by Gary Player
With the Masters fast approaching, it is hard to believe that this year is the 50th anniversary of my dear friend Jack Nicklaus’s first victory there. Looking back, many of my best memories at Augusta revolve around Arnold Palmer and Jack. We were fierce competitors, but more importantly, always close friends.
Long before Jack had an astounding six green jackets to his name, I remember speaking with the then young, fresh-faced lad back in 1959. He had just missed the cut by one stroke that year as an amateur and was looking a bit discouraged. I said to him that I had no doubt that he would win the Masters one day. Little did I, or anyone else, know that it would be just four years later, and one year after turning professional, that he would don his first green jacket.
Leading up to the 1963 Masters, I was playing well, having finished the previous year by winning the PGA Championship at Aronimink Golf Club. Jack was definitely on the radar after taking his first major at the 1962 U.S. Open.
It was a beautiful week for the 27th playing of the Masters Tournament with the azaleas in full bloom. But 1963 was a relatively difficult, high-scoring Masters. The conditions were tough, clearly shown by only two players finishing under par for the week.
On Thursday I opened in fair position with a 71, a rare below-par round that week, but Nicklaus struggled with a 74. It’s said that you can’t win a major on Thursday, but you certainly can lose any chance. It is especially hard to recover at Augusta.
Boy, did Jack recover. The 74 obviously did not faze him because he dealt us all a harsh blow on Friday with a tournament-best six-under-par 66. It was a great round that left us all at his mercy going into the weekend.
We knew Jack was fully in control and the tournament was his to lose. What was worse was that Jack knew this. He had the edge and unless he had a slip of the mind, he was in the right position to win his first Masters.
Every major is known for its final-round drama, and Masters Sunday rarely disappoints. It certainly didn’t in 1963. Jack entered the final round with a one-stroke lead but the rest of us in the field made sure there was a good bit of excitement and kept things interesting. The scoreboard workers definitely earned their keep that day.
After the turn, Sam Snead, Tony Lema, and I were tied one stroke behind Jack. Snead took the lead at two under after a string of birdies that got the crowd cheering. Just about that same time, I suffered two hurtful bogeys on 17 and 18, so I finished three back in a relatively disappointing fifth-place tie. Snead followed suit with bogeys on 16 and 18. In the end, Lema nearly caught Jack with a closing 70, but missed by a single stroke.
While we all had a few unfortunate misses, Jack played like a veteran despite being only 23 years old. He became the youngest Masters champion at the time, and it was only the beginning of a very long march toward Masters history: Jack held a permanent spot on Augusta’s leaderboard for years, making for an incredible journey that included claiming his final Masters 23 years later at age 46.
Jack’s 1962 U.S. Open and ’63 Masters victories were the start of “The Big Three.” Between 1960 and ’66, Jack, Arnie, and I passed the green jacket among us. In total, we own 13 Masters titles. That is something.
It only seems right that Arnold, Jack, and I will be able to celebrate the 50th anniversary of Jack’s first victory at Augusta when we reunite as honorary starters this year. Funny, this year also is the 50th anniversary of the tradition of honorary starters, which started with Jock Hutchison and Fred McLeod in 1963.
Come Thursday, April 11, there is nowhere I would rather be and I am positive that I could not find any better company on earth.