When Jack Nicklaus, a broad, beefy and friendly collegian who dominated amateur golf as no one had since Bobby Jones, became a professional last January, it was immediately assumed that his rare combination of brute strength and finesse would move him right to the top of the pro game, too. After all, it was argued, hadn't he won the U.S. Amateur twice and almost won the U.S. Open as well? But when five months went by and Nicklaus failed to win a tournament, the doubts about his future began to be more shouted than whispered. He had never finished out of the money and his earnings were high. But neither had he won, and this was something that rattled his well-wishers almost as much as it did Nicklaus. When he got $10,000 for finishing second two weeks ago at the Thunderbird Classic, he said he would rather have won $200 and finished first.
Well, there is no need to wonder any longer about the future of 22-year-old Jack Nicklaus. This week, at the demanding Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh, he won the U.S. Open Championship. What's more, he won it in a manner so convincing that he must unhesitatingly be ranked alongside Arnold Palmer as one of the most extraordinarily gifted players of the post-Hogan generation.
On Saturday, during the nerve-racking and exhausting final 36 holes of the 72-hole tournament, Nicklaus managed two nearly flawless rounds over Oakmont's hilly terrain and wavy, slippery greens. By finishing one under par that day he picked up three strokes on Palmer, the leader, to force a playoff.
Then, on Sunday, Nicklaus earned his title during an exhibition of brilliant play by the two strongest, most resolute and determined golfers anywhere in the world. Only twice, once on the 8th hole and again on the 18th, when his ball was imbedded in soft turf, did Nicklaus fail to reach the green in the regulation number of strokes. Once on the green, he icily outputted golf's best clutch putter, Palmer. The suddenly and seriously challenged Palmer was three-putting three greens, and that was the three-stroke margin of victory that brought Nicklaus the championship, 71 to 74.
It was a sad and revealing defeat for almost unbeatable Arnold Palmer. It came in a battle fought in the situation he likes best—a tournament he wanted desperately to win—and on his traditional and exciting terms; namely, just when you think I've lost, that's when I'm going to magically beat you. Jack Nicklaus faced Palmer under those conditions and whipped him, and that is why golf now has two personable superstars instead of one.
Technically speaking, there was nothing to choose between the tee-to-green play of either player. The difference was all in Palmer's putter, a much battered, much fondled bit of metal that, after helping him produce endless dramatic finishes, finally let him down. During the 72 holes of the regular tournament Nicklaus three-putted only once. Palmer, meanwhile, three-putted seven times. So Nicklaus won what so many people had predicted would be a putting contest on those vast Oakmont greens.
When the fourth round of the Open Championship ended in a draw between Palmer and Nicklaus late Saturday afternoon, one could be forgiven for feeling that the nation's golfers have been overdoing the business of suspense lately. In the past year this country's three biggest championships have all ended in a tie. So have many lesser tournaments. At the PGA last July it was Jerry Barber and Don January. In April it was Palmer, Dow Finsterwald and Gary Player at the Masters. And now it was Palmer and Nicklaus at the Open.
Of all the participants in these months of melodrama, Palmer has been the most conspicuous, for this was his third dead heat in recent weeks.
Even so, the final two hours at Oakmont on Saturday afternoon lost none of its tension simply because the theme has been played so often. The principals were too interesting, and there was too much at stake.
In addition to Palmer and Nicklaus, the cast for the latest cliff-hanger included a couple of names that were not at all familiar to the more than 24,000 people who swarmed over the course.
First, there was Phil Rodgers, a cocky, abrasive 24-year-old with a butch haircut and a chunky build that make him look vaguely like a smaller edition of Nicklaus. In 1958, while on one of those golfing scholarships at the University of Houston, Rodgers had won the NCAA championship. He joined the pro tour last summer, has won the Los Angeles and Tucson Opens and might well have won the U.S. Open had it not been for what is now the most famous little evergreen tree in all Pennsylvania.
Rodgers was among the leaders on Thursday when he came into the 17th hole one under par. He tried to reach the green with his tee shot on this short, 292-yard par 4, but pulled his ball into a clump of small spruce trees that were recently planted a few yards in front of the green to discourage just such boldness. The ball was lodged solidly in one tree. Rather than take an unplayable lie penalty of two strokes, Rodgers tried to hit his ball out of the tree. Two swings later he was still trying. On his fourth swing the ball fell from the tree and bounced clear. Rodgers then chipped to the green and two-putted for a horrid 8, a quadruple bogey. In spite of this and a four-putt green, he was only a stroke behind as play began Saturday afternoon. But he never could catch up.
The other unfamiliar name in the cast was Bobby Nichols, 26, who grew up in Louisville and now makes his home in Midland, Texas. Nichols is a tall, well-built and uncommonly handsome man who first came to prominence by winning the St. Petersburg Open in March and following it up a month or so later with a victory in the Houston Classic. After three excellent rounds he started Saturday afternoon at Oakmont in a tie with Palmer at one under par for the tournament. But in what was to be an afternoon of frustration for all, he couldn't get the lead either.
