AT OLYMPIC: A SUMMIT OF DRAMA

Playing at his swashbuckling best, Arnold Palmer had the U.S. Open all but tucked away—twice. Then disaster struck—twice—and cool Bill Casper swept up the pieces in a topsy-turvy playoff round
June 26, 1966

The 85th hole is a long time to wait to get the lead in a 72-hole golf tournament, but Bill Casper can be a very patient man. By going his patient way at San Francisco's Olympic Country Club this week he defeated that cataclysm with legs, Arnold Palmer, in a stunning U.S. Open. It was an Open that for three days pitted two of golf's most contrasting stylists against each other at a time when each was displaying his characteristics to the fullest. Palmer flashed a return to the dramatic heights of his heyday, capping three and a half rounds of masterful golf with one of the most disastrous collapses in the history of the 66-year-old tournament. In the last nine holes on Sunday he blew a seven-stroke lead, and nothing quite so shocking has happened since—coincidence—Palmer came from seven strokes behind to win the 1960 U.S. Open. His last-hour unheroics dropped him into a tie with Casper at 278 and led to Monday's playoff, which was a repeat in miniature of what had gone before. Again Palmer dashed to the front, his Army bellowing behind him, and again he faltered. On the 13th hole Casper took the lead. By the time the pair had reached the 18th green the U.S. Open was a rout. Palmer had lost his third Open playoff in five years, and Buffalo Bill Casper (see cover), the steady man with the wild diet, was the new champion, winning by four strokes, 69 to 73.

Two small statistics reveal the strength of Casper's performance. There were only 15 subpar scores in the entire Open, and Casper had four of them in the rounds he played—69, 68, 73, 68 and the playoff 69. He one-putted 33 greens and did not three-putt a green until the ninth hole of the playoff. And he calmly played his own game, no matter how bad things looked. A subdued and shaken Palmer, sitting in front of his locker after Sunday's calamity, said, "It's hard to believe." By Monday night it was even harder to believe. In fact, who could?

That there was a playoff at all must go down as one of the great debacles of modern times, comparable to the Italian retreat at Caporetto, the Edsel car and Liz Taylor's Cleopatra. As late as 3 o'clock on Sunday afternoon, this was Arnold Palmer's Open. He had shot a 71 on the first day to put himself in a good position, and he had looked very strong doing it. Thus a near flawless 66 on Friday, which tied Casper for the lead, was no great surprise. The third day he played the first 11 holes the same way and came in with an even-par 70. On Sunday he finished the first nine holes in 32—three under par and seven strokes ahead of Casper. All hail to the return of the invincible Palmer. The rest should have been a mere formality. But....

Maybe it would be better to start at the beginning. Believe it or not, this 1966 Open was all hearts and flowers as it got underway at 7:30 Thursday morning. A wispy San Francisco fog rolled across the Olympic Country Club's Lake Course and put just the kind of chill in the air that makes you want to get out and exercise. The only person who seemed to resent it was Ken Venturi, the home-town favorite, who sniffed the breeze and announced that the temperature was 60°. He could tell by his hands. "Over 65 they're all right," he said. "Under 65 I have trouble gripping the club." He was playing in a sentiment-inspiring grouping with Ben Hogan. They were the first crowd-drawing names to tee off, and their breath made clouds, like that of skiers in the Sierras.

The conditions at Olympic were just about perfect for an examination to determine the national champion of 1966. The length of the course—6,719 yards—was reasonable for any of the 133 professionals and 18 amateurs who had been competent enough to be admitted to the tournament. The fairways were narrow, some 35 to 45 yards wide at the target areas, but an Open champion is supposed to be able to hit the ball straight. The four-inch rough was gummy enough to penalize an errant shot, as well it should, but it was not the knee-high pasture that had made the 1955 Open on this same course so infamous. "Olympic is one of the best," said Jack Nicklaus. Palmer put it another way: "If you keep the ball in play, you can shoot about anything. If you hit it in the rough, you are lucky to break 80."

