Jack Nicklaus, the U.S. Open champion, got up from the breakfast table before the second round of the Professional Golfers' Association Championship last week, smiled and said. "Well, I'm off to fight Arnie's Army." It was a short, offhand remark, but it summed up what the PGA tournament thoroughly demonstrated: there has been a remarkable change in the character of major U.S. golf events. In spite of the fact that Arnold Palmer was not winning the PGA that morning, and not about to win it all weekend long, the stage was his. the gallery was his and the tournament was his. Never before had a loser more completely ruled a golf event. It wasn't until three holes from the end late Sunday afternoon that the troops following General Palmer finally began to drift away.
Until that point they had stuck steadily at his side. They were there, several thousand strong at the first tee Sunday, waiting for a last-round miracle, and indeed Palmer raised his hands high and promised one. "I'm going out and shoot that son of a gun in 62," he said. The faithful believed every syllable of it, and wanted to bear witness. Finally, at the 16th hole, when hardly a Palmer shot was left to watch anyway, they slipped off belatedly to see what other competitors were doing.
It was through this topsy-turvy atmosphere that Gary Player emerged with four fine rounds of 72-67-69-70 to become the fifth foreign winner in the 44-year-history of the PGA Championship. He turned in some highly commendable pressure golf on the closing two holes after runner-up Bob Goalby had cut his lead to a single stroke with birdies on the 14th and 16th. Then Gary sank an unnerving little putt on the 18th, to win, and stepped away grim and numb, as if he had just heard some bad news. It was a vital moment for Player's morale, for he hadn't won a tournament in more than 15 months; he had blown leads in two big ones recently. He had done so badly in the British Open that he didn't even qualify for the last two rounds. Short putts had been a large part of his problem. When he solved it the PGA had a likable new champion. Yet it also had come up with a dull tournament.
The fact that Palmer's presence dominated the event in spite of his indifferent play may explain why this year's PGA never generated the kind of overall excitement that should go with the third biggest tournament on the professional calendar. "Maybe it's the weather," someone said. Others blamed the fact that, after 29 consecutive weeks of tournaments since the tour started in Los Angeles on January 5, some of the players were overgolfed. Another big tournament, this one in the midsummer heat of Philadelphia, seemed to be one too many. But the Palmer phenomenon was really at fault.
Nobody but Arnie
Seldom has any sport—and particularly this one—ever turned into the one-man show that golf has now become. Little and sometimes tart Jerry Barber, the PGA defending champion, summed it up before a shot was hit at Aronimink Golf Club, the long, tree-lined course near Philadelphia that played host to the PGA: "They don't know anybody's here but Palmer." And by they Barber meant everybody: the gallery, reporters, photographers, officials and, surprisingly, the players themselves. Even bookmakers were dazzled. They quoted the absurdly low odds of 2 to 1 against Palmer to win the PGA, one of the biggest underlays in the history of the friendly wager. (The pro-Palmer bettor put up $1 on the chance of winning only $2.) The more cold-blooded Turf and Sports club in Las Vegas, where the volume of golf betting now ranks with that of boxing, listed Palmer at a far more realistic 9 to 2.
When Arnold reached Aronimink, fresh from his lopsided victory in the British Open the previous week, crowds surrounded his car. Once he was through that phalanx of autograph seekers and idolaters, he had to breach a battalion of tournament officials who wanted to do everything within human capabilities to make his visit a happy one. For the rest of the week he was tortured with kindness.
The simple act of putting on his spikes and playing a round of tournament golf has evolved into a major project for Palmer, one that is as complicated and hectic as the mounting of a military siege. And, in turn, the tournaments he plays have a strange, unreal quality—half joyous dream, half nightmare—that is unlike anything else in golf.
Matters were made even worse at Aronimink when Palmer was paired with Nicklaus in the two opening rounds. This was the third U.S. event in five weeks in which this had happened. Since his victory in the U.S. Open, Nicklaus has been the biggest attraction on the course except for Palmer, and when the two play together only relatives and robins bother to watch any of the other matches on the course. PGA officials insist that the pairings are drawn out of a hat, but perhaps only two names are put in the hat. At any rate, it cannot be denied that a Palmer-Nicklaus pairing is the best possible stimulation for the box office.
While Palmer and Nicklaus were playing together on Thursday and Friday, the gallery with them was, naturally, enormous. Virtually every other group, including a threesome of Sam Snead, Gary Player and Phil Rodgers, was contesting in privacy. Marshals, scorers and other tournament officials in their green-and-white uniforms, to say nothing of the corps of journalists, traipsed down the fairways by the dozens in the Palmer-Nicklaus wake. Without periscopes, which sold at $1 apiece, it was impossible to get more than an occasional glimpse of the players.
It was strictly a Palmer crowd, the fabled army. "Go Arnie," said a sign on the hat of one spectator. "Go Arnie," were the shouts every time it looked like he might get moving. Each time Palmer putted out his gallery would break ranks in disorder and race for the next hole, not waiting or caring that Nicklaus or the other man in the threesome, Dave Marr, still had putts to make. The ground could have swallowed up Open Champion Nicklaus, and nobody would have known he was gone.
Friday morning at breakfast Nicklaus was asked if it wouldn't have been better to have had him and Palmer in separate threesomes so the gallery would be split up. "That wouldn't help," said Nicklaus. "There would still be 10,000 people following Palmer and about 10 people following me."
