Somebody once asked Arnold Palmer why his army was so feverishly devoted to him. "Well," Arnie said, "maybe it's because I'm in the rough so much I get to know them all personally."
And therein lies a good part of the reason Arnold Palmer became America's favorite—not best, not winningest, just favorite—golfer. For in Arnie you had an athletic god who could come down from the heavens and screw up royally, and the nation loved him for it. When Palmer stood over a three-iron in weeds as long as his inseam, needing to carry that pond way up yonder, you had the feeling that even he had no idea what would become of the ball. It might land three inches from the pin or three blocks from the clubhouse. What made it impossible not to watch Arnie is the same thing that makes it impossible to put down a good book—suspense.
Either way, coming or going, Palmer always tried uproariously hard. He swung as if slashing his way out of a Brazilian rain forest. His face contorted with every tortured heave. Golf is an unplayable game. Why fool around pretending it's not? And everything about Arnie—from his untuckable shirttail to his uncombable hair—screamed it out. Arnold Palmer did for finesse what Oliver North did for procedure.
And so it was that Arnie could bank on fans' forgiving and forgetting. If he could come from seven shots behind on the last day to win a U.S. Open, as he did heroically at Cherry Hills in 1960, then he had the inalienable right to blow one of equally colossal proportions. Twenty-one years ago this month, he did. Leading by seven shots with nine holes to play in the Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, he committed perhaps the grandest golf gaffe in history, ultimately falling to Casper and the Ghost—the putting of Billy Casper and the legend of Ben Hogan—in a loss that never healed in his psyche. Palmer never won another major after that, and some people say he hasn't been quite the same since.
June 14, 1987
The Olympic Club, a storied institution boasting an athletic and social club in San Francisco as well as the country club about 10 miles away, has had its sporting moments. Gentleman Jim Corbett was a member in 1892 when he beat John L. Sullivan for the heavyweight title. Olympians in a variety of sports have called it home. But on June 19, 1966, on the fourth day of that year's U.S. Open, Olympic was golf itself.
Here was golf's past in the becapped Hogan, returned to the scene of his most famous flop, his 1955 Open loss to the widely ignored Jack Fleck, who is said to have had only $3 in his pocket when he beat Hogan that week. Hogan lost the playoff when his tee shot at 18 went awry. He said his foot slipped, but some said it was his heart. Fleck was barely seen on golf's map again. Yet here they were together again in 1966—Hogan by invitation, Fleck as a qualifier—both of them living apparitions at old, shadowy, haunted Olympic.
Here was golf's future, too: Hale Irwin, Bob Murphy and Deane Beman all played the '66 Open as amateurs. Then there were two unlikely newcomers, a quiet El Paso pro playing in his first major and a 19-year-old amateur who had signed up to caddie but instead qualified—Lee Trevino and Johnny Miller. Miller, a junior member of Olympic, played two practice rounds with Jack Nicklaus himself. "What do you think of our kid?" a member asked Nicklaus late Wednesday. "Not bad," said Nicklaus. "But we'll see how he reacts with the heat on him."
So nervous was Miller that on the first day he overslept and his mother had to wake him. Trevino's week was unremarkable, but Miller finished eighth, the low amateur.
The story line, however, was golf's present. And golf's present then, golf's everything, was Palmer. Trevino stood at the entrance to Olympic one day and stared as Palmer drove up in a Cadillac. "I remember he couldn't get out of his car because so many people were trying to get his autograph," says Trevino. "They pushed past me. And I thought, I never dreamed this is what it could be like."
But if Palmer was far and away the people's choice, Nicklaus, 26, was fast becoming history's. Ten years Palmer's junior, Nicklaus had already won five majors to Arnie's seven, owing partly to Palmer's alarming knack for fumbling away majors at the goal line. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Alfred Wright once called Palmer "that cataclysm with legs," and, indeed, Palmer's bumbling down the stretch was getting to be a habit. Three majors had slipped through his big knuckles in the early '60s. At the 1961 Masters, Palmer led by a shot with his ball in the middle of the 18th fairway on Sunday (he had even accepted a congratulatory handshake from a fan as he walked to his ball), then made a double bogey to give away the green coat to an astonished Gary Player. He went glare-to-glare with Fat Jack at Oakmont in the 1962 Open and lost in a playoff. The next year at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., he lost another Open in a playoff, this time against Julius Boros and Jacky Cupit; Boros won.
