Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Billy Casper: Golf's original 'Superteam'

Bob Thomas/Getty Images (1971)

Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Billy Casper: Golf's original 'Superteam'

Golf

Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino and Billy Casper: Golf's original 'Superteam'

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NBA free agency has arrived, with a tornado of deals and talk of new “Superteams” from Barclays Center in Brooklyn to the Staple Center in Los Angeles.

Golf’s individuality means talk of “team play” is often limited to biennial events like the Ryder Cup, Presidents Cup, Walker Cup and Solheim Cup.

Fans of the Brooklyn Nets have gotten their “Superteam” in the form of Kyrie Irving, Kevin Durant and DeAndre Jordan. They may even play together someday. Meanwhile, the Lakers are looking to add one more piece to their duo of LeBron James and Anthony Davis. (Kawhi Leonard, perhaps?)

Odds are your favorite NBA team looks very different on Monday than it did Saturday.

Golf’s original “Superteam” was not the result of max contracts or sign-and-trade deals. Rather, it was the result of considerable build-up, some great timing, the archaic PGA of America rules and the confluence of Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus playing together in the Ryder Cup for the first time in 1971.

Arnie and Jack had been part of sports marketing’s original “Superteam” for nearly a decade as part of Mark McCormack’s burgeoning IMG empire. They paired to win three PGA Tour team events from 1966-71 and were successful teammates in World/Canada Cup play.

But they had to wait until 1971 to be co-joined on Team America in the Ryder Cup.

Nicklaus achieved his career Grand Slam in 1966, but he was not eligible to play on the the 1967 Ryder Cup team. At that time, eligibility required a minimum five-year PGA Tour membership before player points could be counted for team qualification.

That 1967 American squad featured Palmer, was captained by Ben Hogan and defeated its British counterparts 23.5 to 8.5 at Champions Golf Club in Houston. It remains the most lopsided defeat in Ryder Cup history.

Nicklaus was 29 when he first played in the Ryder Cup 50 years ago. However, Palmer failed to qualify.

The 1969 Ryder Cup has its own chapter in golf’s New Testament thanks to “The Concession” by Nicklaus to Tony Jacklin in their anchor singles match and simmering hatred between many of the combatants at Royal Birkdale in Southport, England.

With the Ryder Cup score tied at 13 and Nicklaus 1 up on No. 17, Jacklin made a 35-foot eagle putt to square the match. Nicklaus would make a five-footer for par putt on 18 before surprising all on hand and watching by conceding Jacklin’s par putt, ensuring their game, and the Ryder Cup, would end in a tie. It is widely considered one of the great acts of sportsmanship in golf.

“I very quickly thought about Tony Jacklin and what he had meant to British golf. Here he was, the Open champion, the new hero, and all of a sudden it felt like if he missed this putt he would be criticized forever,” Nicklaus said. “I just made up my mind, I said, ‘I’m not going to give Tony Jacklin the opportunity to miss it. I think we walk off of here, shake hands and have a better relationship between the two golfing organizations is the right way to do it’.”

That meant the U.S. retained the Cup despite the blemish of a tie.

And the stage was set for 1971.

The 1971 U.S. Ryder Cup team had plenty of reason for confidence, especially since they would be playing at Old Warson Country Club in St. Louis.

More importantly, it featured the long-awaited Ryder Cup pairing of Nicklaus and Palmer, who had been one-upping each other in majors and elsewhere for a decade, despite their 11-year difference in age.

Palmer’s greatness had ebbed but Nicklaus was at his zenith as a golf superpower.

The combination of the two – playing on the same team at the same time on an international stage – would prove too much for any British team to counter.

Things weren’t always smooth between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. The two clashed often. During the 1971 U.S. Open at Merion, Nicklaus ripped the course layout and Palmer smugly said the course was fine and Nicklaus was playing too slowly. (Associated Press)

“I think we were a little imposing who we were playing to start with,” Nicklaus told Ian O’Connor in his book “Arnie & Jack: Palmer and Nicklaus, Golf’s Greatest Rivalry.” “I mean, they said, ‘We may be able to handle Arnold Palmer. We may be able to handle Jack Nicklaus. But the two of them together, we’re not going to be able to handle.’ I don’t think we ever got beat at much of anything.”

They would be joined by 1971 PGA Tour Player of the Year and Ryder Cup rookie Lee Trevino, whose pro success had just begun to manifest itself. And Billy Casper, who would amass 51 PGA Tour victories and had won the Masters 18 months earlier.

Palmer. Nicklaus. Trevino. Casper.

Take that, Kyrie.

The rest of the American team consisted of captain Jay Hebert, Miller Barber, Frank Beard, Charles Coody, Gardner Dickinson, Gene Littler, Mason Rudolph, J.C. Snead, and Dave Stockton.

The British Team featured rookies Harry Bannerman, John Garner and Peter Oosterhuis.

Setting a pattern that today’s NBA powerhouses try to follow, the 1971 U.S Ryder Cup team joined two legends with one of the game’s greats (Casper)  and a rising star (Trevino) to win a championship.

Palmer, Nicklaus and Trevino nearly outpointed the entire British team by themselves. The trio combined for 13 points as the Americans beat their Great Britain opponents 18.5 – 13.5. Trevino would go 4-1 despite a recent appendectomy.

Palmer, then 42, played six 18-hole-rounds in the span of three days from Sept. 16-18 and only lost on the final day after the Cup had already been clinched. He went 4-1-1 during that span.

American Lee Trevino waves to crowd after his birdie putt on No. 12 that would leave the U.S. one point away from the 1971 Ryder Cup on Day 3. (Associated Press)

Nicklaus was a force all his own. He played in seven matches, won five and tied another.

The Americans upped their overall Ryder Cup record to 15-3-1.

But it did not come without trial or turbulence.

During a second-day foursomes match, Bernard Gallacher’s caddie was so smitten by a Palmer tee shot on the par-3 seventh hole that he asked Palmer which club he had used. Palmer replied, “a 5-iron.”

A match referee overheard the exchange, which was a deemed a violation of Rule 9a, the giving of advice. Palmer and Dickinson would be awarded the hole to go 2-up in their match and eventually win it by one hole.

On that second day, the Americans earned 6.5 out of a possible 8 points and had turned a 1-point deficit into a 4-point advantage. Hebert would partner Nicklaus and Palmer in an afternoon four-ball match. Nicklaus and Palmer defeated Peter Townsend and Bannerman 1-up.

It was a “closely contested match,” Palmer would recall. “Dickinson and I proved even more formidable as a team that year, however, winning three of our team matches to give me a record of four wins against one loss and one tie.”

The average age of the European team was under 30. And on the final day, the upstart Euros led in six of the eight matches in the morning. Then Trevino stunned Brian Huggett 7&6 in the first match of the afternoon. That left the U.S. one point away from clinching. Snead, the nephew of Sam Snead, would capture the decisive point with a clutch putt and 1-up win over veteran Jacklin on 18.

Palmer would go undefeated in his seven Ryder Cup tries and make his final appearance in 1973 at Muirfield, Scotland.

He always recognized and appreciated the importance of playing for his nation.

“I loved the Ryder Cup, because it simply wasn’t about playing for money. It was about playing for something far grander and more personal,” he said.

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