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Column: Nicklaus, Palmer and Player Made the Game Big

February 13, 1996

NEW YORK (AP) _ Stacked like layers of a cake or floors of a skyscraper, the different eras of golf are piled against a wall of time, distinguished by the names of those who dominated the game.

The Morris’s, Old Tom and Young Tom, got the professional game going in the last century while Harry Vardon and Francis Ouimet brought it solidly to the shores of America.

Sir Walter Hagen, regal Bobby Jones and dandy Gene Sarazen captured the fancy of a post-World War I public looking for heroes and fought successfully for golfing headlines in the Golden Age of sports against the likes of Ruth, Rockne, Dempsey and Tunney.

Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and Ben Hogan _ born within six months of each other _ took the game out of the country club and into the hearts of the common man.

Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros and Greg Norman truly pushed the game to every corner of the world.

But no names have meant more to golf than the three men who carried it into our homes weekend after weekend in the late 1950s and 1960s in the miracle box called television.

Arnie, Gary and Jack.

The hard-charging, pants-hitching, cigarette-smoking Palmer.

Player, the stoic little man from troubled South Africa, ironically dressed all in black.

And Nicklaus. The wunderkind who before the eyes of a television nation transformed from an overweight, crew-cut boy into the most successful player the game has ever known.

Somehow the admission by Nicklaus this week that ``I’ve got to be realistic with my ability to compete at a major championship level″ ends an era of greatness the game will never see again.

Unless Nicklaus finishes much better in the Masters and the Open this year than he has in the last five years, that era of The Big Three _ Palmer, Player and Nicklaus _ will for the most part end on July 18 at Royal Lytham & St. Annes Golf Club in England when the British Open starts without Jack Nicklaus.

It will be the first time Nicklaus has missed one of the major championships since 1961 _ a truly remarkable record. Thankfully, we will still see Palmer, Player and Nicklaus in the Masters and Seniors events.

But somehow, the admission by Nicklaus that the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills in Michigan this June ``probably will end my streak of consecutive championships″ and his observation that ``there’s a lot of young fellows out there that I think are better than I am now″ is a jarring recognition that time does pass, even for the greatest.

Golf will never see the likes of Nicklaus again: 70 tour victories, 18 major professional championships, two U.S. Amateur titles. His first pro victory was the U.S. Open in 1962 and his last was the Masters in 1986, fitting bookends over a quarter century for one of the most dominating sports careers ever.

Yet as long as Nicklaus reigned, as much as he won, as far out of reach as he put certain records, his greatness comes packaged with the competitive fire of his two greatest challengers _ Palmer and Player.

The seeds of the current golf explosion were planted in a generation of Baby Boomers who sat as children and watched The Big Three _ Palmer, Player and Nicklaus _ dominate the game for more than a decade with a style and confidence matched perfectly by the precision of their games.

Between them they won 37 major championships, counting the two U.S. Amateur championships won by Nicklaus and one taken by Palmer.

Nicklaus and Player join Sarazen and Hogan as the only golfers who have won all four of the professional grand slam events in their careers.

From 1958 through 1966 the Big Three won 17 major championships between them, including eight of the nine Masters. They won a total of 151 PGA Tour events in their careers.

Palmer was the swashbuckler, slashing at the ball with a swing so hard he’d duck his head on the follow through to keep from wrapping the shaft around his neck.

When he’d start one of his famous come-from-behind charges his pace would quicken and he’d hurry to hit the next shot, exploding with joy out of his knocked-knee putting stance when he’d make a big one.

Player had Hogan-like concentration and discipline. He’d watch each shot with a squinting intensity, a furrowed brow following the ball on its flight to the green.

Only Nicklaus, Jones and Hagen won more than Player’s nine major championships, a number matched by Hogan. Only Nicklaus had a greater span of time than the 20 years between his first major championship and his last.

So many times when talking about The Big Three, or any of the greats of the game, that the phrase ``Only Nicklaus″ comes up.

If, in fact, Nicklaus does skip the British Open this year and end his streak of consecutive major championships, it will be a sad day for golf.

But it will also be a chance to celebrate once again memories of The Big Three, the trio who truly made the game big.

And it will be a time when the phrase ``Only Nicklaus″ will be written and spoken again, and certainly not for the last time.

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