No wonder that even with a three-shot lead after three rounds at Olympic, even playing, as he put it, "some of the best golf in my life," Palmer felt jittery. When someone asked how he felt about the remote chances of a playoff, Palmer said, "I'd just as soon not be in one."
But as Palmer walked to the 10th tee on Sunday, a playoff was as unthinkable as snow. He had birdied four of the first nine holes, and led the world and Casper by seven shots. He had now been playing with Casper for 27 holes, and nothing in Casper's style rattled Palmer. He and Casper had been tied after Friday, but Palmer put three strokes between the two of them on Saturday and had turned the front nine in a sporty three-under-par 32 to Casper's 36.
No, in Palmer's mind, Casper wasn't the competition. The competition was the man who at that moment was putting out at the 18th hole for what would be 12th place, Ben Hogan.
It was Hogan's U.S. Open record of 276, set in 1948 at Riviera, that Palmer longed to break, and he needed to play the back nine in only one-over-par 36 to do it. "I knew what the record was, and I knew I had the British Open record [276 at Troon in 1962]," Palmer says now. "I thought it would be nice to have both."
Such a lock was Palmer that Casper wandered over to him as they walked to the 10th tee and asked for help. "Arnie," Casper said, "looks like I'm going to have to work some to finish second."
Casper was only two up on Nicklaus, who was playing in the group ahead of him, and on Tony Lema. Golfers can be elevated by a hot partner, and Casper was subtly asking Palmer to keep cranking out birdies, hoping that the suction would take him right along. Of course, this works only up to a point. In the final round of the 1964 Masters, Palmer was walking up the 18th fairway with a five-shot lead when he turned to his struggling compatriot, Dave Marr, and said, "Anything I can do for you?"
"Yeah," said Marr, with a smile. "Shoot a 12."
This time, Palmer said to Casper, "Don't worry, Bill. If you need some help, I'll help you."
Twenty-one years later, Palmer recalls his offer with a wince. "Boy, I helped him right on, didn't I?"
Fate, thus tempted, turned. Maybe Fate doesn't much like golfers giving acceptance speeches after 63 holes of a 72-hole tournament. And what better pair of men to make up seem down and in seem out? For Palmer and Casper could hardly have been more different.
Palmer was tan, Casper pale. Palmer was handsome, Casper plain. Palmer smoked, often on the green, and wasn't averse to hitting the 19th hole and occasionally staying through the 27th. Casper was straighter than a one-iron. He buttoned his golf shirt at the neck and, as a recently converted Mormon, eschewed drink, tobacco and caffeine. Palmer was a Pennsylvania shot-and-a-beer guy, big-boned with huge hands and shoulders and narrow hips that were forever and famously failing to keep up his breeches. Casper was devoutly religious. "At that time, Billy thought he could convert the world," remembers Miller, also a Mormon. (After the '66 Open, Casper announced he was giving 10% of his first-place check as a tithe to his church. Sighed Palmer, "Yeah, well, I'm giving 10 percent to my business manager.")
Palmer was a regular guy. Casper was considered a little strange. Because of allergies, Casper was on an exotic diet—a mooseburger here, an elk or buffalo cutlet there—thus earning the nickname "Buffalo Bill." He had spent most of his adult life, by his own admission, cranky and fat. The mooseburgers had helped him cure his headaches and lose 50 pounds in the 18 months before Olympic.