Of this quartet, Palmer had spent the morning playing the best and putting the worst. He hit 16 greens, including a par 5 in two and a par 4 in one stroke. Yet Oakmont's greens, getting harder by the minute, had led him to take 38 putts. He even missed three two-footers. At the lunch break he had a ham-and-cheese sandwich, a horrid concoction of Coke and milk and a plea. "Come out and putt for me," he asked a writer. "Me!" exclaimed the writer. "Yes," said Palmer, "you," figuring anybody would putt better than he had.
Jack Nicklaus, eating only a table away (and without a covey of writers standing around him), had putted better, far, far better. Through 54 holes he was yet to three-putt a green, but he still trailed Palmer by two strokes.
The pairings on Saturday were such that Rodgers was playing about half an hour ahead of Nichols, who was followed in order by Nicklaus and then Palmer. By the time Palmer reached the ninth hole of his afternoon round, he was three under par, having birdied the second and fourth holes. This gave him a solid-looking two-stroke advantage over Rodgers and Nichols, and four strokes on Nicklaus.
It was here—if you were among the many ignoring the snowballing but rather subtle disaster that Palmer's putting had become—that he readmitted the field to an Open that was his. Nine is a long-playing, uphill par 5 of 480 yards. Palmer had reached it with two shots in the morning round, and then three-putted. This time he left his second shot hole-high in some trampled rough to the right of the green, but hardly 50 feet from the pin. He had a sound chance for a birdie. Instead, he flubbed a wedge, hitting it perhaps 10 feet. His next chip was way short, like the bleating effort of a duffer, and his eight-foot putt for a par was off-line from the start. As Arnie's army groaned his lead was down to one.
The last nine holes were simply the summer of everybody's discontent. Nichols and Rodgers, with grand chances to be upset winners of a big championship, hung a stroke behind Palmer like two becalmed sailboats. They couldn't get the crucial birdie—not even at 17, one of the easiest birdie holes.
Palmer, meanwhile, bogeyed the par 3 13th by hitting a six-iron into a trap, and Nicklaus' earlier birdie of 11 meant the tournament was tied.
For the closing five holes Nicklaus and Palmer both played extraordinary and seemingly' devastating golf; and just as devastatingly, the extraordinary greens of Oakmont kept them from achieving a thing. At 14 they both missed birdie putts from inside 10 feet. At 15 and 16 neither could sink a birdie putt again. At 17 Nicklaus thought he had lost the tournament. Trying to reach the green he drove into a trap on the right side, hit a weak shot from the sand that barely cleared the top of the bunker and had to chip up to salvage a par. Now Palmer, playing right behind Nicklaus, would surely birdie 17. That morning he had taken the tournament lead by scoring a tremendous eagle 2 on the hole, driving the green and sinking an 18-footer that had set him to dancing with joy. This time Palmer went to the left in the vicinity of Rodgers' famous spruce tree. A delicate wedge left him eight feet from the hole.
Palmer took a long, long time to line up this vital putt as the enormous gallery on the hillside hardly breathed. He knew by this time that Nichols and Rodgers were no longer in the game, for he had carefully studied a nearby scoreboard when he reached the green; and he also knew that Nicklaus must have hit a marvelous drive from the adjoining 18th tee, because he heard the roar of the gallery and the unusual applause as Jack strode purposefully off the tee and down the fairway, his sunburned face and jaw working in determination.
Just as Palmer bent over his eight-foot putt on the 17th, he paused, backed up, looked at the television tower behind him and gestured impatiently. "1 could hear the TV announcer summarizing my putt," he explained later.
"Did you agree with him?" someone asked.
"No," Palmer replied emphatically.
The disturbance over, Palmer tried once again to sink a putt. And once again he missed on a green that by this late hour had gotten firm and fast as a turnpike.
At the 18th Nicklaus had hit what he later called his best drive of the tournament, and all he needed was a six-iron to reach the green on this very long, 462-yard par 4, which many of the golfers never reached with two good woods. Palmer, in his turn, got there with a drive and a four-iron. Each had similar putts for the birdie—Nicklaus from 12 feet. Palmer from 10.
And, as golf's largest gallery—a well-mannered and excellently marshaled crowd, in spite of its size—watched, they both missed. Palmer's miss was the more dramatic, for by now his hair-raising finishes have become so legendary that everyone is surprised and disappointed if he fails to win a tournament with his final stroke on the 72nd hole. But this time he disappointed both his fans and himself. So the tournament went into the ninth playoff of 1962 as Palmer and Nicklaus each finished with 283, one stroke under par for the full four rounds.
Sunday's sensational playoff was a rematch of the pairing of the first two days, when Palmer and Nicklaus also played together. Then, as on Saturday, each shot about the finest golf of his career. On Thursday Palmer's par 71 had led Jack by a stroke, and on Friday his 68 gained two on Jack's 70. Now they were to have at it again.
"I wish it were someone else," Palmer said with a grin when he finally could relax from the ordeal of Saturday's 36 holes. Then he looked affectionately at the 10 years younger and happily smiling face of Nicklaus. "That big, strong dude," said Palmer. "I thought I was through with him yesterday." Arnold Palmer will be contending with Jack Nicklaus for a long, long time.