"It's like a stampede," said Don Fairfield, who played just ahead of Palmer on the first two rounds, and was too close to the gallery for comfort. "They run wild. It's upsetting to hear those feet pounding and the people yelling."
"There are no laggers in that mob," said old John Barnum, who shot a first-day 66 while playing just behind Palmer. "It's nice and quiet, like a vacuum, behind that man."
Cracks in his calmness
But the strain of being a general was beginning to show on Palmer, too. On one occasion, when the gallery began moving as Nicklaus was about to putt, Palmer said loudly, "We have another man here." The same thing happened on the next hole. "Aw, please!" exclaimed Palmer. Nicklaus, incidentally, missed both those short putts. Also, there were signs that Palmer's irritation threshold, always so unbelievably high, was descending a bit toward human proportions. His radiant bursts of personality came less frequently, and he was more impatient with the things that usually upset everybody but himself—noise from a TV crew, an airplane, a camera, a rustling bit of paper.
On Thursday at the sixth hole a photographer nudged him and said, "Would you move over a little, buddy, so I can take a picture of Nicklaus?" Palmer seethed. At the 12th hole on Friday a television technician on a nearby tower dropped a piece of metal that crashed down like a bomb as Palmer addressed an approach shot. Palmer stepped back, addressed the ball again, and down came another piece of metal. Palmer didn't smile, as once he might have. Then he hit the shot over the green.
The marshals bothered him, too. So many of them were trying to keep order that Palmer sometimes looked like the leader of a Saint Patrick's Day parade. At times the course almost needed marshals to marshal the marshals. And they didn't hesitate to chat with Arnold. The Palmer disposition was finally ruffled enough for him to say, " 'Naturally, I'm happy that so many people want to see me play. But there were times this week when I had to talk to 200 sponsors between shots."
"I don't think it's ever been this bad," his wife Winnie said one morning just before starting out on a round with her husband. Winnie, who stands only five feet three in the golf shoes she wears while walking with Arnold, scarcely gets more than a glimpse of her husband through the mass of humanity as he strides down the fairway.
But Winnie doesn't complain about the crush as she walks unobtrusively among the gallery, usually in company with one of the other wives. "I don't get very close and I miss a lot of the big putts, but I'm always around," she says. "I stay behind him or in front of him, but not with him." A notable exception to this policy came at the British Open, where the enthusiastically stampeding Glaswegians were a threat to life and limb, and Winnie occasionally exercised her privilege of walking down the fairways behind the players.
By listening carefully to Winnie, it was possible to get another view of the Palmer phenomenon. "Honestly," she said, in the midst of a round, "I don't see how Arn can get through the week. Everyone wants something from him. They want him to visit an air base or fly with him in their jet or be on a broadcast or try out a car. They want to crowd around him or they want to look after him and keep him from the crowds. But more than that, after all the excitement and emotion of last week, it's just awfully hard for him to get worked up for this tournament. You've got to let down after something like the British Open."
There cannot be the slightest doubt that Palmer's inability to charge himself up to a championship pitch for the second week in a row had its effect on the atmosphere of the PGA. He played what for him was mediocre golf, missing the fairways with his drives almost as often as he was hitting them, failing to show his customary authority as he played his shots to the greens, and not sinking the putts with which he so often has sent the galleries into a delirium.
For his own part, however. Palmer refused to make alibis. After finishing his second round with a respectable two-over-par 72. which left him in a tie for 13th, he was considerate enough to submit to an interrogation in the press tent—a ritual that is usually reserved for the day's hottest golfers. First, he confirmed what was obvious to anyone who noticed that the normal resilience was absent from his spine and legs as he toured the 18 holes: "I just didn't have it today. You expect to play bad rounds of golf, and the main thing is to get out of them without too much damage. I was lucky today to score as well as I did. Believe me, I was glad to settle for a 72, and it could have been a lot worse." What had truly saved Palmer's score that day was an electrifying eagle 3 on the long, par-5 16th hole. He reached the green in two with a couple of long woods and then sank a 25-foot putt that sent his army into an explosion of applause. As far as the gallery was concerned, the day was a success.
When his name was finally taken off the leaders' scoreboard on Saturday, Arnie's loyalists felt somehow cheated, even though the Palmer name had been left up there when many unlisted golfers were well ahead of him.
The PGA Championship proved beyond argument that, as Arnold Palmer goes, so goes the golf tournament. The gallery turns out to see him win, the sponsors and officials think of him first and the other golfers have him as much on their minds as if he were their putter. After finishing with a second-round 72 on Friday that kept him among the tournament leaders, Bob Goalby was heard to mutter, "I wonder what's with the hotshots"—meaning, of course, Palmer and Nicklaus.
In the dining room Dave Ragan was discussing the problems of the pro tour with a few newspapermen, suggesting that it might be a good idea to cut down on the number of tournaments. "Now let's see," he said. "How many tournaments did Palmer play in last year?"
Mike Souchak's wife, Nancy, while following her husband around, reached the inevitable subject. "Mike says Arnold really deserves everything he's got. He's behaved so well and worked so hard and remained so modest."
And finally Vivienne Player, Gary's wife, said to a reporter, while trailing her husband around the course: "Did you see Arnie play those last two rounds at the British Open? It must have been a wonderful experience."
She was talking about Arnold Palmer, even while her husband was winning the PGA Championship. But why not? So was everybody else at Aronimink Golf Club last week.