Palmer was publicly emotional. His mood swings on the golf course looked like today's Dow-Jones average. Casper was as expressionless as a Soviet news anchor. Palmer was the hacker's hero, swinging at the ball as if to unscrew his cleats from his shoes, bent on proving that the shortest distance between A and B was a straight line, trees and condominiums be damned. Casper played holes exactly the way the diagram said to play them. He liked short grass and clear views. He could go years without getting sand in his shoes. Palmer was as allergic to the safe side of the green as Casper was addicted to it. To ask Palmer to try to arrive at a par-5 in anything more than two was abhorrent to his dimpled soul.
Casper was the anti-Arnie. One of the best putters in history, he was caution itself. "Billy was one of the greatest percentage players I've ever seen," says Miller. And why not? For Casper to take the putter out of his own hands would have been madness; he made his living laying up on par 5s, then draining sidehill 30-footers for 4s. With such skill, Casper left the death-defying two-irons to the daring young men on their flying trapezes. Sometimes it seemed to Casper that he spent half his life waiting on greens while brave men tried to extract themselves from trouble they well deserved.
But at 3 p.m. that Sunday, there was no need to think anybody would be doing any comparing. Palmer was going to grant the most interviews to the press and his caddie the second most. As Casper would say, "I was praying...praying for second place."
And so it was that as the two men began on the back nine in the 1966 U.S. Open, Casper's mind was on second, Palmer's was on Hogan and nobody's was on winning the tournament. As The New York Times columnist Arthur Daley put it, "The chief requirement for rabbit pie is this: First catch the rabbit. Arnie let him escape."
At the par-4 10th, Palmer made an indifferent chip to the green—he was considered one of the lesser wedge players—and missed an indifferent 10-footer for an indifferent bogey. The lead was six with eight to play.
After both men parred 11, Palmer's lead was seven again for half a minute when he birdied 12, with Casper still to putt. Looking back, Palmer said, "The worst break of all could have been that birdie. It convinced me I could break the record." Casper made his birdie, too. Six up with six to play. Yawn, snore.
At the 191-yard, par-3 13th, Palmer was still chasing Hogan. "I tried to go at the hole and pulled it a bit." The four-iron shot hit on the green and bounced into deep rough. The pitch went by the hole and he two-putted. Casper, the tortoise, made par. Five with five to play. Yawn but no snore.
Both players made par at 14, leaving Palmer only to par out the rest of the way to better Hogan's record. Why, then, on the par-3 15th, did Palmer again try to dent the flagstick? Why, then, did he not learn from Casper's elegant shot, a simple hook away from the bunker that guarded the green, tucking calmly 20 feet from the pin? Why was Palmer obsessed with trying to stick it inside the leather? "I guess because I grew up thinking that's what you were supposed to do," Palmer says today. "I mean, I really enjoyed shooting at the pin...I never thought about knocking it to the middle of the green. Never."
Recalling the shot in his book Go For Broke in 1973, Palmer wrote, "I was trying to play the perfect shot—going for the record, not just the title." The perfect shot tarried on the edge of the green and then trickled, to the gasps of the crowd, into the bunker. Bogey. Casper made the 20-foot downhiller. Three with three to play.
"That was the key," Casper says now. "I think that hole changed everything. He then realized he could lose the Open. Up until that point, he was swinging free and easy. After that, he tightened up. I remember thinking, 'I'm three behind. Now I've got a chance.' "
At 16, a monstrous 604-yard par-5 dogleg left, Casper, hitting first, drove away from trouble down the right side. Safe, not sorry. It galled Palmer. "Here's a guy trying to catch me and he's playing it safe," he wrote.
Palmer's turn to hit. "I knew I could play it safe and shut Billy off completely," he wrote. "I could take out a one-iron and bump and nudge the ball down the fairway, keeping it under control...and get my par. Then I thought of how I'd look to myself: 'There goes Arnold Palmer, playing it safe with a one-iron when he's got a three-stroke lead with three holes to play.' It seemed silly...I couldn't do it."
'Twas vintage hitch-up-your-pants thinking—bold if not brilliant—and Palmer swung as if to arrive at the green in one. "I swung too hard," he says now. The ball described a pattern that looked like Turn 3 at Indy. It hooked viciously, wreaked pain on some branches 150 yards away and plunked straight down. "Now," recalls Palmer, "I knew I was in deep you-know-what."