A man named Al Mengert went out that first day, kept the ball in the fairway and shot a 67 to lead the field. An Al Mengert always leads the Open on the first day. Among the annual charms of the tournament are those brief moments of glory that come to some obscure and thoroughly likable athlete. A brilliant sun shines down on the Mengerts, and everyone rushes around in search of their personal statistics. (Mengert is a 37-year-old former touring pro who is now head pro at Tacoma Golf and Country Club.) But their dreams disappear in a nightmare of bogeys. Mengert's succeeding rounds were 77, 71 and 81.

Gene Littler was second with a 68, and Bill Casper was all alone at 69. In March Casper had taken off several weeks to tour Vietnam and hit golf balls in the general direction of the Viet Cong, to the delight of the troops. He had not been seen at a golf tournament for the past month. Although Olympic was regarded as the kind of course that would yield to Casper's wonderfully intelligent strokes and his ability to "move the ball," as the pros put it, there was some question about whether he would be sharp. Bill himself had no such fears. "I'm hitting the ball as well as I ever have," he confided early in the week. "I feel real good. I guess it's just a matter of whether I can sink some putts." He had seven one-putt greens this day. Asked when he had last putted so well in a big championship he offered an interesting answer: "Winged Foot in '59." That was where he won his last major title—the U.S. Open.

There was a quartet at 70, among them John Miller, who could make a Mengert seem famous. A 19-year-old Olympic member, he had signed up to caddie in the Open, but then qualified to play in it and eventually finished tied for eighth.

And where were Palmer, Nicklaus and defending champion Gary Player? All were well in it but Player, who seemed to have early inklings that he was about to lose his grip on the title he had won last year at Bellerive. The once confident Gary is gone. "I just haven't been playing enough golf," he announced before the tournament even began. "I don't have the desire I had last year. I haven't played a tournament since the Memphis Open, and the less you play the less you care." As if to prove it, Player three-putted everywhere and shot 78.

Palmer and Nicklaus were at 71. Before the Open, people would say that Olympic was a Hogan-type course or a Casper-type course, but then they would always add that it was a Nicklaus-type course, too, because there is no course from St. Andrews to Kuala Lumpur which, of itself, can thwart Jack's extraordinary combination of power, delicacy and golfing sense. The opening 71 pleased Nicklaus, and he learned a few things in the process, such as finally concluding he should use a three-wood more often on his tee shots.

But the 1966 Open was somehow a Palmer story from the moment Arnold teed off on Thursday. You have to be gentle with an Open course? Wham! zap! zowie! went Palmer. On the very first hole, a tight 536-yard par-5, he smashed a wood at the green on his second shot, trying to muscle his way there in two when almost everybody else had laid up short. He landed hole-high in the rough, flew a wedge all the way into the rough on the other side of the green, hit an indifferent wedge back and two-putted for a bogey. There are those who contend that Palmer is the worst wedge player among the top pros, and it is getting hard to argue with them.

Palmer had decided he could trample on Olympic, and he was not going to change his mind now, for there was something different about him this week. For the first time since the 1964 Masters he looked truly eager to play the game with the distinctive relish that only he seems to bring to it. Perhaps it was nothing more than the way his orange sweater burst its way through Olympic's fog. But something was up. He hit stiff to the pin on the 2nd hole for a birdie. Then a bogey on 3, a salvaged par on 4, and into the trees for a nerve-racking bogey on 6. Already three bogeys, and his tournament was scarcely an hour old. Finally, after a double-bogey 6 at the 9th hole—caused in part by a bad fairway lie—for an outgoing 38, everything fell into place. Birdies came at 11 and 13, a 12-foot putt saved a par at the 14th and he came in with his 71.

The promise seen in Palmer's Thursday performance was delivered on Friday morning when he shot a 66. He hit only two bad shots. He missed putts of less than three feet on the final two greens, or he would have had a 64. It took the Palmer threesome only three and a half hours to get around the course, prompting Arnold to call it "one of the most pleasurable rounds I've played in the last five years." He also said it would "have to be one of the best rounds I ever played."

