With 65, Nicklaus shows he still can rise to major occasion

July 30, 1991|By Joe Juliano | Joe Juliano,Knight-Ridder

BIRMINGHAM, Mich. -- In gloomy daylong rain, with an occasional touch of lightning overhead, Jack Nicklaus put on an awe-inspiring display yesterday that evoked memories of his lengthy tenure as the best golfer on the planet.

Nicklaus tied the competitive course record at Oakland Hills Country Club with a 5-under-par 65 to defeat Chi Chi Rodriguez in an 18-hole playoff and win the 12th U.S. Senior Open by four strokes.

"I was trying to hunt the Bear, but I ran out of bullets," said Rodriguez, whose round of 69 might have been good enough to defeat anyone but Nicklaus.

This was Nicklaus at his best, so good that not even a delay of nearly two hours caused by rain and lightning could slow him down. The scorecard read seven birdies and two bogeys, 16 of 18 greens hit in regulation, 11 of 14 fairways hit, 29 putts.

The 9,600 rugged spectators who braved the harsh weather were treated to a final round reminiscent of the fantastic finishes that, to many, certified Nicklaus' standing as the greatest player of all time. It ranked right up there with the 65 he shot at Baltusrol to win the 1967 U.S. Open, the 67 he fired at the same venue to win the 1980 Open and the 65 he carded to capture the 1986 Masters.

"Those come to mind very quickly," said Nicklaus, who has won a record 18 major pro championships.

On his way to matching the course record established by George Archer in 1964 and equaled by T.C. Chen in 1985, Nicklaus birdied five of his first eight holes. Even when he missed his only green on the front nine, he quickly salved the wound by chipping in from 40 feet for birdie.

After another birdie at No. 12, Nicklaus put a final exclamation point on his round by nearly holing out a 5-iron on the 185-yard 17th and tapping in a 6-inch putt for his final birdie of the day.

Nicklaus, who won $110,000, said it was a tip on grip pressure given him by Rodriguez on Wednesday during a practice round that "helped my golf swing tremendously." He added another wrinkle himself yesterday on the practice tee.

The result? "One of the best rounds I've had hitting the golf ball in a long, long, long time," he said. "I really played well. I got off to a good start and kept it going."

Nicklaus had made back-to-back birdie putts at Nos. 4 and 5 to take a three-stroke lead when play was suspended because of lightning. Just minutes after play resumed, Rodriguez quickly ate into the deficit by making a 35-foot birdie putt, while Nicklaus three-putted. The margin now was one.

"I thought, 'Here we go,' " Nicklaus said. "All of a sudden Chi Chi had momentum because of his long putt. I kept telling myself, 'Don't screw it up.' But I got over that real quick."

That was on the seventh hole, where Nicklaus holed a sand-wedge chip for birdie to go up by two. Rodriguez saved par out of a bunker there, but he wasn't as successful on No. 8 after hitting his approach into a bunker.

After Rodriguez blasted out to 12 feet, Nicklaus sank a 20-foot putt for his fifth birdie of the day and went to 4-under. Rodriguez missed his putt, and the deficit had doubled to 4 shots in a hurry.

"That was the turning point," Rodriguez said. "I hit a 4-iron, thinking it would kick right, but it hit the lip and

plugged in the bunker. It was a bad lie. But even if I did that well, Jack still would have won."

Rodriguez still had plenty of good golf left. He hit a 5-wood to within 15 inches at the par-3 ninth to set up a birdie putt, and nailed a 9-iron to 3 feet at No. 15 to set up another.

"I thought Chi Chi played well," Nicklaus said. "He drove the ball beautifully. He was gutty. He stayed in there. I knew he was going to play a good round because I know he wanted to win this more than anything."

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