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Original Issue


...out came The Bear. The scene was Oakmont and the 1962 Open. Palmer was king and Jack Nicklaus was a winless young pro, but suddenly a five-stroke lead vanished and the world changed

All of this was before the Fat Bear became Golden Jack, before the floral shirt and the buckled shoe, before Supermex, flared pants and the hydrogen shaft, before Arnold Palmer needed eyeglasses; back there in those wonderfully serene and uncomplicated days when they could play a golf tournament and if it were important enough to Winnie and the girls, or Mark McCormack, or Dwight Eisenhower, or Bob Hope, then this army would mobilize—the Army—and it would go out and win it for the only golfer in town. The Army would do it by assembling as a group of 20,000 rioters from a strike at the mines and it would holler, "Heee, haaa, go get 'em, Arnie, kill, ravage, plunder," and their man would grin appreciatively, hitch up his trousers, smoke a carton of filter tips and respond, usually on Sunday at dusk, by sinking another incorrigible putt. This is about the week when it all began to stop happening, a week that changed golf forever.

Everyone with a sense of golfing history knew in 1962 when the U.S. Open returned to goofy old Oakmont that something unique, something utterly fanciful, might occur. It always had. On a course like Oakmont, a place with a sort of grotesque charm, what with its lack of water hazards coupled with its satin greens, hidden ditches and furrowed bunkers, unaccountable things were encouraged to happen. Oakmont had been the course where Bobby Jones in 1927 had played his worst Open, where Tommy Armour won that same summer with a 301, the first over-300 winning total in eight years, where in 1935 golf's alltime super unknown, Sam Parks Jr., had managed to beat, among others, Walter Hagen, who in that hour made his last serious bid (he finished third) for one more major championship. And finally, Oakmont had been the course where in 1953 Ben Hogan had won his last Open, that being the season of Hogan's triple crown—the Masters, the American and British Opens—the nearest thing we have yet seen to a pro's Grand Slam.

So this was Oakmont, an odd and eerie place with its huge lightning greens and multiplicity of evil sand pits; a course smothered in history, a rolling land of ghosts, a place that had produced both comedy and greatness, most of the laughter coming from Oakmont's members watching the pros try to putt the greens and dig out of the traps. And there was one thing more about Oakmont in 1962. It was located right there in Arnold Palmer's backyard when he was the real Arnold Palmer. That the real Palmer could have lost this Open the way he did, practically at home and on the greens, and that he could have lost it to the kid who beat him, a pre-diet and pre-fluff dry Jack Nicklaus who had not won a professional tournament, seemed at the time to be another of Oakmont's tiny amusements. But so it went, and as we now know, so went the sport.

In the 11 years that have passed since the Nicklaus-Palmer Open of 1962, or roughly in the decade between Oakmont's last Open and the one it will stage next week, Jack Nicklaus not only trimmed down, dressed up, let his hair grow and got handsome, he took four Masters titles to Palmer's one, two PGAs to Palmer's none, two British Opens to Palmer's one, and added two more U.S. Opens to his count, making an overall total of 10 major championships to Palmer's two during this period. Their career total incidentally, is now 13 for Nicklaus (tied with Jones) to eight for Palmer.

If this is not evidence enough that the torch has passed, having been lit at Oakmont, then consider that over the same period of time Nicklaus has won 60-odd other tournaments in America and elsewhere, which is about 20 more than Palmer, and has banked at least half a million dollars more in tour money.

To fully absorb the significance of the '62 Open and what it meant to both Jack and Arnold, if not the golfing world, one has only to remember what each player was at the time and what he represented. Quite simply, Palmer was America's darling, while Nicklaus was the fat kid with the blond crew cut, a platoon leader in the ROTC.

