Arnold Palmer had rested for a month, and in his absence the professional golf tour had settled down like an army between wars and rested with him. Then last week he returned, and all was agony and ecstasy once again. The scene was the Thunderbird Classic, a $100,000 frolic on the stately fairways of the Westchester Country Club in a suburb of New York. Occurring only a week before the U.S. Open—where the winner collects a mere $16,000 in cash but a mintful of prestige—the Thunderbird figured to be essentially a place for warmups and comebacks. Everybody wanted to see if Arnie was out of the slump he was supposed to have been in, and if Ben Hogan's return to tournament action was competitive or sentimental, and to decide who was really hitting the ball well enough to win the Open Championship at Brookline, Mass. What no one had really expected was that the Thunderbird would itself turn into an astonishing sporting event. But that is what happens when one forgets that Palmer is around. If there is a way to make a golf tournament thrilling, Arnold will find it, and by the time he had shot a 277 and gone through a sudden-death playoff and finally collected his $25,000 winner's check at Westchester last Sunday afternoon, even his hand was shaking a little.
Palmer had been on rest-and-rehabilitation leave at his home in Latrobe, Pa., for four weeks—fellow pro Doug Sanders claimed Palmer just needed the time to count his money—and on his very first competitive round he showed how much good the time off had done him. He shot a 3-under-par 67 to take the lead that first day at the Thunderbird, and he displayed more vigor pounding up and down the fairways than he had shown in months. Once more his drives were well out in front of all his opponents, and there was a smoothness to his putting stroke that nearly satisfied even him. He was almost never in trouble on the tight West Course of the Westchester club. After three days of play he was two strokes ahead of the field and it was hard to imagine that anybody was going to catch up with him. "I am enjoying the game again," he said.
Also enjoying the game was Paul Harney, a long-hitting, little-known pro from Worcester, Mass. who had outrested Palmer, having stayed away from competition since the Masters last April. Much to the surprise of everyone, here was Harney matching Arnie enjoyment for enjoyment coming into the 17th hole of the final round. The 17th is a modest par-4, and when Harney hit his second shot into a trap, Palmer, who was playing with him, looked like a winner again. Arnold could not stand the thought of such prosperity. "My ball was in a fluffy lie, and I got careless," he said later. What Harney and a few million television watchers saw was Palmer bouncing an easy wedge shot over the back of the green and 25 yards down a steep grade. He hit his next shot up the bank, and glowered as it rolled right back down again. Now he was apparently in enough trouble to suit himself. He made a memorable recovery shot to within four feet of the pin and sank the putt for what he termed "the greatest 5 in my golf career." Harney ended up with a 5, too, so they were still tied going into the final hole.
On the par-5 18th, after Harney had hit a 100-yard approach shot within eight feet of the pin only to miss his putt, Palmer needed simply to sink a four-foot birdie putt to win. Four children raised high a banner that said "Arnie's Army," the legion itself got set for a victory roar—and Arnie missed the putt. "I was thinking about a million other things," he said, when he described the shot later. "I finally found my choking price—$25,000."
But that was enough drama for the day, and the fantasy of errors was quickly over. On the first extra hole of a sudden-death playoff Harney got a bogey while Palmer sank a four-footer for a par 3. Victory was Palmer's, and his comeback was confirmed. "My game is just about in shape for the Open," he said, as he headed toward Brookline, looking quite capable of enjoying himself there, too.
The second comeback at Westchester—although it was not truly a comeback try—was that of 50-year-old Ben Hogan. Its end was hardly as satisfying as Palmer's. The brilliant Hogan was once The Hawk, but time makes pigeons of the best of men. Not since May of 1962 had Hogan played in a major tournament. Last March 9 he underwent surgery on his back to correct a lingering bone ailment that had bothered him since his near-fatal automobile accident in 1949. His convalescence kept him out of the Masters tournament, and he did not bother to file an entry for the U.S. Open because he assumed his game would not be in shape. But he recovered rapidly from the operation, and a necessary business trip to New York led him to enter the Thunderbird.
Hogan finished tied for 25th, with a creditable enough 285, but this was not the Hogan of even a year ago. He walks the fairways slowly now, and there is a trace of a paunch on the middle that was once flat as a putter face. He is more mellow, too, and more friendly—though there was a flash of the old Hogan perverseness as he repeatedly avoided a gaggle of radio men who pursued him for interviews. But the Thunderbird seemed to mark the end of his really serious golf. "I've been playing awful here," he said as the tournament neared its end. "But I didn't expect to do anything. I don't miss the old days anymore. I'm enjoying the business of making golf clubs. It has replaced the kick I once got out of tournaments. Playing golf is an eight-hour-a-day job. I can't give it that much time, and I wouldn't if I could. I still love competition, but after 15 or 20 years it gets wearing. I'll probably play in a few more tournaments, but I'll play just as I did here—to see old friends and say hello. Everyone has to quit sometime. You run out of gas."
If four-time U.S. Open Champion Hogan was running out of gas at 50, the hefty defending Open Champion Jack Nicklaus was, at 23, running into trouble. Already this year Jack had been bothered by bursitis of the hip. Then last Friday, while tearing into a tee shot on the third hole of the second round, a muscle in the upper part of his back, just off the left side of his neck, went pop! almost like a champagne cork. The day had been a cold one, and Nicklaus had not been wearing a sweater over his thin white golf shirt when he teed off at the brisk, early hour of 9:54. The chill may have caused a muscle spasm. He was able to finish out his round, turning in a 72, but by the time he sidled off the 18th green his right shoulder was hitched up in obvious pain.
He hurried to the club's training room, where he took a heat treatment under an infra-red lamp and received a shoulder massage and pummeling that would have disabled an elephant. All the while medical bulletins were being issued, keyed to the notion that a man who cannot turn his head is not going to win a U.S. Open. Roughly an hour later Jack emerged to the public view, setting a scene that staid Westchester will not soon forget. He was wearing a natty white blazer, and a towel was debonairly wrapped about his neck like a scarf. He was preceded by a man excitedly trying to get him to say a few words into a microphone, and followed by an entourage. He looked like a fading matinee idol on his way to his last opening, and the spectacle must have amused even him.
The pain in the neck was not amusing. The next morning he took more heat treatments and said he would play in the U.S. Open if he had to do it on crutches. Then he slipped into a high-neck golf shirt, a woolen turtleneck dickie that his mother knitted for him several years ago—he carries it in his golf bag in case of cold weather—and the blue alpaca sweater he should have been wearing a day earlier, and hit some practice shots. "1 didn't feel even a twinge," he reported, and he decided that he would not have to withdraw from the Thunderbird. He shot a 71 that afternoon. The fact that he eventually finished tied for 22nd was unimportant. The big thing was that he appeared to have survived a scare and was ready to be a pain in the pocketbook for the rest of the field at Brookline.
Thus the Thunderbird, in spite of its distracting timing in the golf schedule, turned out to be a most interesting event. No tournament will have a better field this year, and few will be played in a better setting than the Westchester Country Club. A total of 50,000 spectators attended the four days of competition, and they were a surprisingly knowing golf crowd, generally appreciative of what they were observing. There is reason to hope the Thunderbird will become a strong, permanent event on the tour even if it will be a long time matching the excitement it produced last Sunday.
Successful though the tournament was, it did leave one spectator disappointed. Her hopes no doubt buoyed by the presence of such aged and semilegendary figures as Hogan, Jimmy Demaret and Sam Snead, a middle-aged lady rushed up to a marshal who was patrolling the 18th fairway.
"When will Bobby Jones be coming up to this hole?" she asked.