Monday, February 23, 2009

Palmer vs Nicklaus at Palma Ceia, 2/21/64

On February 21, 1964, two of the biggest stars in all of sports, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus, came to Tampa to play 18 holes of golf in a charity exhibition. The match, which took place at Palma Ceia Golf & Country Club, would be the first round of golf in Tampa for both players.

Nicklaus, 24, arrived in Tampa coming off a 1963 season in which he won the Masters and the PGA Championship. Palmer, 34, won eight tournaments in 1963, but no majors. He could hang his hat, however, on the then-record $128,000 ($850,000 in today’s dollars) in winnings he earned that season. Local pros Skip Alexander of St. Petersburg and Henry Castillo, Palma Ceia’s resident pro, were paired with Nicklaus and Palmer for the competition.

Prior to the match, Nicklaus and Palmer put on a clinic on the finer points of driving. The two also took turns making jokes to entertain the crowd over the public address system.
Nicklaus joked that the two almost missed the event because of an accident.

“Arnie had a terrible accident,” Nicklaus said. “He fell off his wallet.”

Palmer, in turn, ribbed Nicklaus about his appearance.

“Look at him - white shoes in the winter time. He’s the worst-dressed man in the high-priced field.”

A crowd of 5,000 spectators jammed the pristine course to witness two of the world’s best in action. One of those in attendance, Cincinnati Reds pitcher Joey Jay, recalls getting to meet Palmer after the round.

“I remember it well,” Jay says. “At that time, I was only a small golf fan and had gone with a friend of mine who was a member of the club. Afterwards, I got to meet Palmer over some refreshments and, looking back now, realize it was something special to see these guys at that point in their careers.”

So many fans showed up for the match that people often stood five-deep to watch the action on the course. Children climbed trees to get a better look. One of the kids in attendance that day, Buddy Alexander, enjoyed watching from the gallery while his father played a round with two legends.

Now the head golf coach at the University of Florida, Alexander was only 11 years old at the time and remembers the significance the day held for him, if not for his father.

“Well, my dad played on the tour and was on a few Ryder Cup teams in the 1950s,” Alexander recently said. “So this exhibition probably wasn’t the highlight of his career. Still, it was a pretty big deal to play with those guys at a club just across the Bay from where he lived.

Now for me, it was a huge day. I’d already started playing junior tournaments and competitive golf, so to see Nicklaus and Palmer in person was quite a thrill.”

Everyone in attendance who came to see world-class golf in person did not leave disappointed. If anything, they saw two of the best in the world look quite mortal against a very challenging par-70 Palma Ceia course. Nicklaus hit a ball out of bounds on the 2nd hole, and both golfers hit the ball out of bounds on the 18th hole, where Palmer suffered a double-bogey 7.

“Everybody said this was an easy course,” Nicklaus said after the round. “It’s not. You have to be very careful. It’s tight, but it’s not unfair. It has some wonderful par-3s. I think it plays well to a par-70.”

Palmer appeared poised to tame the course with a 68 when he reached the 18th hole, a 482-yard par-5. On his approach shot to the green, however, Palmer nearly hit the clubhouse. Four strokes later, Palmer was done for the day and finished at even-par 70.

Nicklaus finished just behind Palmer, shooting a 1-over 71 for the day. Alexander and Castillo held their own right along with them, shooting 72 and 74, respectively.

The scores would get better as 1964 progressed for both Nicklaus and Palmer. Nicklaus would win four tournaments that year and finish as runner-up at The Masters, six shots behind Palmer. For Palmer, it would be his fourth overall Masters victory and the final major tournament victory of his career.


  1. I believe they played 18 Holes, not 18 rounds. I was there. Lot of fun.

  2. Thanks for pointing out my typo. It is now corrected!