Arnold Palmer was never more idolized than he was going into that very week at Oakmont. He was young (32), energetic, virile, human and a winner. Television and an adoring press had made him not only popular and familiar to millions of nongolfers but he had become something of a worldwide sporting Beatle. In the way he swung at the ball, which was rather badly, he personified the American notion that hard work, sweat, confidence, optimism and a good wife paid off in fame and riches. In those days Palmer seemed always to win or nearly win. And when he lost it was as if his public just hadn't cheered loudly enough, or the event was not that important. All alone, it was Arnold Palmer who had doubled the tournament purses, increased television coverage of golf, revitalized the British Open, thought up the modern Grand Slam and taken the game to other parts of the globe. To top it off, Palmer had just won another Masters (his third), he had six major titles now, he was talking about the Slam, and Oakmont was home. His game was at its peak and the record crowds would be all his. At Oakmont, he would win. Somehow. Palmer knew it and the world knew it. He might have to slash his way through an evergreen along the way, or bounce one off a caddie's jawbone, but he would perspire and chain-smoke and one way or another he would summon a charge, that curious thing he kept reading about, and it would be magic time again.

Meanwhile, Jack Nicklaus was something else. He was hardly the Golden Bear, for one thing. Actually, he was the Red Bull. Red in the round, baby-sullen face and red on the meat-hook arms. He wasn't really fat. He just seemed fat, looking like an offensive tackle for Woody Hayes who took up golf. Most people did not know how to pronounce his name. They called him Nick-louse, Nick-lows and Nick-loss, no puns intended.

Jack's reputation as an amateur had been the grandest since Lawson Little in the '30s. He had twice won the U.S. Amateur on classic courses, Pebble Beach and Broadmoor, and he had annihilated Merion, another relic of distinction, by shooting 269 in a World Amateur. He had even been a force in the Open already. In the two Opens preceding Oakmont, the one at Cherry Hills in 1960 and the one at Oakland Hills in 1961, he had finished second and fourth.

Back at Cherry Hills, the Open Palmer won, Nicklaus, then only 20, wound up only two strokes back although he three-putted nine times. Most remember that it was Ben Hogan who lost that Open when he hit a wedge into a pond on the 71st hole while he was tied with Arnold for the lead. But they did not hear what Hogan said later. Ben had been paired with Nicklaus throughout the final 36 holes at Denver.

"If I were a kid named Nicklaus, I'd feel worse than I do," said Hogan. "I watched him lose this Open by six strokes through inexperience."

That was Jack Nicklaus, the amateur, still a student at Ohio State. But now at Oakmont he had been a professional for six months and he had not won a tournament. The tremendous potential was there, sure. But where? When? Perhaps a tour regular, Don January, had been right a year earlier at the PGA in Chicago when he sat in the locker room at Olympia Fields and answered a question about Nicklaus.

"He's a great amateur," said January. "But if he really thinks he can play, let him come out here."

Well, here he was. Although Nicklaus had not yet won a tour event, his presence was certainly felt. He had been in the money in every tournament he had entered; in fact, he had already won almost $30,000, which was then a record for a rookie, and the season was not half over. And he had arrived at Oakmont fresh from a second-place finish in the Thunderbird the previous week. None of this made him happy, of course, for this was a young man of fierce ambition, as we would come to realize.

"You know how long anybody remembers who finished second?" Jack said then. "About 30 minutes. It's killing me that I haven't won."

This was on Tuesday evening June 12, 1962, the last practice day at Oakmont, as it happened, since the place would get drenched with rain all Wednesday. It was almost 7:30, past the dinner hour for most competitors, when Nicklaus got up from a table where he had been resting after eight solid hours of practice.

"There's still some daylight," he said. "I can get in a few more holes. I've got to go back out to 12. It bugs me."

Jack Nicklaus, alone, except for his caddie, went back out on Oakmont and played the last seven holes in four under par. He slept better. He knew he was ready.

Arnold Palmer had not gone back out. Palmer knew Oakmont better than anyone. He had played the course maybe 100 times. Still, he was impressed with Nicklaus' energy and drive. It reminded him of his own.

"Everybody says there's only one favorite, and that's me," said Arnold. "But you'd better watch the fat boy. He'll drive it over these bunkers, and even if he gets in the rough, it's better to be in there with a seven-iron than a four-iron."

Yes, they were saying that kind of thing about Nicklaus even then.

The first round of the Nicklaus-Palmer Open began the way most U.S. Opens do. Right away, somebody named William Markham of Saginaw, Mich. was two under going to the 9th hole. There, William Markham made a seven, and that was that. Next came J. C. Goosie. He was three under going to the 16th but made three consecutive bogeys, never recovered, and staggered onward to a tie for 33rd. Then there was Bob Rosburg. He suddenly turned up three under going to the 15th, but he bogeyed twice going in. Rosburg got it back the next day with a 69, which tied him for the halfway lead—with Palmer—but that was it. He closed with 74-79 on "Open Saturday," winding up 13th.

