Ray Floyd won the Doral Open today, but Jack Nicklaus announced his return to form. Both men loved it.
"I'm flabbergasted. Luck or fate has to be with you to play like I did today," beamed Floyd, who shot a final-round 66 to force a playoff, then sank a spectacular chip shot from the fringe on the second sudden-death hole to beat Nicklaus.
"This is not nearly as large a check as I had in mind," joked Nicklaus, accepting the $27,000 for second place after his closing-day for a 279 total. "But it is larger than anything I've collected in the United States in over a year.
"I'm disappointed, but I'm very encouraged," said Nicklaus, who has seldom engaged in a better day-long shotmaking duel with an old friend. "The (practice) time I've put in is paying off.
"This should help me a great deal as the year goes on," said Nicklaus, adding slyly, "but it would have helped more if I'd won."
Both players were adroit, daring and icy under pressure, especially over the final five holes of regulation, plus the playoff when they matched each other birdie for birdie and recovery for recovery.
"I know how badly Jack wanted this, but I've wanted it and needed it just as badly," said Floyd, three of whose eight birdies today defied belief as he chipped in twice and sank a 50-foot downhill putt at the 71st hole to force the playoff.
"I dodged bullets all day and made some unconscious shots," said Floyd, $45,000 richer. "But, you know, that's always how it seems to be when you win.
"As for Jack, I don't see a darn thing wrong with his game. I've played with him three times in two weeks and I think he's improved his up-and-down short game by over 100 percent, if that's possible. The Bear looks back to me."
Nicklaus, whose finish today was better than in any U.S. event in '79 when he was 71st on the money list, obviously thinks so, too.
The Bear played almost a proto-typical final Nicklaus round. He opened with a first-hole birdie, built a three-stoke lead by the seventh tee, then reacted to dropping out of the lead by making stirring birdies at the 15th and 16th to move back in front by a shot.
"I was sure I just had to finish par-par to win," he said.
Floyd's birdie at the 17th tied the match, but Nicklaus hung tough, saving a par from greenside jail at the 72nd with a wedge and a six-foot putt to force the playoff. At the first extra hole, Nicklaus lipped out a 12-foot birdie putt that would have won.
"I didn't play that well," said Nicklaus, who has hushed up a weeklong stomach virus that has left him nauseous. "But my short game and my course management (strategy) were good. I was there at the end, without playing my best.
"That's the way I've won or come close a lot in the past. Then, when I do play my best, I've won by quite a margin. Obviously, I hope that will be the progression again."
"I'd like to have seen Jack win. I think everybody would," said third-place finisher Keith Fergus, who missed the playoff by one shot after a 70 today.
Everybody, that is, except Floyd, who equipped, "I feel absolutely no remorse. In 18 years at Doral, this is only my second time in the top 10. If there's such a things as a law of averages in golf, I had to win."
A measure of Floyd and Nicklaus' crisp play was the fact that only Fergus and Wayne Levi (283) finished within five shots of their nine-under-par totals.
Starting at the 14th this afternoon, Floyd and Nicklaus began a shot-for-shot drama more suited to the U.S. Open than the modest, though beautiful, Doral Open.
After bogeying the 13th, Nicklaus hit a horrid 160-yard drive at the 14th -- a sort of career tee shot in reverse. Any duffer in the gallery could have tapped a three-wood farther.
Would the wheels come off as they have so regularly for the past 18 months? Not today.
Nicklaus drilled "a 230-yard four-iron into the wind, then got up and down from the back fringe . . . that saved the round."
At the 15th, Nicklaus' seven-iron tee shot landed in the shadow of the flag for a tap-in deuce on the 183-yard par-3.
At the 16th, Nicklaus and Floyd were given a glimpse of the future. Nicklaus was in the back fringe 20 feet from the hole, while Floyd had an uphill 12-foot birdie putt. Just an hour later -- on that final playoff hole -- their balls would be in almost identical positions, but reversed, with Floyd in the fringe.
On their first visit to the 16th, Nicklaus putted from the fringe and holed it for birdie to take the lead alone at nine under. Floyd then answered with his simpler birdie to reach eight under.
At the 17th, Floyd, who was 26th on the money list in '79, made the tournament's most breathtaking shot -- that 50-foot downhill birdie putt that prompted Floyd to fling his visor in joy.
"I threw the thing so hard I threw my arm out, just like a pitcher throwing a curve ball," said Floyd. "My arm hurt all the way to my fingertips . . . still does."
At the 18th tee -- the 437-yard par-4 that gave this course the nickname "Blue Monster" -- Nicklaus teased Floyd, "Can you still move your arm?"
"I'll see if I can swing,' answered Floyd , who them pumped an atrocious drive to the right into trees "At that point," said Nicklaus candidly afterward, "Ray should, by all rights, have been dead."
But Floyd, from his dungeon behind a tree, had no choice. "I had to invent a shot . . . gamble . . . go for the pin," he said "If I hadn't been tied for the lead, no way I'd have tried a shot so hard."
Floyd scaled a six-iron off hardpan into a tough crosswind. Thanks to the flyer lie, plus the hook he needed to avoid the trees, Floyd's miracle recovery carried 195 yards to within 20 feet of the pin. Nicklaus was shaken.
After a gorgeous 285-yard drive into the wind, Nicklaus pull-hooked a four-iron into the miserable under-growth just a yard from the water left of the green. Now, he was the one in prison.
However, his new short game saved him as he hit a lovely wedge to six feet, then drilled the putt in the heart just like old times.
In the playoff, perhaps the gods of generosity favored Floyd. On Friday night, Floyd threw a 100-steak dinner party for players and tour friends at his $800,000 8-square-foot pad on an island in Biscayne Bay here.
Certainly, good fortune attended Floyd at the first playoff hole (the 15th) when, after he had burned the edge with a birdie try from 18-feet, Nicklaus' potential winner lipped out.
Finally, at the 16th, Floyd pulled his concluding rabbit out of the hat, closing the face of his sand wedge down to nine-iron loft for his 20-foot chip shot. "I used that shot back at the eighth hole," grinned Floyd, "and chipped it in."
Nicklaus was thinking: "Ray's more likely to skull it and take bogey than he is to make it for bird. I may be able to take two putts and win."
When Floyd's soft beauty trickled into the center of the hole, there was no more visor-tossing, just some fist-pumping.
Nicklaus was stunned, and he admitted, left a bit unprepared.
"I had a 'Let's-see-what-happens attitude.' I didn't consider that he'd make it," said Nicklaus. "Well, it happened, all right. That made my putt tougher and I missed it."
With the tour's first two high-profile events on the horizon -- next week's Tournament Players Championship and the Masters in April -- Nicklaus appears to be back in the hunt.
The question left unanswered after today was exactly what sort of new refurbished Bear has arrived. Is he the same old Nicklaus or one who is 40 years old and one shot shy?