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ern watermelons, is to marvel at the skill and artfulness of the Golden Era players. What’s more, because

technology had not yet trans- formed the game for the best players, the great courses as they were originally conceived and built were still viable as venues for the major champi- onships. Consider that for the 1971 U.S. Open, the superbly small Merion Golf Club East Course played at 6,544 yards and Lee Trevino and Nicklaus tied at even-par 280. For this year’s Open, at Merion East, the course has been stretched to 6,900 yards yet there is much concern that it will be too short, will give up a record-breaking winning score and be elimi- nated from holding any future national championship. At the same time, the

The Golden Bear Era G

olfers may be forever im- mersed in the how-tos of

grip, stance and swing-plane. But there are many among us who also like to contemplate the game’s history, when it was at its most dynamic in respect to top players and competitive fury, when it flowered as it never had before and may never again. In short, the game’s Golden Era. Some may cite the time of

Bobby Jones, the quintessence of the amateur idea. Others will insist it was the years of Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Sam Snead that formed American golf ’s first professional Trium- virate. The slam-bang rise of Arnold Palmer and his relatively short but particularly impactful supremacy over the tournament circuit must surely be consid- ered. And certainly, the magical years of Tiger Woods is a candidate. To my mind, though, the game was at its zenith from 1962, when Jack Nicklaus won his first U.S. Open, through 1986, when at age 46 he made his one-for-the ages comeback to win his sixth Masters and last major. The Nicklausian Epoch, if you will, embodied elements that gave the period a special, even unique, flavor.

First, it was the way Nick- laus himself played the game. His mentor, Jack Grout, told teenage Jack that there are no bunkers in the air, and taught him to play the game up there. When Nicklaus came out hit- ting 2-irons where only wedge shots had once floated, it was a game changer. Everyone saw the advantage; how more pre- dictable it was than depending on good bounces and rolls off irregular terrain. Of course, in due time,

equipment makers responded with clubs, and balls, designed to get shots more airborne. Lower center of gravity became a new byword in club design, and the same simple dimple that indented all balls was transcended by a wild array of flight-heightening and -correcting concavities. All of which made the game a bit more fun for the average golfer. However, in this respect what makes the time of Nicklaus so singular is that he and his contemporaries did not get that help from the manufacturers. To look today at the 2-irons of that period, blades resembling butter knives, not to say pear-sized drivers compared to post-mod-

quality and condition of golf courses played on the PGA Tour were greatly improved because Nicklaus made it clear, even if unspoken, that he would

not be entering events held on the many public-fee courses still in use. It could be said he was acting the snob, having grown up on a fine private club course. But taking the longer view, he raised the tournament circuit’s image. It went from a ballpark to a stadium and helped the tour become a major-league sports enterprise. Which invites another inter- esting element to this assessment. In the Golden Era we saw the rise of the first, and probably the last great champion who grew up in real poverty. Lee Trevino embodied a touchstone of the rags-to-riches American Experience, and in the so-called rich man’s game no less. That he gave Nicklaus, who in his personal life knew noth- ing of such want, a run for the money and then some, brightens Trevino’s achievement. Indeed, while it is conven-

tional to assume that the golfer for whom a most memorable period in the game is named was an overwhelming conquer- or, in fact Jack Nicklaus went up against a formidable collection of superb players. Perhaps the deepest ever. There was Trevino, Palmer was always there, as well as Gary Player, Tony Lema, Julius Boros, Seve Ballesteros, Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf and Tom Watson, none of whom were so intimidated by the main man that they didn’t, couldn’t, or wouldn’t give him plenty of game and at times pierce his armor. The fact that Jack Nicklaus won a record 18 major championships, while at the same time finishing sole or tied for second another 19 times is a reflection of how resolute a champion he was and how determined and talented were those who chased him. Yes, it was indeed the game’s Golden Era!

AL BARKOW has been involved in all aspects of golf for some 60 years, primarily as a journalist, editor and author of numerous books. He is perhaps best known for his histories of the game, in particular of the PGA Tour. He was honored with the Lifetime Achievement Award by the PGA in 2005.

SPRING 2013 / NCGA.ORG / 17


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