A young Bobby Nichols looked like a force that would not go away. He was one under the first day, stayed close with a 72, shot a fine 70 in the morning on Saturday—which gave him a share of the 54-hole lead—again with Arnold—but he lost by two with a last-round 73. And then there was Gene Littler, the defender. He started out at Oakmont the way he had ended up at Oakland Hills the year before, explosively. Littler holed out a 100-yard shot at the 9th hole for an eagle 3 and played on to a 69, which led. But he had no more luck and tied for eighth. Finally, the only other minor character who had a chance to turn Oakmont into something more than a personal drama between Nicklaus and Palmer was Phil Rodgers. Had he been able to avoid two colossal disasters, he would have won.

On Thursday, Rodgers went to the 17th, a short par 4 that could be driven from the tee by some, at one under. Here, however, he hooked into a tiny evergreen and had to get down on his knees to poke at the ball, which he did. Four times. Result: eight. Eight blows on an easy par 4. Then, in the second round, Rodgers four-putted the 10th for a double-bogey 6, but he still shot a 70. He played ahead to a splendid 285, tying Nichols for third, but he had wasted six strokes on only two holes out of the first 36 and he could not make them up. "Want to shake hands with a dunce?" said Rodgers, who would forever think of Oakmont as his Open, Nicklaus and Palmer be damned.

While this was spellbinding enough, it did not attract the interest of the hordes. They were with Palmer all the way, and Palmer, as it turned out, was with Nicklaus through the first two rounds, an ingenious bit of pairing on the part of destiny and the USGA. So what the hordes were treated to, from the very start, was epic.

All Nicklaus did was birdie the first three holes. Just like that. And all Palmer did was make a double bogey at the 2nd. So after three holes of this 1962 Open, Nicklaus was five strokes ahead of Palmer. From there on, of course, the crowds began to feel that Arnold needed more whooping, and Nicklaus needed some booing. Eventually, Arnold reacted. He did that old Palmer thing—scoring thunderous birdies at the 14th, 15th and 17th coming home to save his round in par 71 and, in fact, lead Nicklaus by a stroke. The king was still the king.

And on Friday, although Arnold's putter was acting up, he looked the king. Driving beautifully and throwing just about every iron into the fat of the greens—playing the best golf of his career, tee to green, in fact—Palmer shot a 68, the day's low, and assumed command of the tournament. He was tied with Rosburg, whom no one took seriously, and Nicklaus was three behind. Then came the agony and bliss of Saturday morning's round.

"I love this course and these greens but I'm putting with a wet noodle," Palmer was saying. With reason. Nothing would drop, neither the short birdies nor the short pars. No matter how loud and rowdy his Army became, no matter how peculiarly the Army twisted its bodies in hope and prayer, the putts curled away or hung on the lips of the cups. "These people are rooting for me so hard, maybe I'm trying too hard," said Palmer.

The biggest explosion of the whole week came at the 17th Saturday morning, the site of Phil Rodgers' debacle. Palmer needed a birdie on one of the last two holes to move into a tie with Nichols. The 17th was obviously his best chance. He could drive the green, a mere 292 yards away. Which he did, wonderfully. To within 18 feet of the pin, an eagle putt. His fans cheered him all the way to the green, cheered as he marked his ball, cheered as he removed his glove. Then they hushed, a tightened, defiant hush, as if they would kill anyone who so much as cleared his throat The putt dropped, and it was madness. Wild roars were followed by people dashing off in all directions shouting such things as, "Arnie's got the lead, he's got it, he's got it, aaaaa-hhhaaaa, geeeee, daaaaa."

Palmer crushed his drive on the 18th and crushed an approach to within five feet of the pin, two masterful shots. This birdie putt would surely drop, and Arnold would take a two-stroke lead into the afternoon. It was a crummy five-footer, and he had missed so many of those the law of averages was with him if nothing else. No problem. Besides, there had never been a greeting like this one on 18 for any golfer, ever. Palmer was not one to let down his hordes in a moment like this.

