IN HAND-TO-HAND COMBAT, A GOOD BIG MAN...
Jack Nicklaus, who with a flurry of unsurpassable golf last week became the U.S. Open champion of 1967, reminds you a bit of Clement Attlee during his early years as Prime Minister. Out of office at the time was Winston Churchill, powerless but still the beloved hero of the people. Well, Jack Nicklaus, who is the finest golf player in the world today when he is on his stick, has his Churchill: Arnold Palmer, still the people's choice though he has not won a major championship for more than three years.
Never was this strange state of affairs more evident than at Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., where Nicklaus was winning his second Open championship with a five-under-par 275, the lowest score ever recorded in this 67-year-old event. The victor played superlative and overwhelming golf as he beat Palmer by four very convincing strokes and the rest of the field by the distance of one of his mile-long tee shots. But throughout the final two rounds of the championship, when the chance of the draw paired Nicklaus and Palmer, Jack's finest shots were greeted by the gallery with what was almost a silent hostility. At times his worst mistakes were applauded, while Arnold's lesser shots were cheered like the slashing strokes of victory.
The drama of Nicklaus's memorable triumph was heavily accentuated by the accidental theatrics of the head-to-head pairing with Palmer during those two climactic rounds. It was a me-against-you confrontation that had been a long time coming—and the spectacle was worth the wait.
At first glance, Baltusrol docs not seem to be a course that would provide the stuff of history. It sits amid some lovely parkland in the rolling hills of central New Jersey, no more than half an hour by car from the bridges and tunnels that cross the Hudson River into Manhattan. The stately old pines and elms and maples that line its fairways are not necessarily ominous from a modern pro golfer's point of view and only rarely come into play. The fairways for the Open were relatively wide and gorgeously groomed. The greens were generously expansive—not the parking-lot size of so many newer courses, but large. Nor did they appear viciously contoured, although like many older greens they have developed subtle borrows that are nearly invisible to the untrained eye but are just enough to turn a well-hit putt off line. Baltusrol's 47-year-old Lower Course was in magnificent condition, perfectly fair and inviting as the 150 golfers arrived and got down to work without—for the first time in living memory—a cacophony of complaints about a U.S. Open layout.
From the beginning at Baltusrol, Nicklaus was in a winning frame of mind. For the first time since his pro career began five years ago, people were raising questions about his golfing ability. Certainly, he was having his worst season. He had won only one tournament, and his seemingly ample earnings of $31,321 were not so impressive when measured on the Palmer scale. Since Palmer was at $91,213 Jack would rank himself at minus $59,892. He had missed the cut at the Masters, and the right-to-left style of play that he had for some reason been turning to in the last few years had become completely uncontrollable. In April, faced with his Masters disaster, he decided it was time to revamp his game, and he did.
When he checked in at Baltusrol for his practice rounds he was hitting the ball left to right again, and as well as he ever had in his life. On Wednesday, in his last practice round, he shot a 62, two strokes below the competitive course record. ("That won't shake anybody up but Jack," said Palmer.)
Palmer, meanwhile, had brought his own game to one of its frequent peaks, and he, too, was as ready to win as he ever had been. True, he had his aches. It is startling to realize that a man as boldly athletic as Arnold Palmer is closing in on the age of 40, a time when, as some sage put it, "life is just a matter of patch, patch, patch." At 37, Palmer has begun to feel a few of the twinges of departing youth—a muscle strain here, a touch of bursitis there. Last year it was a pain in his shoulder. At the recent Masters it was a dizzy spell and shortness of breath that bothered him at the 17th green of his third round and impelled him to give up cigarettes again. He came to Baltusrol with a muscle spasm in his hip that had been annoying him for a week. After a practice round on Monday he climbed into his Jet Commander and flew home to Latrobe, where the family doctor prescribed heat and Ben-Gay and rest. Back at the golf course, he further shortened his swing—already shortened a bit during the past year or so in the interests of accuracy. By Wednesday he was wondering if he could play at all and saying, very privately, that he might not. He stopped practicing or even warming up before tournament rounds in order to spare strain on the risky hip. His golf game was nonetheless in fine fettle—provided he could keep swinging.
As he started his opening round on Thursday, Palmer looked anything but his best. He drove into the rough on the first hole and hit into a greenside bunker on the second. By the time he reached the 13th green he had visited the rough and sand repeatedly, and he stood two over par. But a 45-foot sidehill putt that rolled into the hole at the 13th changed all that, and further birdies at 14 and 18 brought him into a seven-way tie for second, two strokes behind the only other figure to really impose himself upon this Nicklaus-Palmer Open, a 23-year-old ex-University of Houston star named Martin Alan Fleckman, who came in with a 67.
