The drive from Cleveland, Ohio, to Oakmont, Pennsylvania, a suburb of Pittsburgh, takes about an hour and a half.
I was driving my black VW bug which had trouble with headwinds on the Pennsylvania turnpike, so it’s hard to say exactly how long I was in the car. But it was early, a sunny Sunday in June. June 17th to be exact. And I was driving to a golf championship—the playoff—at Oakmont Country Club.
The Championship & the Contenders
Not just any championship. This was the 1962 U.S. Open playoff, maybe the most epic playoff ever, because the contenders were Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. Palmer was clearly the favorite because he already had carved a mighty big niche for himself as one of the greatest golfers of all time. And he was only 33, with years ahead to score more wins.
Nicklaus was just 22, had never won a professional championship, let alone a major; in fact, he had only turned pro in ‘61, after winning the U.S. Amateur Championship the same year.
Palmer had already won the Masters and the British Open in ‘62 and was trying for his third Grand Slam victory.
Palmer was not only the favorite. He was also the state’s favorite, from Latrobe, the little Pennsylvania town where he grew up and learned to play golf from his father, who had been the pro and head groundskeeper at the local country club. The fans that gathered in Oakmont that Sunday were Pennsylvanians, except for a small number who had travelled up from Ohio to root for the boy raised in Upper Arlington, suburban Columbus, where his dad owned drug stores.
In 1962, young Jack was overweight. And the Pennsylvania fans were not politically correct. So you could hear jeers from the crowd, “Beat Fat Jack, Arnie.” “Show Ohio Fats who’s best, Arnie.”
The Pennsylvania gallery was cheering for their champion and booing his opponent as if it were a prize fight.
The Matches: through Saturday
When the championship started on Thursday, Gene Littler won the day, shooting 69. Nicklaus tied for ninth. Palmer tied for fourth. Both men were in the hunt, but off to a so-so start.
After Friday’s second round, Palmer jumped into a tie for first with Bob Rosburg, both at 139. The crowd sighed with relief.
On Saturday, believe it or not, there were still two rounds to play. Thirty-six holes, in 24 hours.
After the morning round, Palmer remained tied for first, now with Bobby Nichols; both with totals of 212.
First place is a comfort, but ties are iffy. Nobody could be sure Palmer would walk away with the trophy. They just hoped.
And then, that afternoon, what should have been the final round stretched out late into the day, the June sun blazing down on the bareheaded Palmer, cheered onward by “Arnie’s Army,” his loyal fans who knew they were watching somebody special swing a golf club while having fun doing it and racking up wins; and maybe, just maybe, they were watching the greatest golfer since Bobby Jones.
When the fourth round began, the talented young man from Ohio was in fifth place, tied with Gary Player. Both were teeing off with third-round totals of 214.
But, wait. Nicklaus and Player were only two shots behind first place. Two bloody shots. And anything could happen on the final round. Plenty of time for Palmer to bogey his way out of the win. But trying to displace Palmer was—in 1962—like trying to fell a giant with a slingshot.
Finally, when the last, white ball rolled into the little round eighteenth hole, the chubby guy from Ohio had made the impossible happen. He had tied the Pennsylvania giant. Both ended the day with 283. An average of 70.75, just below 71, par for the course.
Apparently Nicklaus had brought his slingshot.
For Palmer and Nicklaus, Saturday night might have seemed long, perhaps sleepless, since when the sun rose there was still—Playoff Sunday.
At the Oakmont club bar Saturday night, the rich men who ran the steel companies and banks in Pittsburgh were downing their Scotch and sodas, very sure of themselves. Imagine what they were saying: “Who the hell is the fat blonde kid with the white cap? Sure he won the U.S. Amateur last year, but this is the U.S. Open. Palmer has the experience. Experience is what counts!”
The men at the bar weren’t really negative about Nicklaus. They knew he was good. Very good. But they thought there was plenty of time for him to make his mark in the years ahead. After all, he had just turned pro in ‘61. Talented new players were what the game needed. And Nicklaus had already proven he could match Arnie—at least up to a point. It was like hiring an MBA from Harvard who had a lot to learn, but would, someday, run the company.
So, if you were betting that Saturday night, you knew where to put your money. On the favorite, the man who had already won two majors in 1962. It was almost like money in the bank.
Sunday morning, 10,000 golf fans, including me, crammed onto the Oakmont course, eager to watch Palmer notch another major win. It had to be. If you dreamed big enough, you could almost hit a golf ball from Latrobe Country Club, a middle-class man’s golf club, to Oakmont Country Club, an old-fashioned, rambling, green-and-white structure with dormer windows on the second floor. The kind of club the men who ran the big companies in Pittsburgh liked. It felt like home.
In truth, Oakmont was 38 miles from Latrobe, where the local boy had walked beside his dad and learned the tricks of the game from a man who dedicated his life to it. No wonder he made sure his only son would follow in his footsteps. However, it required more than a father’s desire; it took talent, honed skill, and a burning desire of his own. The pro’s son proved he had it all. And more.
