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Nicklaus-Palmer still the standard in golf rivalries

(AP Photo/Stephen B. Morton)

By DOUG FERGUSON

AP Golf Writer

WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. (AP) Jack Nicklaus says if he were in a high-stakes match in Las Vegas in his prime, the most compelling opponent would be Arnold Palmer. Never mind that he considers his toughest rival to be Tom Watson. Or that he finished runner-up to Lee Trevino in majors four times in seven years.

With apologies to the super-hyped exhibition between Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson on pay-per-view, any talk of rivalries in golf starts with Nicklaus and Palmer.

"I rarely lost to Arnold," Nicklaus said last week before an American Cancer Society benefit. "We never ended up coming down the stretch every much."

Nicklaus was a runner-up to him six times, including the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills as a 20-year-old amateur.

But unlike Woods-Mickelson, who never really squared off in a major until Woods' fifth year on the tour, Nicklaus famously beat Palmer in a playoff to win the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont in Palmer's backyard.

"Arnold and my rivalry became more from the two us," Nicklaus said. "We would play together a lot. We were paired a lot. And usually we beat each other up and we ended up giving the tournament away. That's why they talk about the rivalry. Everyone was interested in who won that day, not who won the tournament."

Nicklaus was reminded of the 1970 U.S. Open at Hazeltine, where the tournament scoreboard had the names Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player at the bottom the entire week. None of them finished in the top 40.

"I've never seen a tournament ever do anything like that," Nicklaus said.

Nicklaus also finished runner-up in the majors four times to Watson, all coming down to the final few holes, none more dramatic than Turnberry in 1977.

"Watson was the toughest," Nicklaus said. "He was a kid with blinders on. I love the way Tom played."

Trevino won by four shots at Oak Hill in the 1968 U.S. Open, then beat Nicklaus in a playoff at Merion in 1971 and denied Nicklaus the third leg of the Grand Slam a year later by beating him at Muirfield. And in 1974, Trevino got him by one shot at Tanglewood in the PGA Championship.

"He thrived on competitive moments," Nicklaus said.

But Palmer? That was different.

He said the rivalry started in 1958 when Nicklaus, an 18-year-old amateur, was invited to take part in a day honoring Dow Finsterwald.

"On the first tee we had a driving contest," Nicklaus said. "Arnold drove it on the green. I drove it 30 yards over the green. I never let Arnold forget that. I'd say, `Hey AP, we had one driving contest, I hit it 30 yards by you.' He'd say, `Yeah, but I shot 63 that day and you shot 67.' To me, that was the start of our rivalry. Ever since we played, we always had fun with that.

"I'd say, if I hadn't shot 39 on the last nine holes at Cherry Hills, no one would have ever heard of you.' And he'd say to me, `If I hadn't three-putted nine times in `62, nobody would have ever heard of you.' That was our banter."

There was no social media back then. Or pay-per-view.

Cameron Champ had an ideal start to his rookie season by winning the Sanderson Farms Championship, making all five of his cuts and earning nearly $1.3 million. And while he lost a chance to win at Sea Island, he cashed in another way.

Champ won $300,000 through the "Birdies Fore Love" competition by making the most birdies over the fall part of the season.

The money goes to the charity of his choice, and the 23-year-old already has the Cameron Champion Foundation geared toward STEM education and youth golf.

"Charity and giving back has always been a thing of mine and my family personally," he said. "We didn't come from much, but we always gave back as much as possible."

J.J. Spaun was second in birdies and is directing $150,000 to the United Way for low-income families affected by the California wildfires. Joel Dahmen was third and is giving the $50,000 to the Send It Foundation to support young adults fighting cancer by providing outdoor activities. Dahmen and his brother are cancer survivors, and their mother died of cancer when he was a junior in high school.

Rory McIlroy is skipping his traditional start in Abu Dhabi for the first time when healthy. In his place, the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship won't be entirely without star power. Dustin Johnson already has said he's playing for the third straight year. He will be joined by U.S. Open and PGA champion Brooks Koepka, who returns for the first time since his rookie year on the European Tour in 2014.

"Last time I played in 2014, I was ranked 93rd in the world, so a lot has happened since that time," Koepka said.

Jason Gore was one round away from one of the most unlikely stories on the PGA Tour.

He missed 10 out of 13 cuts on the Web.com Tour, missing time to have a procedure on his ailing back. He became licensed to sell insurance in California and was playing golf with clients. And then he got a late exemption to the RSM Classic and went into the final round one shot out of the lead.

That's where the dream ended. Gore shot a 2-over 72 and tied for 15th. A top 10 would have got him into the field at the Sony Open next year.

As a past champion, Gore can get in a half-dozen tournaments by his priority status and others by sponsor's exemption as one of the PGA Tour's more gregarious characters. He says he is asking for exemptions.

But he says he's done with the grind on the Web.com Tour, where he has spent seven of the last 10 seasons.

"This is going to sound terrible and it's a great place to play, the Web.com Tour, but I'm just kind of done," Gore said. "Those kids are really good and it's not worth missing our child's life at my stage. It's an unbelievable place. But at 44, it's not worth it for me to miss watching a son and a daughter grow up. I'm not going to sit there and beat my head against the wall against kids that I could be their dad."

Former British Amateur champion Scott Gregory had a rough summer, especially when he opened with a 92 in the first round of the U.S. Open at Shinnecock Hills.

The year ended on a high note, however, as he shot 62 in the third round of European Tour qualifying and wound up tying for 11th. Gregory was among 27 players who earned their cards for next season.

"I'm just over the moon," he said. "It makes up for a few of the things that I went through this year."

RSM has extended its title sponsorship of the PGA Tour at Sea Island through 2025. ... Shubhankar Sharma of India won the Sir Henry Cotton Award as the European Tour's top rookie. Sharma won twice last season. He is the third Asian to win the award in the last four years, following Jeunghun Wang (2016) and Byeong Hun An (2015), both of South Korea. ... The LPGA Tour season ended with only three Americans among the top 20 in the world - Lexi Thompson (5), Jessica Korda (12) and Danielle Kang (18). ... Eleven countries have won the last 11 times in the World Cup of Golf, a streak of parity that began with Japan in 2002.

Tournaments on three other tours offered more world ranking points last week than the RSM Classic (24) on the PGA Tour - the DP World Tour Championship in Dubai (52), the Australian Open (32) and the Dunlop Phoenix in Japan (30).

"I had to apologize on 18 to Cameron because I pretty much talked his ear off. I guess I turned into Lee Trevino with no talent." - The outgoing Jason Gore after playing the third round of the RSM Classic with Cameron Champ.

Updated November 20, 2018

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