Miller Barber had just silenced Arnie's Army with a brilliant three-iron to within 10 feet of the pin on the 11th hole at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y. Sunday, when he spotted a little boy crying along the gallery ropes. The man with the somewhat diabolical nickname of Mr. X stopped and gave the little fella a ball. It put an end to the sobbing and earned Barber his first real ovation of the day. But was the man who was beating Arnold Palmer for his second U.S. Senior Open Championship in three years trying to manipulate the gallery as effectively as he was manipulating his game?
"Oh, gosh, it was nothing like that," said a sheepish Barber in his mousy Texas twang. "I was just trying to keep that little boy's daddy from being mad at him. I wasn't trying to get sympathy."
Nor was he interested in giving any, despite hearing a few cries of "Let Arnie win!" from the army. Barber admitted feeling a tad bad after Palmer whiffed a 1½-inch putt on the 15th hole, but otherwise, Barber got Palmer down early and never let him up. His six-over-par 286 was two strokes better than "the king" and practically a stroke a side better than everyone else.
When Barber hit a seven-iron three feet from the pin on the final hole, he got a standing ovation for a round in which he missed only one fairway and two greens. He had also caused the gallery to change its favorite refrain from "Go Arnie" to "It's Miller time."
July 9, 1984
"They were rooting for Arnold, naturally," said Barber. "I don't blame them, I'd have been for him too, if I wasn't playing against him. But it made me feel very good when some of them started to pull for me."
Oak Hill played 300 yards shorter and had considerably less tangly rough than it did for the 1968 U.S. Open and the 1980 PGA Championship, but it was still too much for most of the field. The subtle Donald Ross layout requires full-blooded shots, something not easily attained by golfers over 50 who usually ride in carts but had to walk at Oak Hill. USGA rules, you know. Only Palmer, with a 68 on Friday, and Jack Fleck, with a 69 on Saturday, were able to break par 70.
"It's harder for us now than if the rough were longer and we were younger," said Bob Goalby, who was fourth at 292. Defending champion Billy Casper, who carried around more than a few extra pounds on his way to a tie for 14th at 302, glanced at the course and said, "Looks like they [the USGA] are trying to get rid of the deadweight."
None of that mattered very much, because, as always at a senior event, just about all the spectators—71,000 for the week—came to see Palmer, who was fresh off a win in the Senior Tournament Players Championship at Canterbury in Cleveland. Palmer means at least as much to senior golf now as he did to the regular tour in the early 1960s.
"He's the king of kings—he's my idol," says Doug Sanders, who shot a 315. "There's a strength about the man that people want to be around. Anybody who resents Arnold getting more attention than the rest of us doesn't deserve to use his head for more than a hat rack."
There's no question that Palmer, who at 54 can still stride onto an elevated green like no one else, has taken care of the old equipment. Furthermore, the recent indignity of his failing to qualify for the U.S. Open—he missed that event for the first time in 32 years—has given him new zeal. "I decided I'm going to play good golf or give it a rest," he said last week. "Something's happening to my game. Mainly I'm concentrating better." Barber said Palmer's last round at Canterbury, a three-under-par 69, was "the best I've seen Arnold play in 15 years."
Palmer's scores this year on the senior tour have been a full three strokes per round lower than his 16 rounds on the regular circuit. "He knows he can handle these guys," says Creamy Carolan, Palmer's caddie from the old days, who rejoined Arnie last October after a six-year hiatus. "He can't afford one bad round on the regular tour. He doesn't putt well enough to make it up with a 64."
Arnie opened with a desultory 74 on Thursday and was six-over through 11 on Friday. Then he hit a nine-iron through some branches and made birdie on 12. On the par-5, 570-yard 13th, the Hill of Fame, Palmer hit an eight-iron from the rough to 30 feet above the pin. As thousands watched, Palmer put his wristy stroke on it, and 10 seconds later, as the ball rolled into the cup, it was 1960 and Cherry Hills all over again—the kind of moment senior golf would like to bottle.
Two more birdies gave Palmer a 31 for the back nine and a 68 for the day, both lows for the tournament. After a 72 Saturday, he held a one-shot advantage over Barber and was two better than Goalby.
"Love to, love to, love to," said Barber when asked how he'd like to play with Palmer on Sunday. He didn't need to be reminded that he'd been paired with Palmer in the last round in Portland, Ore. in 1982 when he won the Senior Open by shooting a 65 to Palmer's 74. "Because he's such a great player, I tend to raise my game," Mr. X said.
That was the case on Sunday: Barber consistently outdrove Palmer—he's a year younger, after all—and was knocking it closer to the pin most of the day. Never mind Barber's ugly swing. With him it's never been how that mattered, but how many. Barber caught Arnie on the par-4 fifth, making a birdie while Palmer was hitting into a creek for a bogey. Barber took the lead when Palmer overclubbed and bogeyed the seventh, and gained two more strokes when Arnie bogeyed 10 and 11. Palmer finally made a birdie on the 14th, but he sailed a seven-iron over the par-3 15th and chipped nine feet past. When he left the putt on the lip, he stubbed his putter behind the ball for a moment before tapping in. "I made five," he told Barber, counting the stub as a whiff.
"I was just careless, that's all," Arnie said later. "There was only one person who knew it. I knew what my intent was." Barber was so stunned he missed his own three-footer for par.
Palmer birdied 16 to cut the lead back to two, explaining, "If you're stupid enough to [whiff], you should be smart enough to forget it." But Barber made a great par out of the trees on 17 after Palmer left a birdie putt on the lip, and then it was Miller time.
"They say if you win two major championships, you're pretty good," said Mr. X, sipping champagne. "This makes me feel, well, like I'm pretty good."
As for Palmer, no one was mortally disappointed that he didn't win. He'd put on a show. With Arnie it's never been how many that mattered, but how.