Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus share a laugh in the Donald Ross Grill at Pinehurst Resort before their 1994 match on Pinehurst No. 2.
By Lee Pace
IT WAS SHOW BUSINESS, for sure. Jack Nicklaus vs. Arnold Palmer in a made-for-TV match at Pinehurst, part of the modern reincarnation of the Shell’s Wonderful World of Golf series. Nicklaus owned the TV production company. Flags on each green had the yellow Shell logo in place of a green Pinehurst logo. No one hit a shot until cameras were properly positioned.
But watching Nicklaus and Palmer stride to the 18th green on a brilliant April afternoon in 1994, Palmer tipping his visor and Nicklaus patting his old rival on the back, was as real as the historical moments come on Pinehurst No. 2.
Arnie … Jack … Pinehurst … what scriptwriter came up with this? Some 4,000 in the gallery appreciated the significance of the moment. They clustered around the final green five and six deep, offering a hearty and rousing ovation to these heroes in the twilight of their careers.
Nicklaus won the match with a 67, rolling in a 70-foot putt from off the 18th green for a final birdie. Palmer shot 74.
“Jack and I haven’t always agreed on everything, but I think we’ve found one common ground here,” Palmer said after a practice round the day before the match. “I agree with him that No. 2 has been one of the greatest golf courses I’ve ever had the opportunity to play. And I go back to when he was wearing three-quarters pants when I first came here. That would have been 1947.”
The original run of the Shell series spanned from 1962 through 1970 and featured top golfers playing head-to-head matches in classic and exotic locations—from Pine Valley and St. Andrews to Cuba and Thailand. The idea was resurrected in 1994, the first three matches featuring Fred Couples vs. Raymond Floyd in the Caribbean, Nick Faldo and Greg Norman in England, and Palmer and Nicklaus in Pinehurst.
By this time in the mid-1990s, one decade into the club and resort resurrection under owner Robert Dedman, Pinehurst had hosted two PGA Tour Championships (1991 and ’92), had been awarded the 1999 U.S. Open, was set to host the 1994 U.S. Senior Open, and was even in discussions with the PGA of America about a Ryder Cup Match for after the turn of the 21st century. The festivities began with Nicklaus and Palmer playing a practice round the Monday after the Masters, then convening for a press conference in the Donald Ross Grill late that afternoon.
Nicklaus had great success at Pinehurst over the years, winning the 1959 North and South Amateur, the 1975 World Open on the PGA Tour, and witnessing son Jackie win the 1985 North and South. He designed the golf course that is now Pinehurst No. 9 in the late-1980s.
“I think No. 2 is a very enjoyable golf course to play,” Nicklaus said. “I’ve said many times it’s my favorite golf course from a design standpoint. It’s extremely difficult around the greens, but it also gives you an opportunity to play. Here and Augusta probably give you the two toughest sets of greens I know. I think these are more difficult than Augusta’s.”
Palmer, despite his affinity for original owners of Pinehurst, the Tufts Family, and his close collegiate proximity at Wake Forest College in the late-1940s, never won at Pinehurst.
“I have great memories of visiting Pinehurst in the old days,” Palmer said. “For a kid from Latrobe to visit the golf capital of the world was a special treat. No. 2 was the best golf course I had ever played. I thought as that golf course stood in the ’40s when they had the North and South Open and North and South Amateur, that it was impeccable—it was perfect.”
The match the next morning was closed to the public, but the membership of Pinehurst Country Club provided a perfect-size gallery. It wasn’t too big to be unwieldy, but it was big enough to lend a bit of big-time feel to the proceedings. Producer Terry Jastrow looked at the leaden sky just prior to the tee-off and remarked that the lighting was perfect.
“I felt we were all witnessing an historical event,” Jastrow said later. “I really wanted the conditions to be right, everything perfect. The light that day was very soft light, not real bright, perfect for film-making. We had perfect weather, 4,000 people or so, and who knows, it might have been the last time Jack and Arnold play together in a group in head-to-head competition. They could do it 16 other times, but it could also be their last.”
The format was mano-a-mano, 18 holes of stroke play, the winner getting $100,000 and the loser $50,000.
The early stages of the match were all anyone could have hoped for from a competitive standpoint. Nicklaus fell one behind after bogeying the second hole, giving the gallery hope that Palmer, who admittedly had not been playing well and just the week before missed the cut at the Masters, could stay close for 18.
“When Jack bogeyed 2, it was like, ‘The game is on,’” Jastrow said. “That was the wake-up call. That’s when the blood started to flow, like when the hair lays back on the neck of a dog. They weren’t fiddling around. This was not a casual round of golf.”
Palmer rolled in a 12-footer for birdie on 3 but left a 6-foot birdie try on 5 dead short. “Isn’t that a beauty,” he said with a smirk.
The match soon turned with two-shot swings on both 7 and 9 (Nicklaus birdies and Palmer bogeys), and Nicklaus was up by five shots after 12.
“Sometimes, Arnold and I play so hard trying to beat each other that neither of us plays well,” Nicklaus said. “I tried to see that that did not happen. I just wanted to get comfortable with my golf game, not play Arnold, and I played very well.”
By the time the match was over, the sun was out, sweaters were shed, the flowers around the clubhouse veranda were unveiling some early springtime color. And Jack Nicklaus had his arm around Arnold Palmer as they walked up to the 18th green.
“I think it was good for Jack and me to play the match,” Palmer said.
“The series was a great addition to the game of golf,” Nicklaus added.
By 1994 when Palmer and Nicklaus staged their exhibition, Lee Pace had just written his first book on Pinehurst, “Pinehurst Stories—A Celebration of Great Golf and Good Times” (1991).