An unknown always seems to lead the Open after the first round, so Fleckman's emergence created no wild surge of excitement. It was assumed he would shoot an 80 the next day. Instead, he shot a 73, and then came back with a very nervy 69 on Saturday—after going three over par on the first two holes—which gave him the tournament lead again. This time, instead of talking about shooting an 80, the wise ones were talking about Johnny Goodman, the last amateur to win the U.S. Open some 34 years ago. So, on the last day, Fleckman did shoot his 80, to finish tied for 18th, but a most stimulating 18th.
Friday dawned as oppressively hot and tormenting as New Jersey can get in June, and in the breathless hours around noon temperatures must have topped 100° on the baking putting surfaces. "Hot?" said Ben Hogan. "Hell can't be any hotter. I'll check that out one of these days." Nicklaus, too, was hot. His opening-round 71 had occasioned speculation that he had left his best golf out on the course the day before during that fantastic 62, but Nicklaus denied it. "Maybe the 62 helped by giving me more confidence," he said.
The Nicklaus theory was supported by Friday's events. He started with a bogey, and at the 4th hole, a par-3, he found himself with a 10-foot putt that he needed for his par. "If I miss it I'm two over for the day and three over for the tournament, and it would be looking very bad for me," he said afterward. But the strange-looking Bull's Eye putter with the white-painted head that he had borrowed from a friend of Deane Beman's a few days before got the ball into the hole.
Two birdies brought Nicklaus through the first nine at 33 and, with three birdies and a bogey on the way home, he was in with 67, the lowest score he had ever shot in a U.S. Open. What seemed to please him even more than his new white putter was his driving. "All the Open has ever been is a driving contest," he said, in what rated as the oversimplification of the week. "You drive it into the fairway and play it from there."
The day was almost over when Palmer brought in a 68 to take the tournament lead at 137, thanks to a round in direct contrast to his rather shaky opening 69. He hit the ball quite well all the way, except for a brief lapse on the 6th hole, where he had to sink a 10-foot putt to salvage a bogey 5. That was the only green he failed to reach in the regulation number of strokes. His ball was in the rough only twice, and he was never in a bunker. Of both Nicklaus and Palmer the same could now be said: their shot-making was superb, and only the treacherous rolls in Baltusrol's greens had kept them from rounds in the low 60s. It was time for the confrontation.
As they started down the first fairway Saturday afternoon, the tournament now at its midpoint, Nicklaus was a stroke back of Palmer. Bill Casper, the defending champion, was just one behind Nicklaus. But on this day the shot-against-shot duel that the gallery of 19,598 anticipated with such relish quickly deteriorated into something resembling the consolation round at a taxi drivers' golf outing. Not since 1962, in the Open at Oakmont, had Palmer and Nicklaus been paired in a major championship while having a chance to win. The opportunity to get at each other was more than their golf swings could bear. By the time they reached the 8th tee they had thrashed their way through so much trouble that they had surrendered the lead by two strokes to Casper, who was playing just ahead of them. At that point Jack turned to Arnold and said, "Let's stop playing each other and play the golf course."
On they went without conspicuous improvement, Casper's lead increasing to four strokes. Finally, on the 16th green, each made a ridiculously poor short putt that would have given either of them his first birdie had it dropped. When Jack's rolled two feet past the hole, Arnold turned his back and began to laugh. "Nice stroke," he said to Nicklaus, a comment that he was applying to his own putt as well. The gallery joined in the mirth, and from that moment on—the tempo of the bad play broken—the 1967 U.S. Open was a different story.
In the remaining 20 holes Palmer was to post only one bogey, a performance that could well have presented his Army with the victory it screamed for, but Nicklaus was to make a phenomenal 10 birdies. His streak began at the 17th, where he hit an eight-iron to within 12 feet of the hole. The gallery watched numbly, but when Palmer's wedge landed only six feet away the crowd exploded with joy. Palmer walked onto the green to an enormous ovation; silence greeted Nicklaus. Then a wonderful lone voice burst out: "That's all right, Jack, I'm for ya." The vast gallery roared its amusement. Nicklaus tipped the peak of his visor in the direction of his fan, and sank his birdie putt.
The 18th hole was more of the same. Both drove long on this 542-yard par-5. Palmer hit a four-wood from the fairway that carried just over the green, and the gallery applauded enthusiastically. Nicklaus followed with a four-iron up the hill, and the silence of the thousands of people surrounding the green implied that the ball must have bounded away, maybe into the pro shop or down the driveway. Instead, it was 15 feet from the hole. From there Nicklaus two-putted for his second straight birdie. Minutes later he was a lone figure out on the practice tee. He worked on his game until darkness fell.
