The Next Challenge
The blond, pudgy young golf phenom from Ohio became a United States Professional Golf Association member in November of 1961, but he would be no stranger to the PGA tour. His amateur reputation preceded him, and many professionals were in awe of his play. One player in particular, who only four years earlier had become a major superstar in his own right, had just cause to be concerned.
Arnold Palmer is often uttered in the same sentence when the debate over the "Greatest Golfer of All Time" begins. As much as their careers seemed to overlap, it's amazing how relatively little these two actually competed against each other when considering the longevity of Nicklaus' career on the PGA Tour. When they did compete, however, the matches were memorable.
In the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, which just happens to be a stone's throw from where Palmer grew up—and therefore one of the hotbeds of Palmer fandom—Jack and Arnold squared off in their first heated major tournament. As the tournament wound down on that final Sunday, Nicklaus and Palmer wound up tied at the end of regulation play. In the ensuing playoff, Nicklaus—a young upstart whom fans had heard of but who could not hold a candle to their hero Arnie—took the playoff and the Open championship from Palmer.
"Arnie's Army" was collectively devastated, and rather than helping Nicklaus usher in his era as one of golf's finest, it set up a split between the two. Nicklaus became the bad guy, the one to beat, and Arnold Palmer (known as The King) was the fallen hero, the one people still rooted for. There are many reasons for the Nicklaus-Palmer split among fans of golf, one of which might simply be that Palmer was there first. Another might be that Palmer, the handsome, tall and tan professional, was one of the crowd, every person's movie star. And they loved him. Nicklaus, on the other hand, was boyish and pudgy, and fans did not like him stripping away the glory from the man they had gone through so much with.
In 1962, as Nicklaus began his career as one of the finest golfers ever to walk the fairways, fans of Palmer were vocal in their opposition. Nicklaus came back and won the 1963 Masters (a tournament most thought of as Palmer's) and that season's PGA Championship also went to Nicklaus. Then, following the last major victory by Palmer (in 1964), Nicklaus obliterated the competition at the 1965 Masters Tournament, beating the field by nine strokes in what Bobby Jones called "the greatest performance in golf history." Nicklaus shattered, by three strokes, the great Jones' previous Masters record of 274.
As Palmer tried repeatedly to win another major, Nicklaus always seemed right there to pull it out from under him. The more Nicklaus won, the more he slowly gathered in his own followers. But "Arnie's Army" could not be drawn to the enemy's side, and the Golden Bear (the nickname he earned for his yellow hair and pudgy features) often was heckled as he bent over a putt, the crowd's stares and attempts to will him out of his concentration palpable on the links. Palpable to everyone but Nicklaus.