilege of following him around that Friday on his way to a missed cut, scrambling around outside the ropes with the rest of the Army and sometimes getting close enough to hear The King say something to one of his smiling, waving fans.
It was a great afternoon spent in the company of a great and gracious man. Thought you might enjoy reliving it, too. Here’s the reprint of my column from The Palm Beach Post of April 10, 2004.
ARNIE TAKES ARMY ON FINAL, SENTIMENTAL MARCH
By Dave George, Palm Beach Post columnist
AUGUSTA, Ga. – Some got a pat on the shoulder, others a handshake and just about everybody left Augusta National with a story about how Arnie looked in their direction and winked or smiled or gave the thumbs-up signal, just for them.
Only Bill Eastwood of Greensboro, N.C., took home an actual physical artifact from the historic final round of Arnold Palmer’s 50th consecutive Masters. Eastwood’s prize was a healthy divot of turf and mud that Arnie carved from a spot where no golf ball has any business being. Eastwood put the earthy blob in a potato chip bag for safekeeping, telling those around him in the sitting area well right of the 11th green that “I could have sold this on eBay.”
It was a comment that drew little laughter from the assembled company of Arnie’s Army, any one of whom would gladly have accepted a purple welt, or a purple heart, if only the King’s ball could have caromed off their body and onto the putting surface.
We’re talking about a golfer who hasn’t won the Masters since 1964, back in the days of John and Paul and George and Ringo, a man who hasn’t made the cut at Augusta since 1983, Dan Marino’s rookie season in the NFL.
To be 74 and still dragging a multitude of fans up and down the hills and through the pine thickets and over the portals of yesteryear is a phenomenal accomplishment.
To have them care so much that you’re never going to do it again, that’s a bond much tougher to break than par.
“I guess it’s more difficult for me because I’m sort of a sentimental slob,” said Palmer, who needed quite some time to get that sentence out. The emotion welling up within him during a post-round TV interview often soaked his words in sadness and caused his throat to catch.
Out on the course, though, that was a different matter. The King’s slow procession toward a second consecutive 84 was accomplished, at least half of the time, within arm’s reach of the gallery ropes. Palmer clearly wanted it that way. He needed the energy of his fans to make it up some of those long and unyielding Augusta National inclines.
They called to him all day, with greeting-card sonnets like “Thank you, Arnie,” and “Thanks for the memories,” and “We love you, Arnie.” Every now and then, too, somebody shot him a zinger, as one good friend might to another, and got in return a comeback line delivered in good cheer.
“These hills are a little steeper than they were 50 years ago, huh, Arnie?” came a voice from a snow-topped gentleman trudging outside the ropes on the long slog up No. 8. “Just a tad,” Palmer shot back, holding his index finger and thumb about an inch apart.
Never did he want it to end like this, he’d have to admit, because never did Arnie want it to end at all.
“I looked at the galleries and there were so many people out there I recognized, and some people who would remind me that they had been with me for the whole 50 years,” he said.
“That’s part of the reason, I suppose, that I have played as long as I have. My competitive attitude, though it hasn’t shown up much lately, it’s still there.”
Those of us privileged to walk the final 18 with Arnie saw it Friday, and more than once. Here’s a personal favorite.
Arnie is tired, and looks it, as he walks over to the No. 6 tee and plops on a wooden bench. The round has started badly, with missed greens and short drives and three bogeys in the first five holes. There’s a little time before the par-3 green ahead of them clears so Palmer rolls up his pant legs, pulls down his socks and calls for 16-year-old Sam Saunders, his grandson and handpicked caddy for this special event, to pull the Aspercreme from a zippered pocket in the golf bag.
It’s his shins that are killing him, and that’s where Palmer applies the cream, liberally.
A sign of age, yet the hundreds of people staring at their hero choose not to comment, even in whispers, even among themselves.
Arnold eventually sticks his tee in the ground and prepares to play, but just then, down and to the right of the elevated No. 6 tee, a great roar of appreciation goes up for the arrival of another legend, Jack Nicklaus, at the nearby 16th green. If Arnie had stopped and looked up, he could have watched his old friend and 1960s rival smiling and waving to the crowd.
But Arnie doesn’t stop. He swings right through the sound of thousands cheering the Golden Bear and sends toward the green a shot for the ages. The ball covers the 180 yards in the space of about five accelerated hearbeats and stops 6 feet from the cup.