It was not, however, the best round played on Friday. That distinction belonged-to one Rives Russell McBee, a 27-year-old assistant pro from the Midland Country Club in west Texas. Shooting nine birdies, three bogeys and six pars, McBee tied the one-round record for the Open—64.

On almost any day of any Open, Mc-Bee's 64 and Palmer's 66 would have been sufficient to attract all the attention. But on this day, they had to share the excitement with Jack Nicklaus' temper, a part of his personality that has rarely, if ever, been on public display before. Late in the afternoon, after Jack had brought in his second consecutive 71, he arrived at the press tent with his hackles up. "I don't think I have ever been so mad on a golf course before," he said, his voice about an octave above its normal pitch. His fury was directed at USGA officials who had been badgering his threesome, which included Tony Lema and Bruce Devlin, to get moving.

Before the tournament started, the USGA announced that in the interest of speeding up play it would assess a two-stroke penalty for slowness.

During the first few holes of their round, Jack and his partners had been forced to wait on the players in front of them. But by the time the Nicklaus group completed the 6th hole, some space had opened up. A USGA official appeared and told them they would have to speed up. Nicklaus got angry, and four straight bogeys followed. "Golf is a very difficult game, and you have to maintain your tempo," he said later. "If you get off your tempo trying to rush, it makes it that much harder. I think the game is a little slow and should be speeded up, but to have someone on your back for 18 holes is too much."

Nicklaus was referring to the various USGA officials who took turns following him and his group around the course after the first warning. He called them a "police force." Lema and Devlin were equally annoyed, but Jack did the talking for them.

Before Saturday's round began, the air was cleared somewhat when the USGA explained to Nicklaus that he was not the prime offender. Still, an important point had been made, and golf should be the better for it. Nicklaus' controversial round had been completed in four hours and 22 minutes, more than an hour faster than the corresponding rounds in last year's Open, where play was so slow that the game was being ruined.

As Saturday dawned, Palmer shared a three-stroke lead with Casper, who had turned in a scrambling 68 on Friday to go with his opening 69. Palmer and Casper, the leaders, brought up the rear of the field, which was playing for the first time under a cloudless sky. They gathered most of the gallery and proceeded to show it what Casper later described rather whimsically as "a very exciting round." After digging his way out of the rough seven times and out of traps on three other occasions, Casper considered himself lucky to get away with a 73. "After the way I played today," he said, "I'm just happy to be playing tomorrow."

On the other hand, Palmer continued to play like an Olympian. By the time he reached the 12th tee he was one under par, had a three-stroke lead and looked untouchable. Since the end of the first nine on Thursday he had played 38 holes on a tight U.S. Open course in seven under par. Then on 12 there came a hint of trouble as he sliced a tee shot wildly into the trees and ended up with a double-bogey. He took a bogey at the 13th before closing out the day with a couple of birdies and a 70 that was good for a three-stroke lead. Casper had slipped to even-par 210, and Nicklaus was a stroke behind at 211.

Whatever hope Nicklaus had vanished soon after Palmer and Casper were underway—together again—on Sunday afternoon. On the first hole Palmer made it abundantly clear he had no intention of cosseting his lead. He hit an enormous drive to the center of the narrow fairway, and with the gallery egging him on pulled out a wood and went for the green. It was a perfect shot, flying in a glorious arc to the front of the green and rolling to within 20 feet of the hole. Palmer just barely missed his putt for an eagle 3 and tapped in for the birdie. He birdied the 2nd hole with a nine-foot putt and reached the turn in 32.

At this point Palmer stood six under par for the tournament and was playing the finest golf of his career. Casper was seven strokes to the rear, while Nicklaus and Lema, the next closest, were nine back. All Palmer had to do was shoot even par for the remaining nine holes for a 274, which would have broken Ben Hogan's Open record by two strokes. Unfortunately, this very thought entered Palmer's mind and refused to depart. He forgot about winning the Open.

On 10, for the umpteenth time in the tournament, Arnold hit an indifferent chip shot, leaving it well short of the hole. He missed the putt. Bogey. At 11 a lovely pitch shot saved a par. Nothing to worry about. When he birdied 12 the gallery reached for its transistor radios to see how the Giants were doing against Osteen in L.A. That, at least, might be exciting.

