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Ben Wright: Magic in Monterey

Appeared in the May/June 2004 LINKS

Over the years, hundreds of golf fanatics have asked me which was the greatest shot I ever witnessed. It’s been an easy question to answer, thanks to one man: Jack Nicklaus. The best golfer who ever lived played scores of heroic shots, and nearly always when he needed one most. On occasion they even came in succession. At the 1986 Masters, for example, there was the towering 4-iron to the 15th green that yielded a precious eagle, followed immediately by the 5-iron at the par-3 16th that came so close to being an ace.

But the stroke of genius that stands above all the others was the 1-iron Nicklaus played at Pebble Beach’s 17th hole in the final round of the 1972 U.S. Open—smack into the teeth of a ferocious wind gusting to 40 mph off the bay. The conditions were well-nigh impossible. In describing that final-round 74 for a 290 total (the highest winning score since the 1963 Open at Brookline), Nicklaus said afterward: “We were almost not playing golf. Skill was practically eliminated. Half the greens were almost dead.”

The late, great British golf writer Pat Ward-Thomas and I preceded Nicklaus onto the 17th tee that day. I vividly remember Pat—a most emotional man—saying to me rather loudly, as Nicklaus drew out his 1-iron for a shot of some 220 yards, “He’ll never get it there with that bloody club!”

With all the skill of controlled brutality at his command, Nicklaus pulled off a perfect shot that bored through the air as if that howling wind were a mere zephyr. The ball never left the flagstick, striking it after one remarkably soft bounce and coming to rest no more than six inches from the cup. Nicklaus turned to Ward-Thomas—whom he much admired—and with a broad smile, winked at the now-flustered Guardian correspondent, then strode off toward the green. For me, it was a most magical moment!

Speaking of Pebble Beach, that wonderful venue brings another happy Open memory to mind. It was exactly 20 years later, in similarly vile weather conditions, that Tom Kite outstayed his rivals to win his first major. Since CBS was not broadcasting the event, my esteemed colleague Jim Nantz and I attended as fans—a “busman’s holiday,” in British parlance. To our delight, we were invited to a champagne reception hosted by the USGA at the Monterey Yacht Club to honor the new champion.

But my delight quickly turned to anxiety when a blue-blazered member of the USGA Championship Committee collared me on arrival and asked if we could have a word. “Why not now?” I blurted nervously, certain I was about to get an earful of scorn regarding my on-screen banter with my “nemesis,” Gary McCord. I should explain that a few traditionalists intensely disliked our repartee, believing—quite erroneously in my mind—that McCord and I were dragging the Royal and Ancient game into disrepute.

Mr. Tom Chisholm introduced himself by saying how much he enjoyed my golf spots on the J.P. McCarthy radio show. I waited in trepidation for the shoe to drop, poised to defend my loveable sidekick. Instead, Mr. Chisholm’s praise continued: “What I really want to say is that you and Gary McCord are the best thing ever to happen to golf on television.”

You could have knocked me over with a feather. “What on earth makes you think that, Mr. Chisholm?” I spluttered awkwardly. The tall, silver-haired Chisholm, my new idol, replied: “You two embody the spirit of the two-dollar Nassau, whether it be at Pine Valley or at the humblest muni in the land. But do me a favor—never let your banter become too unkind. Now let’s have a drink.” What a perfect ending to a most enjoyable week! 

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