Palmer gives the crowd a courtly half-bow and answers the hallelujahs with a neon smile.
Then he steps over to the ropes and says to a startled spectator, just loud enough for that one man to hear it and no one else, “Even a blind squirrel finds an acorn every now and then.”
Lee Trevino would have shouted that line at bullhorn volume and thrown his head back in a howl of laughter. He is one of golf’s great showmen. Palmer, however, isn’t the sort of performer who has to be “on” to entertain.
Friday he never hitched his pants, unless it was to squat down to stick his tee in the ground or pull his ball from the cup. He never drained a long birdie putt, either. There were only seven pars in his round, and a closing bogey on 18. What a final flourish it would have been had that last par putt dropped. I’d say that it looked to be about 5 feet to me but it was tough enough just catching a glimpse of Arnie’s red shirt and Bay Hill visor through the heads and shoulders of the people crowded around that green.
“C’mon, Arnie, c’mon, Arnie,” everyone seemed to whisper as he took the putter back, as if a fifth Masters title were riding on it. This is the Army of today, no different than the very first one right here at Augusta National. It was 1958 and some soldiers on leave from Augusta’s Fort Gordon worked the Masters scoreboards with something less than absolute objectivity. Holding up signs announcing the presence of “Arnie’s Army,” they eventually caused Cliff Roberts and the Masters committee to ban signs at future tournaments.
If Palmer was daydreaming about any of that Friday, he quickly snapped back to attention while crossing through a ditch down in Amen Corner. A 5-foot snake, as black as a water moccasin and thus presumed to be poisonous, was right in front of his feet.
“If I felt a little tired,” said Arnie, “I didn’t then. I came out of there and I was flying.”
Later, walking up No. 14, Palmer’s fiancee, Kit Gawthrop, met him in a crosswalk across the fairway with a few encouraging words and a gentle push in the back toward the end of this epic round. Soon thereafter he was coming up the 18th fairway to the most heartfelt ovation of his life. Arnie realized at that moment his shins weren’t hurting. Not in the least.
Magical, this farewell lap through the magnolias, exactly the sort of thing that Nicklaus deserves one day. Here’s hoping that his talk Friday afternoon of never playing the Masters again was just the fleeting disgust of a pair of 75s talking.
Golf is a game made for giants, and there’s no better place to appreciate them than here among Southern pines that have been here a century, and ghosts that never will leave.
Where ArnoldPalmer finished in his 50 Masters tournaments from 1955-2004First: 4 (1958, 1960, 1962, 1964)
Second: 2 (1961-T, 1965-T)
Third: 1 (1959)
Fourth: 2 (1966-T, 1967)
Seventh: 1 (1957-T)
Ninth: 1 (1963-T)
Tenth: 1 (1955-T)
Other: 13 times
Missed cut: 25 times
Jordan Spieth just wrapped up one of the greatest seasons in the history of the PGA Tour, with two major titles and five wins overall and a Vardon Trophy to confirm the validity of his Player of the Year award.
Stupendous stuff, but there was a time when this was standard output for Tiger Woods, one crushing year after another.
At his peak, Tiger really was unstoppable. He will chase forever the kind of efficiency and aggressiveness that made him that way. So will everyone else who is playing this game today or will in the future.
Consider that Spieth won the Vardon with an average score of 68.911 on the PGA Tour. Tiger won the award nine times, and in all but one of those seasons his average was lower than that.
Spieth is ranked No. 1 in the world at season’s end. That’s where Tiger ended up 10 times.
Spieth won two major championships, the Masters and the U.S. Open. There were four seasons in which Tiger won two majors, and in 2000 he won three of them, all but the Masters.
Five PGA Tour victories is a lot for Spieth or anyone else in one PGA Tour season. Tiger won at least five tournaments in 11 different seasons. Five other times he won more.
There is one area in which Tiger matched Spieth in 2015, but it’s not anything he’ll care to remember.
Both of them missed four cuts. Spieth, of course, did it in the course of 25 events. Tiger played only 11.
No matter what happens or doesn’t happen with the rest of Tiger’s career, the grip he once held on the game will never be matched.
We’re not talking mere numbers here. We’re talking sledgehammer certainty in a country club world.