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Trevino's snake gag caught Nicklaus off guard

Lee Trevino's gag tickled Jack Nicklaus but rankled Merion's old guard.

Lee Trevino was trying to unnerve Jack Nicklaus, who might have had some secret phobia about reptiles. (AP file photo)
Lee Trevino was trying to unnerve Jack Nicklaus, who might have had some secret phobia about reptiles. (AP file photo)Read more

Check out the video of the infamous snake toss. First tee at Merion, playoff for the 1971 U.S. Open championship. That's a hyper Lee Trevino grabbing a 3-foot rubber snake out of his golf bag and dangling it, head high. That's Jack Nicklaus, sitting on one of those walking sticks, in the shade.

Trevino will tell you now that Nicklaus asked to see the rubber snake, so he tossed it to him and it slithered wide right, into some shrubbery.

Now, check out the guy with the starched white face, wearing a starched white shirt, a regimental striped tie, a medal pinned to his breast pocket, a wide black armband on his left sleeve.

The guy has a pipe in his clenched teeth. A pipe! And his teeth are clenched so tight you couldn't have slid a strand of dental floss between them. He holds the rubber snake at arm's length as if he just uncoiled it from a big jar of stinkin' formaldehyde. Then he hands it, gingerly, to Nicklaus, who laughs while shaking his head in disbelief.

The guy with the black armband does not laugh. Maybe he doesn't laugh because the pipe would topple out of his teeth. More likely, he doesn't laugh because he's there to enforce the rules and this is the first tee at Merion's historic East Course. Start of an 18-hole playoff to determine the winner of the 1971 U.S. Open, maybe the most prestigious of the major tournaments.

The guy with the black armband (did somebody die) knows rule 4-4, which says you can carry a maximum of 14 clubs in your bag and does not say anything about rubber snakes. Rather than penalize him, it looks like he'd rather take that rubber snake and wrap it around Trevino's neck and strangle him.

I was there, more startled than amused. My first thought was that Trevino was trying to unnerve Nicklaus, who might have had some secret phobia about reptiles.

Nah. Trevino was groping for a laugh to lighten the mood, to relieve the pressure. "Pressure," Trevino liked to say, "is playing for $5 a hole, with $2 in your pocket."

He reminds you now that the snake was a gag prop for a photo shoot early in the week, wearing a pith helmet for the trek into the "jungle" that was Merion's knee-high rough. And what do you find in tall, tangled grass? Snakes!

So what you see on that video is memorable, a raucous moment that tells you what America was thinking in 1971 about class and race and golf played on an historic course with aristocratic members.

Trevino was born on the other side of the other side of the tracks. Grew up in a three-room shack with no indoor plumbing. Learned the game as a caddie. Got good enough to beat a young professional named Ray Floyd 2-out-of-3 in shadowy big money matches, leaving Floyd grumbling about losing to "the bag guy." Separated Texas suckers from their money, playing with a taped-up 32-ounce glass bottle of Dr Pepper. Or a shovel. Loud, earthy, funny with a Band-Aid on one arm to cover a tattoo, the name of a former girlfriend.

Nicklaus was blond, stoic. Son of an Ohio pharmacist. Learned the game at a country club. Was the pudgy guy who dethroned Arnold Palmer. Arnie's Army never forgave him, called him "Fat Jack" even after he lost a lot of weight and won a lot of tournaments.

Posed over a putt longer than some of Sonny Liston's fights. Wore a white belt around his reduced waist. Talked softly. Showed up 10 days early to practice on the challenging course, skipping the Kemper Open. Critics grumbled.

On Friday, he was warned twice for slow play. Said he needed time to deal with the treacherous pin placements. "Ridiculous" he called them. Which holes, he was asked. "One through 18," he grumbled.

Merion got its revenge. Nobody broke par for the 4 days. Trevino and Nicklaus tied at 280. The baby-faced amateur, Jim Simons, unraveled on 18. He needed a birdie to tie but wound up making a double-bogey, plummeting to a tie for fifth place.

The purists hated the rubber snake charade. They thought maybe it backfired when Trevino bogeyed the first hole. Then Nicklaus butchered bunker shots on 2 and 3. Went bogey, double-bogey and never caught up. You've got a flaw in your game, Merion will expose it and punish you for it.

Nicklaus birdied 5, Trevino birdied 8. Nicklaus birdied 11, Trevino birdied 12. Hustler cadence. Nicklaus was studying a long birdie putt at 15 and then Trevino knocked in a longer one.

Trevino shot a 68, Nicklaus a 71. And afterward Trevino, the Mexican-American from the other side of the other side of the tracks, said all the right things. Called himself "a lucky dog" because "you've gotta be lucky to beat Jack Nicklaus because he's the greatest golfer who ever held a club."

Nicklaus stuck around the press tent for 55 minutes, patient, thoughtful, revealing. Why stand over a putt so long people think you've turned to stone?

"I had to make putts at 15, 16, 17 Sunday to stay alive," he said. "I know people must have been thinking, 'When's he gonna hit the damn thing?' I know, I look at the films and I say 'hit it.' But that's me. I wasn't ready to hit them. A guy has to do what he has to do. That only comes from experience."

His motives for showing up 10 days early to learn Merion's challenging layout? "I want the U.S. Open, the Masters," he explained. "I want them far more than anything else. These are meaningful things a guy can finish life with.

"Take Sam Snead and Ben Hogan. Snead won far more tournaments but people regard Hogan as the better player because of what he won. There wasn't a nickel's worth of difference in their games, but ask anyone and they'll say Hogan was the better golfer."

Nicklaus finished with 18 majors, winning the last one at age 46. Tiger Woods is four away. He will compete at Merion. Root as you wish. The writers will be rooting for a good story, which is what writers do.

Me, I think Trevino was right, that Nicklaus was the greatest golfer to ever hold a club. And a terrific human being too.