'Chi Chi joins Nicklaus in legends competition


BIRMINGHAM, Mich. -- Golf's dream match developed as expected between two legends in all the tumult, shouting and swinging at Oakland Hills yesterday, and now a playoff is needed in the U.S. Senior Open between Jack Nicklaus and . . . oops, wrong legend.

As Lee Trevino bogeyed his way out of contention on the next-to-last hole, Juan "Chi Chi" Rodriguez hit a brilliant 6-iron shot within 2 feet of the hole, setting up a birdie at the difficult 18th hole.

Nicklaus, seeking the only major title of any variety he doesn't already own, secured the lead just moments before. He birdied the par-3 17th hole by rifling a 5-iron shot within 5 feet of the flag.

With a large part of an excited crowd of 30,550 holding its collective breath, Nicklaus had a chance to win it at the final hole. But he left his birdie putt from 14 feet short, setting up a playoff today (4 p.m., Channel 13).

Rodriguez and Nicklaus each finished with 71, 1-over, and tied at 2-over-par 282. They will play 18 holes for the championship and $110,000 today.

Plans were quickly changed since Nicklaus was scheduled to start a four-day fishing trip to Canada and Rodriguez was booked for an exhibition in Maine.

"I ruined Jack's vacation and cost myself $40,000," Rodriguez said with a laugh. "I was really pulling for him to make that putt so I could make my money."

Responded Nicklaus: "I don't believe that at all, Chi Chi."

Left out after one of the most sensational finishes in the long tournament history of Oakland Hills were Al Geiberger, whose bogey at 18 cost him a spot in the playoff, and the bogey-bruised Trevino, whose bid died at the 17th when he left his tee shot short and bogeyed.

Geiberger shot par-70 and finished third (worth $33,137), while Trevino shared fourth with Jim Dent, who closed fast with a 67.

The final round was billed as a dream pairing of Trevino, who enjoyed a one-stroke lead, and Nicklaus, paired dramatically in the last twosome.

Some dream match. Between the two great multi-titled champions, they managed one birdie and seven bogeys through 15 holes.

"Lee and I struggled most of the day. We both wanted to play well so badly," Nicklaus said. "Lee usually talks about everything but golf, but he didn't really do that today."

So this wasn't the Lee & Jack Show of majors past -- Oak Hill ('68), Merion ('71), Tanglewood ('74) or Muirfield, Scotland ('72) . . . not even the Senior Open of a year ago in New Jersey.

With one of the finest leader boards any tournament has seen through 54 holes, some of the other cream began rising to the top, too.

Nicklaus bogeyed the first hole, Trevino bogeyed the first two, and suddenly the two legends had the company of two near-legends -- the colorful, crowd-pleasing Rodriguez and the tall peanut butter-chomping Geiberger, whose fabled round of 59 rests unparalleled in the record book.

Rodriguez had the lead by the second hole, where he birdied, then Geiberger leaped into the fray with birdies on the first two holes -- and the race was on.

But only Geiberger (with four) and Rodriguez (with three) seemed able to sight birdies in their range on the asphalt-hard greens.

While the day saw more swings than a children's park, the Fearless Foursomes' fate hinged on one critical shot by each.

Geiberger, who had two birdie putts lip out -- a 3-footer at the 15th and an 11-footer two holes later -- drove the rough at the 18th and couldn't find the green with a 6-iron shot.

He chipped long, bogeyed and adopted a philosophical attitude.

"I played today with Charley Coody, and he played the last four holes birdie, birdie, birdie, par," Geiberger said wistfully. "I'd have paid him a lot of money for that finish."

For Trevino, his demise was his tee shot at the 185-yard 17th. The defending champion, who got nothing going all day, amazingly became part of a momentary four-way tie for first by holing a downhill 30-foot putt for birdie at the 16th.

But his 5-iron at the next tee was short of the green by 10 yards, from where he pitched long and bogeyed. The not-so-Merry Mex beat a hasty retreat after play, but Nicklaus offered Trevino's explanation.

"I knew I couldn't get a 5-iron there, and [caddie] Herman [Mitchell] knew I couldn't get a 5-iron there, but I used a 5-iron anyway," Trevino told Nicklaus. "Pretty stupid, eh?"

Nicklaus then whistled his 5-iron to birdie range and adroitly drilled it home. "The first thing I thought of was missing that putt last year [on the 17th at Ridgewood] and losing," he said. "I didn't want to do that again."

Moments later in the fairway at the 18th, the 55-year-old Rodriguez bent a roundhouse 6-iron 165 yards to the far right edge of the green. The ball curled majestically down the slope to a stop 2 feet away.

The USGA had itself another 18-hole playoff.

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