Tuesday night, more than 200 amateurs gathered at a banquet at Congressional Country Club for the drawing of names for yesterday's pro-am tournament on the eve of the $400,000 Kemper Open.
The first name plucked from the drum by Joe Riley, the master of ceremonies, was low-handicap amateur Harry Allcock.
The stunned Allcock, suddenly realizing that he had his choice of playing with any pro in the field of 156 players, exclaimed, "Oh, God! Nicklaus!"
"Come on, Harry, make up your mind," retorted Riley. "Which of the two do you want?"
Allcock's reaction is similar to that of many golf fans. The best news that any regular PGA Tour event can get is: Nicklaus is coming.
For the first time in its three years here, the Kemper will have golf's major attraction when the first round begins this morning.
"I felt like I should have been here before this," said Nicklaus, who arrives on a hot streak; he won at Colonial three weeks ago, then, despite the distractions of running his own event, was 11th at the Memorial last weekend.
"The last two years, I've had sons graduating from high school that week and a golf tournament has to take second place to that. But I've wanted to play here," said Nicklaus, who tees off at 8:40 a.m. "Whenever a tour event tries hard to improve itself, as the Kemper has, by coming to a major city and playing on a course that has hosted the U.S. Open and the PGA, then I certainly feel an obligation to support that whenever I can."
"Yes, I realize what my coming here does," said Nicklaus, smiling, after being hemmed into an answer.
What Nicklaus' aura does is help sell more advance tickets than in either '80 or '81. In fact, this year's Kemper has had all the good breaks that the two previous ones did not.
Who should the defending Kemper champion be but Craig Stadler, the hottest name in golf after winning the Masters and moving to No. 1 on the money list. "That was by far the best week of golf I've ever put together," said Stadler yesterday of his six-shot win in '81. "I drove it well, I hit it close and I made everything. That's tough to beat."
"What did Craig shoot?" asked Nicklaus, who played Congressional in the '64 Open and '76 PGA, when 278 and 281 were the winning scores.
He shot 270, Nicklaus was told.
"That's out of my class," said Nicklaus, doing a double take. "I'll yield to that and see if I can shoot some reasonable score, like 280."
Nicklaus then went out and shot a 70 in the pro-am, tying Andy North for the day's best score. Pro Jeff Mitchell and partners Sen. Sam Nunn (D-Ga.), Michael McCullough, Carlton Collins and Harry Headd won the team championship with net 54. A total of 52 teams played, with each amateur paying $1,800 to play with a PGA pro.
Last year's Kemper field was thin, with only six of the season's top 20 money winners on hand. This time, a dozen of the top 20 are here.
Part of the reason is that Congressional apparently has solved the problem it had with bumpy greens in its first two Kempers. New grass, which wasn't really ready last year, now is mature and, by and large, the pros here are satisfied with the putting surfaces.
For the first time, the Kemper should be largely complaint free. Even changing the sixth and 10th holes from long, brutal par-4s to birdieable par-5s--changing Congressional from a par 70 to 72--sits well with most players. Vanity being what it is, most pros would rather shoot 284 and have it called four under par than shoot 282 and have it called two over par.
Except for the withdrawal of Tom Weiskopf yesterday and the possibility that Chi Chi Rodriguez (who withdrew from the pro-am after nine holes because of a bad back) might also have to withdraw, this Kemper has, thus far, been lucky.
It has one last twist. This could be Washington's last chance to see the man with 19 major tournament championships while he still is in his prime. "I don't know how many more years of this (regular tour play) there are going to be," said Nicklaus. "I'll probably start cutting back my schedule again next year.
"And, next year I've got a daughter graduating from high school."