Thanks to their Saturday dedication to bludgeoning each other, Nicklaus and Palmer started the final round in a three-way tie for second place with Casper, who had run into a bogey streak himself. A stroke ahead of these three was Fleckman, the amateur. Once again Nicklaus and Palmer were paired, a freakish circumstance that tournament officials would have liked to avoid, especially in view of the rabid nature of Arnie's Army, New Jersey Division. But the USGA system is to pair the field in order of the scoring. When players are tied, the man who turned in his score first is considered the leader in that category. Thus Fleckman, at 209, was paired on Sunday with Casper, who was the first man to post a 210 on Saturday. That left Nicklaus and Palmer, the other 210s, with nobody to play with but each other.
This time, however, Palmer and Nicklaus were determined not to let their personal rivalry overcome their concentration on the championship at hand. Within minutes Fleckman and Casper were no longer in the Open.
At the end of two holes Palmer, playing steady par golf, had taken the lead as Nicklaus bunkered his approach on the 2nd hole and took a bogey 5. Casper had already bogeyed the first hole, and Fleckman, obviously unnerved, could no longer hit the ball in a straight line. For a moment it looked as if the Army would have its way.
Nicklaus had other thoughts. He now began to hit some of the finest shots anyone is ever likely to see over an extended stretch of maximum-pressure golf. He birdied the 3rd hole from 12 feet, the 4th from four feet and the 5th from 13 feet. There was a slight interruption for a bogey at the 6th, and then he birdied the 7th from 22 feet and the 8th from 12 feet—five birdies in six holes that put him three under par and four strokes ahead of Palmer, who was unable to sink a decent putt and was being made to look like a duffer because he was merely getting par after par.
At the 10th, with his four-stroke lead looking larger and larger, Nicklaus unaccountably three-putted for his final bogey of the day. This misfortune actually produced a smattering of applause in the gallery, but Jack pressed on, striding Palmer fashion down the fairway, as his caddie and attending officials struggled to keep up. At the 13th he birdied again—from four feet—and at the 14th from five feet. Each time his hand went tentatively to the peak of his white visor to acknowledge the applause that by now was increasing as awareness of what it was seeing began to grip the crowd. Palmer obviously was not going to catch up, and the word was spreading: one more birdie and Nicklaus would break the Open record of 276 that Hogan had set at Riviera way back in 1948.
The record was on Nicklaus' mind, but so was a parallel situation at last year's Open in San Francisco. That was when Palmer had the same mark within his grasp and became so absorbed by it that he forgot to beat Casper. "Records just come," Nicklaus later recalled reminding himself as he hammered out safe pars on the 15th, 16th and 17th holes. "Nobody should try to break a record. What you're here for is to win a golf tournament."
At the 17th Palmer sank his first birdie putt of the day, reducing the Nicklaus lead to four strokes. And that was how they stood on the tee of the 72nd and final hole of the tournament. Describing his thoughts afterward, Jack said, "All I was interested in was trying to make 6 or better. I felt like an idiot doing it, but I pulled out the one-iron and hit the ball down the right side away from all the trouble on the left. It landed in the rough next to some kind of obstruction. I don't know exactly what it was [a TV cable drum], and I got a free drop. To be safely short of the water, I used an eight-iron out and hit it fat. That left me about 230 uphill yards from the green. When I got out on the fairway I said to Arnold, That was a stupid thing to do, wasn't it?' and Arnold kind of smiled and said, 'You said it. I didn't.'
"So then I took out the one-iron again and hit it farther than I know how to hit it. Although I couldn't see where it landed, I knew it was on the green, and I had the tournament won."
With three putts left for victory, Nicklaus surveyed his final putt, a 22-footer, with all of his Germanic deliberation. At last he bent over, stroked it firmly and it rolled unhesitatingly into the middle of the cup for the birdie that broke Hogan's record.
As the ball dropped, Nicklaus swung his right foot high in the air (see cover), and the gallery gave forth its first true roar of appreciation for a magnificent golfing performance. Arnold, their leader, their favorite, had finished second, but on this day his defeat came at the hands of a man who was unbeatable. When Jack Nicklaus is at the top of his game, performing as he did on Sunday, he cannot be beaten.
Surprising amateur Marty Fleckman (left), playing with Bill Casper, comes off Baltusrol's 4th green on Sunday shortly after losing his lead.