Combining Arnold Palmer’s “reckless” style of play, Gary Player’s sheer willpower and Jack Nicklaus’ utter genius, this triumvirate of golfing greats catapulted the game into the modern era.
As the trio came to redefine how golf was played between the late 1950s and early 1980s, which is unusual for sporting rivals, they also formed lasting relationships along the way — so much so that the wives of Nicklaus and Palmer were also best friends.
“We went all over the world, Australia, everywhere together. And we actually lived together, played a lot of TV matches and exhibitions together.”
Player recalls confronting Palmer on one of his jobs, but the “affection” they had for each other made it easier to reconcile.
“We went in and we had lunch together and I vividly remember both of us crying because I think we had so much affection for each other that we didn’t want it to have an effect on our friendship. And so we laughed together like but also cry together.”
‘That man is going to be a champion’
Palmer was the first of the trio to achieve golf superstar status. Even the great Nicklaus, the man who has won the most majors in a professional golf career, admitted to being part of “Arnie’s army” in his early years.
Nicklaus recalls giving a riding clinic in Athens, Ohio as an 18-year-old with Palmer and being 40 yards ahead of his rival.
Nicklaus remembers telling Palmer, “I just knocked you 40 yards.” Palmer replied, “Yeah, but I shot 63 and you shot 67.”
South African Player recalls seeing Palmer hitting balls on a practice tee in 1957 and thinking, “Well, that guy is going to be a champion.”
The player’s prediction was prescient. A year later, Palmer won his first major title, claiming the famed Green Jacket at the age of 28. He would don the Masters’ Green Jacket three more times, as well as winning the US Open in 1960 and the Open Championship twice.
Assisted by his agent Mark McCormack — who would eventually represent both Nicklaus and Player — Palmer became a global superstar, traveling the world to showcase his skills with his clubs and aided by the charisma he “radiated”. said the South African. golf legend.
His passion for the game was prodigious, according to Player.
“Even as he got older, he really couldn’t break the 90’s, but he still wanted to go out and play with the members and with people,” Player said.
Palmer’s rise to fame was accompanied by the advent of widespread television in the US, which allowed people across the country to watch him win his first majors.
“They loved the common man who rose to the top and killed all the dragons,” Nicklaus explained.
But it was Palmer’s playing style on court that made him such a likeable player to the spectators. The 18-time big winner Nicklaus calls him a sort of “Robin Hood”.
“Looks like he wanted to punch it in the woods so he could get a spectacular shot and get everyone in the loop,” he said. “And he did. He hit a lot in the woods and he had those spectacular shots that everyone had to deal with.
“And he got everyone excited. He hung up his pants and a cigarette hung from his mouth.’
The competitive nature of golf’s self-proclaimed “Big Three” propelled them to bigger and better things.
Nicklaus and Palmer often outplayed themselves for tournaments, such was the competitive fire between the two, according to the 18-time big winner.
Nicklaus especially remembers the 1975 Masters, in which they were both near the top of the standings after two rounds.
“We played the third round and I shot 73 and Arnold shot 75. And we shook hands on the last hole and he says, ‘We’ve done it again. We’re shooting ourselves out of the tournament here.’
“I came back, shot a good last round and eventually won the tournament. But Arnold effectively shot himself out of the tournament. And that’s not the way to play golf.
“You play golf by controlling yourself. And you are the only person you can control, not the field. So you have to take that into account, but we didn’t. We were too stubborn. We were too competitive.”
Including his 18 majors, Nicklaus has won 73 PGA Tour wins – the third most ever. Palmer took 62 PGA Tour wins, the fifth most ever. Player had 24 PGA Tour wins, while also racking up a remarkable 116 international wins.
Player draws similarities between the trio’s passion and drive and the competitive spirit that Tiger Woods — the 15-time major winner and tie for most PGA Tour wins ever — brings into play.
“We were as fierce as competitors the world has ever seen,” Player says.
“But the thing is, we had a lot of affection for each other. When we were on the golf course and we made it very clear, ‘I want to beat you. And if you beat me, I’ll look you in the eye and say well done.’ “
To change opinion
While the Open Championship is one of the most sought-after accolades in golf worldwide, it hasn’t always been that way.
Player had won the major in 1959, but before Palmer first appeared there a year later, very few American golfers had made the trip to the United Kingdom to participate in the tournament.
Arriving as the reigning Masters and US Open champions, according to Nicklaus, Palmer brought a certain level of cachet to his compatriots who looked home on their way to second place.
“The Scots loved him. And play at St Andrew’s and Kel Nagle beat him with a shot. And suddenly all the American players wanted to go to the British Open,” said Nicklaus.
Fast forward to the 149th Open at Royal St. George’s in July and 51 American golfers took part in the 156 strong field, including eventual winner Collin Morikawa.
While Player says the Open “would be what it is today without” Palmer’s influence, he believes the American’s arrival at the event has helped draw attention to the event in the US.
“The Open Championship with Ben Hogan and Sam Snead and Gene Sarazen and Peter Thomson and Roberto De Vicenzo and you can go down the list of hundreds of guys who helped make the Open, this great championship.
“Did Arnold Palmer improve upon it when he came across it? Yes. Here was this charismatic man who played so well in America, he’s definitely coming over, it’s done the Open a tremendous amount of good, but we can never give credit to one man for the biggest championship in the world.”
Since his death in 2016, Palmer has been honored in the game of golf and even by the US Postal Service – they have issued a commemorative stamp in honor of the golfer in 2020.
“I think most guys realized what Arnold did for the game was more than anyone,” Nicklaus said, paying tribute to his “hero.”
“His influence in the game, his attitude, the way he handled himself, he had to be stately when he had to be stately, presidential when he had to be presidential, humble when he had to be humble. Arnold did a great job of All That. And I think we all owe him a lot,” Nicklaus added.
“Not only do the pros owe him a lot, the golf game owes him a lot. It’s been five years, but I miss my buddy.
“I spoke to him about two weeks before he died. And he was his typical self. I said, ‘How are you, AP?’ He said, “I think I’m getting ready to go out and hit some balls. I feel really good. As good as I’ve felt in a long time, I’m looking forward to getting out.”
“He wasn’t any closer to getting ready to hit golf balls than a man on the moon, but he didn’t want me to know anything else. So I gave him credit for that, and that’s why I love him. miss him forever.”