Jack Nicklaus stood on the 71st tee of three of last season's four major golf tournament one big shot away from victory. he won none. Tom Watson took two of the four, the masters and the British Open, and was the Player of the Year.
This season Watson was in excellent position to capture three of the four, the Masters, the British Open and the PGA. He bogeyed the 18th in Augusta, ballooned to 76 in the final round at St. Andrews and Sunday blew a six-stroke lead during the last 13 holes at Oakmont.
What does it all prove? Nothing, except that Watson has joined Nicklaus as the men meriting the most respect whenever a prestigious tournment is to be played. A John Mahaffey or an Andy North might win one occasionaly, but don't bet on it.
Still, the competition gets tougher each season, making it almost impossible that any player ever again will win a grand slam. One might think that is good for the game. To a point, it is. To another, it is not.
Superstars sell. Palmer's presence was what made golf come alive. Then Nicklaus. Palmer was supposed to win, or be close, always. Nicklaus isn't supposed to lose too often, either, in the public mind.
Nicklaus has had a good season in 1978, capturing four tournaments, including the British Open. Gary Player was brilliant in taking the Masters and his next two tourneys. Lee Trevino made an excellent comeback from his back miseries. And young Andy Bean makes Nicklaus took like a weakling.
But do the naiton's golf fans really appreciate the fact that there is more talent on the tour than ever before, or would they prefer an Armie or a jack setting up as a clear favorite every time out.
This was Nancy Lopez's year in golf. I happen to believe the men's game suffered because of the failure of Nicklaus, or any other player, to dominate. The television ratings held firm, however, continuing to be higher than those for tennis, where Borg and Connors and Evert almost always appeared in the championship matches.
"Any ratings will show golf's still substantially more popular than tennis," a spokesman for ABC volunterred last week at Oakmont. He could be prejudiced, in as much as ABC carried all of the big four events except the Masters. But he came armed with figures.
"Wimbledon on NBC got an 8.3." he said. "That's good, not spectacular, even though the network couldn't have had better match ups for the finals. The U.S. Open (golf) came in at 7, which was good, because we televised the entire rounds, automatically dragging the ratings down.
The Masters drew 9.8. Many of the tour events played during the winter could fare better than the majors. The Los Angeles Open, for example, hit 12.5.
"It's important to consider at what time of year the event was televised," the ABC man said. "The later it comes in the year, the worse the rating. The tournments in the West early in the season do well because the potential audience is greater here in the East."
So why, if golf is going over so nicely on TV, did ABC drop several tournments from its 1979 schedule?
Because the PGA tour wanted five times as much for the same event," the network pitchman replied. "It was strictly a matter of economics. We didn't think they were worth it, Compared to our continuing with the U.S. and British Open and the PGA and other top events we handle. You will notice the tournments we dropped were quickly picked up by our competition."
A key to the tremendous exposure enjoyed by golf and tennis is the sponsorship of tournments by the sporting goods companies. The ratings may not be sensational but the manufacturers must believe their investments reach the right audience.
So I won't fret just yet for golf's image on the tube, not while the networks continue to produce the shows so smartly. And the galleries that attend the tour events grow annually while the purse money stays in step with the higher and higher crowd figures. But perhaps, beofre too long the people who continue to control golf will relax a little and permit the game to become more human and less mechanical.
There continues to be a slight stuffiness to golf that should have disappeared much of this problem by relaxing its dress and behavior codes. Golf would do well to follow suit and permit its participants to become personalities instead of automations.
The game's basic problem here in 1978 A. D. is that it is still a sport Republican in tone in a country dominated by Democrats and independents. The top tennis players have broken out of this trap, but too much of golf continues to be satisfied to have its feel in the sand.