Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Tom Weiskopf, and the 1975 Cliffhanger at Augusta
There are seminal moments in tournament golf, specific instances where the tournament, the venue, the protagonists come together in a perfect storm to showcase an historically significant event that changes forever our perception of a major tournament. Before 1975 The Masters was a major, it had it’s share of great winners and dramatic endings but it was mostly a vivid beginning of the golf season for American golf viewers, set in a resplendent arboretum in Georgia.
In 1975 three of the best players in the game, Jack Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, and Tom Weiskopf did what rarely happens. They came to Augusta with their A-games, lived up to all the hype, and put on a competitive show for the ages. Gil Capps, a longtime golf industry veteran for NBC Sports and The Golf Channel, brings an attention to detail of the 1975 Masters that allows us to relive the round-to-round drama like we are watching it unfold right before our eyes and properly places it as one of the seismic moments in Masters golf history.
There have been a number of wonderful historical accounts of golf tournaments, matches, and prominent characters released in the last 10 years. If you have read and enjoyed Kevin Cook’s “Tommy’s Honor” or Mark Frost’s “The Greatest Game Ever Played”, “The Grand Slam”, or “The Match” you know what I am talking about. You will find this account of the lives of these three champions and their elevation of The Masters to new heights equally intriguing.
The author has an intimate knowledge of Augusta National and the Masters and his detailed research provides the reader with an inside view of the history and development of the event over the last 80 years. For example, he talks about the stark white sand so prominent in our television images that create the bold faces of the MacKenzie bunkers. Clifford Roberts sourced the material from feldspar mining operations in North Carolina. It is actually crushed rock not sand and, as a result, when it is dry will disperse as balls hit avoiding embarrassing buried lies. There are countless other tidbits about the stewardship of Bobby Jones and Clifford Roberts helping this annual outing of a bunch of golf buddies evolve into a major championship.
The book is presented in a Kiefer Sutherland time-lapse format chronicling the practice rounds and the four tournament days as unique segments of the whole. This makes the reading a “real time” experience and the interplay of the subplots make the eventual outcome more vivid.
The Thursday round begins with “the most anticipated first-round tee time in Masters history” as he describes Lee Elder’s breaking of the color line at this most famous of southern golf venues. It includes an entertaining vignette about Bob Murphy and Lee Trevino two guys who never played up to their potential at Augusta. Capp says “The two players had four things going against them: their lack of length, their left-to-right ball directions, their low ball flight, and their attitude”.
The pattern of the book is established as he wanders off for a biographical chapter on Nicklaus, the first of three he intersperses between accounts of the four days of play. The reader gets a good sense of the importance of the golf character and motivation of Bobby Jones as a competitive impetus to Nicklaus. Jones cared only about the majors and therefore Nicklaus saw winning majors as the ultimate benchmark of golf achievement.
Biographical sketches of backgrounds of Johnny Miller and Tom Weiskopf provided the strongest additions to my historical golf knowledge from reading this book. Miller was the roman candle of the era, bursting on the scene with a victory in his first pro event in 1969 at the age of 22, proceeding to win almost every tournament played in the arid climates over the next decade. His 63 in the final round at Oakmont to win the 1973 U.S. Open was one of the most jaw dropping accomplishments in history. Miller was driven to be the best in the game and never was afraid of Nicklaus. In fact in Miller’s 25 wins on the PGA Tour Nicklaus was second in 5 of them. From 1969 to 1983 Miller was always in the conversation at the majors until, as Capp says, “Miller had fallen out of love with the process that had driven him to the top of his sport”.
Weiskopf was another story, he had to bear the yoke of following in Nicklaus’s foot prints, growing up in Ohio and playing at Ohio State just behind him. Weiskoff was a perfectionist with no patience for mediocrity, a slam dunk to be the next great in the game. His game had “both arrogance and elegance to it….It was the tempo and rhythm that others swooned over…..a grace and smoothness rare for a tall man who always finished in perfect balance.”
Weiskopf won 16 times on the PGA Tour including one major at the 1973 Open Championship at Royal Troon and finished second or third in majors 8 times from 1969 to 1978. But for all of that accomplishment he was considered an underachiever.
His Achilles Heel was his perfectionist attitude and the expectation of greatness heaped upon him in comparison to Nicklaus. In a big event he could be in the thick of contention or seemingly out of touch. As Capp says, “If Weiskopf was playing well and in contention, there was complete resolve. If he was playing poorly, he could totally disengage”. The roller coaster ride of Weiskopf’s professional career took a severe personal toll and he dropped off the golf radar screen after his last win in 1982 at the Western Open.
I leave the description of the golf to your reading of the book, the drama Capp conveys is just captivating. Suffice it to say that Miller shot 65-66 on the weekend, Weiskopf 66 and 70 and had a putt for a playoff on the final green. The rest is history….magnificent history.
Gil Capps (2014)