He awoke very early—4:50 a.m.—to keep his golf date. He had planned on a full eight hours sleep, having retired at 8:30 the night before, but he tossed and turned and was up pacing during the early hours as he always does before a round that means something. Ten minutes to 5. It was as early as he ever had to get up to play golf.
The temperature was in the 40s, and it was raining. He dressed while his wife fixed him a breakfast of grapefruit, soft-boiled eggs, bacon, whole-wheat toast and coffee. In an hour or so he would join Darrell Brown, his pilot, and Joe Tito, his beer-baron friend, for the drive—35 miles along U.S. 30—to the golf course. Tito would do the driving.
Uncle Francis would go, too. The others would pick him up at his home in Latrobe and go to the Youghiogheny Country Club in McKeesport. Uncle Francis wanted to watch, like Darrell and Joe, and to be near. When a man has to get up before dawn to qualify for his 17th straight U.S. Open, he ought to have friends by his side.
So Arnold Palmer's day began one dreary morning last week when, for the first time in 10 years, he was forced to participate in a sectional qualifier to gain a starting berth in the Open.
June 15, 1969
A player is automatically exempt from those qualifying tests, says the USGA, if he is:
1) An Open champion of the last five years.
2) A PGA champion of the last five years.
3) The current U.S. Amateur champion.
4) The current British Open champion.
5) Among the top 15 finishers in the previous Open.
6) Among the top 15 PGA money winners for the year up to the entry deadline of the Open.
This year the entry deadline was April 30, making the Byron Nelson Classic in Dallas the final tournament. Palmer had stood No. 15 on the money list going into Dallas, but Frank Beard birdied the 71st hole, then parred the 72nd to tie for second in the tournament and push him out.
Nor did Palmer qualify in any of the other five categories. His lone Open victory was in 1960, he has never won the PGA and he finished a dismal 59th in last year's Open. Thus the biggest name in golf was forced to play 36 holes at McKeesport alongside a bunch of people—Harry Harold, Billy Capps, Herky Smith—whose names sound like disc jockeys and others who played out of places like the Host Farm Resort Motel.
Palmer had prepared for his unusual assignment by playing the 6,200-yard, par-72 Youghiogheny (pronounced Yawk-o-gainy or, if native to the area, simply Yawk) course two weeks prior to the qualifier. Under perfect weather conditions he shot a 67.
Meanwhile, local USGA officials had their hands full. For the first time since Ben Hogan was scheduled to play in the Pittsburgh qualifier in 1962, spectators were charged $2. All greens and tees were roped off, phones and wire machines were set up for the press, security policemen were provided to handle traffic and parking and six marshaling teams of four men each went around, armed with white pith helmets, more rope and little experience. The ropes were brought over from Oakmont, where they had been assembled for the U.S. Amateur later this summer, but they did not help much.
Some of the crowd had been waiting for more than an hour in the rain and cold before Palmer came to the practice tee a few minutes after 7. Winnie, at home, would soon be getting the girls, Peggy, 13, and Amy, 10, off to school in raincoats and umbrellas, but Palmer himself wore only two sweaters against the wind. He hunched his shoulders and flapped his arms between shots and he frowned a lot.
A thousand people surrounded the first tee to watch the fifth twosome of the morning. Palmer and Lew Worsham, an old friend and former Open champion himself, go off at 8, just after William Crooks and James Rogers and just before Lew's brother Herman, the Youghiogheny pro, and John Felus.
Palmer began by hitting a screaming hook into the left rough and then dunking a horrible wedge into a deep bunker short of the green. After that he quickly removed all suspense from the day by exploding to two feet and saving par, then making a birdie at No. 2. Palmer went back to even par when he three-putted the sixth—his only bogey of the day—but he played the next 30 holes in six under par. His 70-68—138 score led the 52 entrants (who were playing for eight spots) and included a 20-foot eagle putt on the par-5, 455-yard 8th hole during the afternoon.
Throughout both rounds the crowds proved to be unmanageable. Unaccustomed to the etiquette and propriety of such an event, they stormed over the fairways, leaving little more than scar tissue for the other 50 players. Each time Palmer holed out they rushed, screaming, onto the next tee and fairway, giving poor Lew Worsham's putting the tranquillity of a Marx brothers movie. Because his friend was having such a miserable day anyway, Palmer became visibly angry. Early on, he attempted to stop the audience from scattering. "Folks, please," he reprimanded, after putting out on the 4th green. "Folks, wait. We're both playing here." Worsham was a victim of the same experience that plagues many of the tour regulars who are paired with Palmer: to the Army, Worsham was as significant a part of the scene as the nearest tree.
It wasn't until after his eagle that Palmer became chummy with the galleries or gave even the hint of a smile. Winnie was walking along with him then and, three holes later, he came to her in the rough even though she was backing away.
"How are you doing?" he said. "Why are you moving back?"
"Oh, I'm staying away," she said. "The photographers. You know."
"Well, they won't hurt you, not in that pretty red coat," he said. Palmer squeezed his wife in a hug and walked several yards with her down the fairway.
"You know," Winnie had said earlier, after thinking about all the Masters, Opens and British Opens she has followed all these years, "this is a good spectator course. Hilly, and the walking is difficult, but you can see a lot. It's just that having to be here is such a nuisance. Arnold was so annoyed at himself for not playing well enough in Dallas."
When he had holed his last putt and had waded through autograph hunters for half an hour, Palmer showered, granted several TV interviews and then met the press in a side dining room off the Youghiogheny clubhouse. He spoke of what was on everyone's mind.
"I can't really object to qualifying," Palmer said. "If the ruling body says this is the right way, who am I to protest? These are the rules. If I was running the USGA and you asked me if I would make a man of my position qualify, I'd say no. But if qualifying is the desire of the officials, I must abide by it."
The last man to qualify for and win the U.S. Open in the same year was Ken Venturi in 1964. A year before, Julius Boros, a former champion, had to qualify and then he won it again. On the other hand, Ben Hogan, after he was no longer automatically exempt every year, refused to enter the sectional qualifiers.
Palmer graciously passed over the controversy—or did he? A lot of people were asking each other: Should Arnold Palmer have been forced to qualify?
"No, he shouldn't have played here," said Palmer's 18-year-old caddie, David Kutchak. "Let them exempt Open champions, but if they don't want to do that, exempt Palmer anyway. He's the biggest guy in the game. He made golf what it is. He's a legend."
A few friends were still around, but most of the crowd had departed, when their man—and Winnie—got into Joe Tito's blue Buick. Back in Latrobe the girls would be waiting to find out if they would get their trip to Houston and the Open. Arnold and Winnie would relax, eat a nice dinner and talk about the day. Shortly, Arnold Palmer would go to bed early. Even a legend has to get his sleep.