Combining Arnold Palmer’s dashing playing style, Gary Player’s sheer willpower, and Jack Nicklaus’ incredible brilliance, this triumvirate of great golfers catapulted the game into the modern age.
If the trio came to redefine how golf was played between the late 1950s and early 1980s, which is unusual for sports rivals, they also forged a long-term relationship—so much so that Nicklaus and Palmer’s wives became best friends as well.
“We traveled all over the world, Australia, everywhere together. And we basically lived together, played a lot of TV matches and exhibitions together.”
The player recalls how they had a confrontation with Palmer on one of his fields, but their “attachment” to each other made it easier to reconcile.
“We went in and had lunch together and I distinctly remember we were both crying because I think we were so attached to each other that we didn’t want it to affect our friendship. And so we also laughed together. how they cry together.
“This 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 won the most major tournaments in his professional golf career, admitted that he was part of “Arnie’s army” in his early years.
Nicklaus remembers taking a driving course with Palmer at age 18 in Athens, Ohio, and leading his opponent by 40 yards.
Nicklaus recalls saying to Palmer, “I just knocked you out of 40 yards.” Palmer replied, “Yes, but I shot 63 and you shot 67.”
The South African player recalls seeing Palmer hit balls on the training ground in 1957 and thinking, “Well, this man is going to be a champion.”
The player’s prediction turned out to be far-sighted. A year later, Palmer won his first major title, winning the famous green jacket at the age of 28. He was to wear the green Masters jacket three more times, as well as win the US Open in 1960 and the Open twice.
With the help of his agent Mark McCormack, who would eventually represent both Nicklaus and The Player, Palmer became a worldwide superstar, traveling the world to showcase his skills with his clubs, aided by the charisma he “exuded”, according to the legend. South African golf. .
According to Player, his passion for the game was enormous.
“Even as he got older, he really couldn’t beat 90, but he still wanted to go out there and play with the members and the people,” Player said.
Palmer’s rise to fame was accompanied by the advent of widescreen television in the US, allowing people across the country to watch him win his first major tournaments.
“They loved a simple man who climbed to the top and killed all the dragons,” Niklaus explained.
But Palmer’s playing style on the pitch really made him such a likable player for the crowd. 18-time major tournament winner Nicklaus refers to him as a “Robin Hood” of sorts.
“It seemed like he wanted to get into the woods to make a spectacular throw and get everyone excited,” he said. “And he did it. He hit the woods many times and had impressive shots that everyone knew about.
“And he excited everyone. He pulled up his pants and had a cigarette hanging from his mouth.”
The competitive nature of golf’s self-proclaimed “big three” has pushed them to bigger and better things.
Nicklaus and Palmer often played for themselves without competing in tournaments, such was the competition between them, according to the 18-time major tournament winner.
Nicklaus especially remembers the 1975 Masters, in which they were both at the top of the leaderboard after two rounds.
“We played in the third round and I threw 73 and Arnold 75. And we shook hands on the last hole and he said, ‘We did it again. So we’re out of the tournament.”
“I came back, had a good last round and ended up winning the tournament. But Arnold was effectively eliminated from the tournament. You can’t play golf like that.”
“You play golf in control. 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 73 PGA Tour wins, the third most in history. Palmer has 62 PGA Tour wins, fifth most in history. The player has won 24 PGA Tour victories, as well as 116 remarkable international victories.
The player finds similarities between the trio’s passion and drive and the competitive spirit that Tiger Woods – a 15-time major tournament winner and PGA Tour record holder – brings to the game.
“We were as brutal as any competitor the world has ever seen,” Player says.
“But the thing is, we were very attached to each other. When we were on the golf course, we made it clear: “I want to beat you. And if you beat me, I’ll look you in the eye and say, great job. ‘”
Change of mind
While the Open Championship is one of the most sought after awards in golf worldwide, it hasn’t always been that way.
The player won the major in 1959, but before Palmer first showed up there a year later, very few American golfers had traveled to the UK to play the tournament.
By arriving as the reigning Masters and US Open champion, Nicklaus said, Palmer brought a certain level of prestige to his compatriots who watched him return home on his way to a second-place finish.
“The Scots loved him. And the game at St. Andrews and Kel Nagle beat him by one 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 in July and 51 US golfers took part in 156 strong courses, including eventual winner Colleen Morikawa.
While Player says the Open “would be what it is today if it weren’t for” Palmer’s influence, he does credit the American’s arrival at the event to help bring it further attention in the US.
“The Open Championship with Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen, Peter Thomson and Roberto De Vicenzo, and you can go on and on with the hundreds of guys who helped make the Open, this great championship.
“Did Arnold Palmer improve it when he stumbled upon it? Yes. This charismatic person, who played so well in America, comes across, of course, this brought great benefits to Open, but we can never give credit to one person for the greatest world championship.
Since his death in 2016, Palmer has been commemorated throughout golf and even by the US Postal Service – in 2020 they released a commemorative stamp honoring the great golfer.
“I think most of the guys understood that Arnold did more for the game than anyone else,” Nicklaus said, paying tribute to his “hero”.
“His influence in the game, his behavior, the way he carried himself, he needed to be grand when he needed to be grand, presidential when he needed to be president, humble when he needed to be humble. Arnold did an excellent job with this task. And I think we all owe him a lot,” Nicklaus adds.
“Not only do the pros owe him a lot, but the game of golf owes a lot to him. It’s been five years, but I miss my buddy.
“I spoke to him about two weeks before he died. He was a typical person. I said, “How are you, AP?” He said: “I think I’m ready to go out and hit some balls. I really feel good. Better than I’ve felt in a long time, I’m looking forward to getting out.”
“He was no longer ready to hit a golf ball than the man in the moon, but he didn’t want me to know anything else. So I gave him credit for that, and for that I love him. I will miss him forever.”