Editor's Note: Duke Butler, who now serves as president of The Frys.com Open, shares a memory from this week’s tournament in Houston. He can still shoot 76 on occasion, if he's not too nervous.
Nobody loves PGA TOUR tournaments more than me. This is my 38th year of involvement, having competed in 28 events during the 1970s, directed the Houston Open from 1978 through 1991 and mentored many other events while serving as senior vice president of tournament relations from 1992 to 2007. My most cherished memory of a TOUR event dates 50 years ago when I attended my first pro tournament at what was then called the Houston Classic.
It was April 23, 1962 and my junior high golf team from College Station, Texas, played in an early morning shotgun start. I posted 79 and finished second. Afterwards, our coach, B.B. Holland, drove us to Memorial Park Golf Course to watch the 18-hole playoff between Bobby Nichols, Dan Sikes and a heralded rookie seeking his first title.
Nichols and Sikes shot 71, while the rookie staggered home in 76. On the 91st hole, Nichols, a Texas A&M alum and idol of mine, eagled to win. A teammate of mine rushed onto the green, grabbed Sikes' ball and snatched the cap off the champion's head. I thought we were going to jail. At that point, it was the greatest day of my life.
Experiencing that playoff in Houston might have been a break for the rookie. Seven weeks later, he won the U.S. Open at Oakmont in a playoff over Arnold Palmer. His name is Jack W. Nicklaus, and great things were in store for him.
Inspired, I played for Texas A&M, worked on my game, became a PGA member, and was paired with Jack for the third round of the 1977 Atlanta Classic. You wouldn't know it, but I was nervous. We shot the same numbers, Jack scoring 67 to my 76.
Fast forward to 2000 at THE TOUR Championship in Atlanta. Nicklaus was in attendance. All these years later, I told Jack that I had watched him nearly win his first pro title. Next thing I knew, he was telling me his sad story of why he didn't win that day in Houston.
"You know that par three on the front nine, No. 7, which plays about 230 yards?" Nicklaus asked.
As if only yesterday, he recounted how he poked a long iron to the front right of the green in Saturday's third round. With his ball about 35 feet from the hole, he asked his caddie to tend the flagstick.
"The putt rolled straight for the cup but my caddie panicked," Nicklaus said. "He couldn't get the flagstick out of the hole, and jerked it upwards, pulling the cup liner above ground."
His ball struck the liner, bouncing 18 inches away. Tournament director Joe Black ruled a two-stroke penalty. Instead of a birdie 2, Nicklaus tapped in for 5.
Knowing his misfortune pre-dated Angelo Argea, I asked if he remembered the name of his caddie. "The hell I can't," Nicklaus said. "It was Robert Ford."
Some things one never forgets.