Sawgrass surrendered today. And Jack Nicklaus declared war.
For one blissful opening round of the Tournament Players Championship, the most feared course on the PGA tour -- the Sawgrass links -- lay becalmed under a balmy Florida sky. The alligators and snakes remained in their swampy lairs. The despised winds stayed home.
A host of vengeful golfers -- led by Kermit Zarley's course record-tying 66 and the 67s of Nicklaus, Andy North and Lanny Wadkins -- spilled the red INK OF 438 BIRDIES ON THE DEFENSELESS MONSTER.
For the last two years at Sawgrass, no one has equaled par in the TPC. "Take no prisoners," was the motto of the 7,083-yard torture chamber. Arnold Palmer shot 313 last year, and the wise withdrew.
"I hope the whole thing blows into the Atlantic,"said Larry Ziegler, speaking for multitudes.
Today, a stampede of 74 players matched or bettered par of 72. A score of scores -- 20 -- were in the 60s.
"I coulda made a big pile of money in the clubhouse betting that could never happen," said North.
"This course is gonna get us all back," said Wadkins. "You just better steal from it while you can."
Gil Morgan, Ron Streck, old Don January and Jim Nelford -- none of whom had ever threatened par at Sawgrass before -- joined in the day's grand theft with 68s. In all, the field of 144 players had an average score of 72.7 -- a huge improvement over last year's opening-round mark of 75.5.
The Bear who was golad to get his paw back in the subpar honey pot was Nicklaus. For his last 10 rounds, he had failed to break par; an almost unthinkable slump.
"It's been a while since I played a good round of golf," said the Golden Bear, the defending champ who had a bogeyless round that included three deuces. "It's gotta help.
"I'm delighted to be back among the (leading) group... go ahead and write all your comeback stories today. But keep the other ones ready for tomorrow," bantered the Bear.
"Instead of looking for a place to make a mistake, I held the round together today," said Nicklaus. "I made a few putts and missed a few... coulda shot 64 or I could have shot my usual 73, if I'd missed 'em all."
Nevertheless, Nicklaus was ecstatic over the way he finished his round. It was characteristic of his old winning form and perhaps signaled the end of his recent tendency to self-destruct on the closing holes.
At the 16th, he lipped the cup with a 10-foot birdie putt, and muttered variations of "I can't believe it" all the way to the next tee.
Hooking his next drive a club length from the lake, that "look-for-a-way-to-fail" tendency was reappearing. As Nicklaus stood ankle-deep in water and gouged the ball out of a marshy lie 80 yards back to center fairway, he was thinking "just make bogey."
"I figured I'd just walk in with wet feet," he said.
And wet spirits, too, it seemed. But one shot changed that, and perhaps this entire tournament, which Nicklaus has won three times in five years.
Some get up and down to save par with a wedge. Nicklaus slammed a sixiron through a stiff wind and blanketed the stick. The ball bit and stopped dead for a three-foot ram-it-in par.
The pumped-up Bear birdied the par-five 18th, his third-shot wedge dancing around the stick -- hitting a foot in front, bouncing past, then snatching back past the hole. The crowd erupted, Nicklaus knocked his six-foot putt in the heart and that familiar name was at the top of the leader board once more.
"I could have had four twos, but I lipped out a birdie on the fourth one -- yeah, I had it on my mind," said Nicklaus. "How long since I birdied three par-threes? Heck, it's been awhile since I had two... been a while since I've had one...."
That seems about to change as Nicklaus' insistance that he is actually striking the ball well and putting adequately seems to be true. He had makable birdie putts on 14 holes.
On a day that Sawgrass plays like the Quad Cities Open, perhaps it is appropriate that someone named "Moonman" should tie the course record.
In 17 years, Zarley has won only two tour events. He has marvelous streaks -- so many 29s for nine holes on the tour that he can't remember exactly how many. But his attention span is short. He seems so calm as to border, at times, on the comatose -- hence the nickname.
On the course, Zarley has the tall, ramrod straight look of a lieutenant of Legionnaires, a touch of something piratical around the blond mustache. On the fairways, he carries the Wall Street Journal under his arm and leads the tour's prayer group.
Today, he had so many birdie putts he didn't know what to do. "I've got a new hook-type swing with what kids used to call a 'reverse loop' from outside to inside," explained Zarley. "It's all right as long as I keep it out of these swamps."
Among the leaders, Wadkins may be hitting the ball best. "I may not have hit the ball this well in five or six years," he said. "I just fired it at the stick all day. There's no reason to back off when you're hittin' it as stiff as I am."
The words of wisdom for the day came from young North, the U.S. Open champ. "This is as easy a low round as I've played in a long time," he said.
"But nobody's crazy enough to think that can last for long. I don't know how many days we'll see like this. Folks here don't even usually measure the wind unless it's over 20 miles an hour," said North.
"There's almost no rough on the course. The greens haven't burned out and gotten hard yet... though they will by Sunday.
"This is as fair as we'll ever get to see Sawgrass. Heck, it was fun out there today... like playin' golf."
For Friday, increasing warm winds are predicted. For the weekend, a dastardly cold front with high winds.
Gather ye birdies while ye may, Sawgrass may come in like a lamb, but this TPC promises to go out like a lion.