At the short 13th, Palmer pulled a four-iron to the left. Eleven-year-old Billy Casper, who was walking along with his mother, jumped up and down with joy when he saw the shot. "It's in the trap, it's in the trap," he cried.

"Hush, Billy," Shirley Casper scolded. "There's one thing about children," she smiled, slightly embarrassed. "They're uninhibited."

A bogey cut the lead to five. Ho hum.

At the par-3 15th, Palmer made what turned out to be his most serious mistake. This was the time to hit for the middle of the green and settle for a par, but that is not the Palmer method. He went for the pin and ended in a big bunker to the right of the green. Palmer blasted out eight feet past the hole, and it was here that Casper sank his first really long putt—a 20-footer for a 2. Palmer took a 4. Now the lead was down to three strokes. Ho, but not hum.

The 16th hole is a terribly long, crescent-shaped par-5 of 604 yards. No one in the Open came anywhere close to reaching it in two shots, so it is not a place to get rambunctious. But Palmer tried to hit a huge drive. Instead he hooked the ball into a tree and landed in the deep rough about 150 yards from the tee. He attempted to get out with a three-iron and barely got the ball airborne. It stopped about 100 yards farther on, still in the deep rough. He slashed out of-there with a nine-iron, and a spoon shot caught a bunker. He now lay four with a double-bogey 7 staring him in the face. The situation was particularly critical, since Casper, playing flawless if conservative golf, had left himself only a 15-foot birdie putt. Arnold rose to the occasion with a blast from the sand that stopped four feet from the hole, and he sank it for what he later half-jokingly called "the best 6 I ever made in my life." But Casper got his birdie. Now he was only one stroke away.

Neither drove the 17th well. Casper pushed his shot far to the right, and Palmer pulled his into deep rough on the left. Their second shots almost formed an X, Palmer's entering the right rough and Casper's the left, a foot short of the bunker in front of the green. Palmer now hit another fine recovery shot, this one seven feet from the hole. But at this crucial point he left his uphill putt just short, and Casper sank a three-footer for his par. In three holes, Casper had erased a five-stroke deficit with fine putts under the most intense pressure an athlete can face.

On the final hole Palmer again drove into the left rough but saved his par with yet another good recovery and two downhill putts from 30 feet away. Casper's par was considerably more routine, but good enough to get him into a playoff that just could not—could not—have happened.

There are those who tend to make light of the new Bill Casper and his unusual antiallergy diet of buffalo and bear and elk meat. They talk as if he were some kind of a nut or crank. They do not realize, perhaps, that Casper is a man of extraordinary character. His stern regimen has done a great deal more than cut his weight by 50 pounds. It has taught him self-discipline and given him the kind of stamina and peace of mind that made it possible for him to keep hold of himself through the awful and oppressive and triumphant moments of the most testing week of his professional golf career. Nobody will underrate Buffalo Bill again.

And there are those who tend to think that Palmer can no longer rise to the emotional heights he once reached easily. That at 36 the Palmer verve has ebbed and the assurance vanished. That Palmer and middle age have proved incompatible. In spite of his defeat, the 1966 Open showed that Arnold Palmer can still set a tournament on fire.

PHOTOWeary and dejected after seven-stroke lead dissolved. Palmer trudges off course on Sunday as Casper, on the 18th green, hands his caddie the putter that had carried him into the playoff. PHOTOThanks to nine birdies—but not this one—Rives McBee ties an open record with a 64. PHOTODown goes the ball and up go the arms as Casper sinks a bunker shot for a birdie on Friday. PHOTONicklaus plays his game, closely shadowed by a clock-watching vice-president of the USGA. PHOTOOn Sunday a dismayed Palmer flubbed this shot from the rough on the 16th hole, took a bogey and saw his lead drop to one stroke. PHOTOMinutes later on the 17th Palmer left his uphill seven-footer short, got another bogey and lost the last stroke of his once-awesome lead.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)