But at the end of the day, that hot June Sunday, a new golf superstar was born. His name was Nicklaus, and he was eleven years younger than the man who came in second. It was like watching a birth at Oakmont, a new generation coming into the world of golf.
Of course Arnie played very well that day, shot par, 71. But Jack, Jack just couldn’t be stopped; he was the young blood coming into his own, and he beat Arnie by two strokes, knocking two shots off par, winding up with 69. The U.S. Open Championship had a new fair-haired boy.
It wasn’t the way I wanted the match to end, but I clapped long and hard, along with everyone else, as the two men finished the 18th, shook hands, and Jack waved his cap and threw the winning ball into the crowd.
And as the years went by, Nicklaus went on to win three more U.S. Opens, as well as six Masters, three British Opens, and five PGA championships. It‘s an unbeaten record. So far.
Palmer, good as he was, and he was plenty good, couldn’t top that. Still, he won four Masters, two British Opens, and one U.S. Open, in 1961.
But on that Sunday in 1962, Arnie’s Army had to take it on the chin.
Nevertheless, I was thrilled, knowing I had actually watched two of the game’s all-time best play a duel in the sun; had seen a man two years younger than I win one of golf’s most sought-after titles.
It was more than worth it, driving all the way from Cleveland, and the day wasn’t over yet, for me. I had another stop to make.
Arnie’s Army, Continued…
One of the oddities about the ’62 Open was that both Palmer and Nicklaus smoked while they played. I watched them walk along the fairways, puffing away, then put down their burning cigarettes, smack the ball toward the green, pick up their smokes and continue toward the hole.
One article I read recently said Nicklaus watched film of that ’62 tournament and couldn’t believe his eyes as he saw himself smoking while he played. He said something like, “It was one of the sins of youth.”
I don’t know when Arnie stopped smoking, but I like to think he did. After all, he lived 54 more years, dying yesterday–September 25th 2016—at 87.
The last time I saw him on TV was in April, at the Masters. He had his arm through Nicklaus’s arm, and he stood there briefly for the cameras and the fans, in his green blazer that looked too big for his frail frame. He just didn’t look well, but you could see, it was still Arnie, giving it his best shot. And you could tell, this would be the last Masters he would ever attend.
But back in the day, one golfer said Arnie had hands like Rocky Marciano, and the arms of a steelworker. Though his dad was a professional golfer, there was something blue-collar about his son’s build and his carefree, I’m-having-the-time-of-my-life manner. And that included the insouciant cigarette between his lips.
In retirement, Palmer remained one of the most loved golfers who ever lived. There was that warm, convincing smile, his open friendliness. His personality also smiled through all those commercials he churned out over the years. He just seemed genuine, admired for not only what he had accomplished as a golfer, but who he was as a man.
One personal note: My sister-in-law and her husband once owned a franchise called “Arnold Palmer Dry Cleaners.” Sure, he only licensed out his name, but he made beaucoup bucks for doing so. It’s as if the whole country wanted a piece of the famous, popular golfer.
Annually, he hosted a PGA tournament at Bay Hill, the club he owned in Florida, southwest of Orlando. TV viewers loved listening to Arnie’s comments, as he joked with the announcers during the four-day event, and then watched him hug the winner on Sunday. It was as if Arnie himself was winning again, and we, in the TV audience or on the course, were still part of Arnie’s Army.
On that long-ago Sunday, Nicklaus took home the trophy and $15,000 in prize money; Palmer got the runner-up check, $8,000. And there was a bonus for each man, based on that day’s receipts from the play-off crowd–$2,500. Not too bad for 1962, and, if you didn’t count the practice time, only four days of work.
For their combined take-away that day, you could buy a pretty nice middle-class house in Pennsylvania or Ohio.
After the game, I got into my VW bug, but didn’t head back home to Cleveland. I steered my car west of Oakmont, drove into the heart of rural Western Pennsylvania, to Saltsburg, a tiny town—more of a village, really–25 miles away.
In Saltsburg, I stopped off at Kiskiminetas Springs School, the boys’ prep school on a hill overlooking the springs, where I had just finished my first year of teaching. At Kiski, I hooked up with the headmaster, Jack Pidgeon, and a fellow teacher, Zach Vlahos, and we played nine holes on the course that wound around the 200-acre school property. I couldn’t wait, inspired by what I had just witnessed earlier at Oakmont.
I had planned all along to stop at off at the “office,” and had packed my clubs—actually my dad’s old clubs–in the trunk of the VW.
I remember I lit up a cigarette while I was on the course, pretending I had something in common with Palmer and Nicklaus. It seemed to me then that if you were a serious golfer, you smoked. It seemed part of the game.
Of course, that was then.
Remembering a day 54 years ago is like digging things up in the attic. Sometimes, when you do that–dust them off, and hold them up to the light–they surprise you. Holding up that June Sunday in 1962, today, I realized what it was: A little treasure, still there, in all its amazing detail.
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