A horror occurred, nonetheless. Arnold not only missed the birdie putt, he missed a two-footer coming back—a shocking bogey. As he said later, "I think I expected it to go in by itself."

No one gave much thought to it at the time, but Nicklaus had quietly played to a 72 and was only two strokes back of Palmer, with the last round to come. Indeed, 10 players were bunched within four strokes. But so what? Ten players were always bunched within four strokes in the last hours of an Open and nine of them would fall into a creek. Everybody but Ben Hogan. And now Palmer. It was Arnold's tournament for sure.

By actual turnstile count there were 24,492 at Oakmont that Saturday afternoon—a new record—and each one appeared to be wearing an ARNIE'S ARMY button. He got them off flying with birdies on two of the first four holes. Go get 'em Arnie. Through the 6th hole he held a two-stroke lead on the field, and a whopping five-stroke lead on Jack Nicklaus.

What happened next was not to be comprehended, especially by the Army. In the span of seven holes, from the 7th through the 13th, Nicklaus picked up those five strokes on Palmer, even though he was at the further disadvantage (the other being the crowd) of playing directly in front of Arnold and not knowing what Palmer might do. Jack blazed over those holes in three under. In the meantime Palmer was particularly done in by a pushover par 5, the 9th.

At the 9th, coming up to the clubhouse, Palmer drove well and then smashed a three-wood pin high just off the edge of the green. But just off the edge meant his ball was in the thick collar that the USGA likes to have around its Open greens. The shot required some care, and Palmer gave it none. He barely moved the ball. His fourth was poor, and he two-putted for a bogey, right there on a hole that was almost a gimme birdie. When he then three-putted the 13th—his eighth three-putt of the tournament compared to only one for Jack—they were tied.

Over the last five holes either man could have won with a single birdie but neither got one. Nicklaus, in fact, had to struggle desperately to save pars at the 16th and 17th. He hunkered down over a couple of four-footers on those holes and stood there forever before bulling them in. It was as if he had looked back at Arnold and said, "I'm giving you nothing. If you want it, make a putt."

Palmer did not. Even though he had nice birdie chances at the 17th, a five-footer, and the 18th, a curling 10-footer, they refused to drop-They caught the edges, they looked in, they would not disappear. Palmer could scarcely believe it himself. In 72 holes he had missed only four fairways and he had hit 63 greens in regulation, the best anyone had ever played in the Open. Despite all his bad putting he had shot 283, the same total Ben Hogan had won with nine years earlier. He had, quite simply, been magnificent. But Jack Nicklaus had tied him.

"What difference does it make, Arnold?" Doug Ford said to Palmer in the clubhouse. "You're gonna win it anyhow. It'll just take you a day longer." Palmer frowned at that. By now it had sunk in that Oakmont was not doing him any favors, and neither was Nicklaus.

The playoff could hardly have been expected to measure up to all of the drama that created it. Palmer started out putting poorly again, as if he expected to, and through six holes Nicklaus, at two under, was four strokes on top. Strangely enough, Nicklaus even had rounded up some vocal support. They might have all been family, they might have been underdog bettors, or they might have been Columbus types summoned in the night. In any case, they were present in their Buckeye reds, challenging the Army.

Momentarily, Palmer made the kind of move he had so often in the past. He birdied the 9th, the 11th and the 12th, narrowing the margin to one shot. But there it ended. At the 13th he three-putted again—for the 10th time in the championship—and the Fat Bear or Golden Jack needed nothing more than this cushion to glide home easily, winning 71 to 74. Nicklaus not only won, he did it convincingly. He outdrove Palmer, and then stuck the irons inside of him and then outputted him. In the Open. In Palmer territory. Listening to the jeers most of the way.

Nicklaus has said since, "I never thought of it in terms of beating Arnold. I was trying to win the Open. If I had ever given a thought to trying to dethrone anybody, I'd have probably shot 80."

That night as Palmer stood in the Oakmont parking lot and watched his clubs being put in the trunk of his car, a newspaperman told him, "You just joined a select club. Hogan, Snead, Nelson, Jones, Vardon, Sarazen; they all lost an Open playoff, too. Look at it this way. Even when you lose, you do something great."

"Thanks a hell of a lot," said Palmer.

Then he forced a grin and added, "I'll tell you something. Now that the big guy's out of the cage, everybody better run for cover."