The lie was such that nobody in his right mind would try to blast it out in hope of making a birdie. Anybody else would have taken a seven-iron and plopped it back into the fairway, leaving a long iron to the green and not much problem making five. Palmer, naturally, took a three-iron.
Casper: "I would've played out. I have a rule. When I get in the rough, if I can't hit it with my four-wood, I drop to a five-iron. There was no way to get a three-iron out of it. I think he was still going for the record."
That three-iron shot was never warmed by sunlight. It cut a swath of vegetation for maybe 100 yards and collapsed, this time in even nastier rough. "I misjudged that [second shot] lie," Palmer says with remorse. "It was deeper than I thought. It was down in there." Palmer was forced to take a nine-iron and lay it back into the fairway. Now the ball rested 280 yards from the green and had already been slashed at three times.
Palmer drew out a three-wood and hit it with a stupendous blow—perfectly—carrying 270 yards...sailing, sailing, sailing...smack into a greenside bunker. What is it the ancient Greeks said? "Those whom the gods wish to destroy, they first make mad." Now Palmer found himself with a fried-egg lie and lying four.
While Palmer was thrashing about, Casper was a kind of golfing Muzak, a background hum you didn't notice until you stopped to think about it. He had used a driver, two-iron and five-iron to get within 13 feet. It was quite possible he could pick up three strokes on this one hole.
Palmer exploded beautifully 40 yards out of the sand to within four feet. Casper calmly sank his birdie putt ("I knew I was going to hole it"), and now Palmer needed his four-footer to keep from being tied. He made it. "One of the greatest sixes the game has ever seen," says Casper. One with two to play.
Pandemonium rattled the cypress trees. The unthinkable was being thought. "The army was in desertion," Casper says. "Now you've got Casper Converts. Arnie is really going through it. What I think happened was that at 15 he lost the opportunity to break Hogan's record and he panicked."
Palmer tried to talk himself down. "People started running then," Palmer remembers. "The word was out: 'Arnie is caving in.' But I'm thinking, 'I've still got a one-shot lead with two holes to play.' "
At the 443-yard 17th, Palmer missed the fairway, short and left in deep rough. "A terrible swing," Casper says. Then again, Casper's wasn't exactly a video instructional. He hit so badly it was good. The ball went so far right it landed on gallery-trodden weeds, a perfectly fine lie. Funny game.
The two players crisscrossed with their second shots, both short of the green. Casper faced a delicate pitch, which he knocked to four feet. Palmer's chip had to come from deep rough, go over a bunker and then bite. He hit it to eight feet. "One of the finest recovery shots I've ever witnessed, under the circumstances," said USGA executive director Joe Dey, who was following the group as one of the tournament referees.
Palmer's putt was straight uphill. "I was nervous, but I had myself under control. I hit that putt dead in the hole."
And dead short, one inch. "One lousy inch," says Mike Reasor, Palmer's caddie and later a Tour player. "I think it was the first putt in 71 holes he'd left on the short side of the hole."
Casper made his putt. Tied with one to play.
As the two men walked to 18, their thoughts were literally worlds apart. Casper was thinking about Vietnam. He had spent 16 days there in February and March visiting hospitals and battle posts and putting on exhibitions for American soldiers. At Da Nang one day, he hit some shots into a field and, when he was finished, told the soldiers they could keep any balls they retrieved. Nobody moved. "Nobody wants the balls?" Casper asked.
"Thanks anyway, Mr. Casper," one soldier said. "But that field is full of mines."
He hit balls off an aircraft carrier. He was even shot at once while in a helicopter. And as he walked to the 18th tee, he was thinking about Vietnam. "Just for a second, I was thinking about those guys on the carrier," Casper says. "Those guys were like lions basking in the sun. They'd wait there, calmly, but when the situation came, they were ready to fight. I think I was sort of the same way. Here was my chance."
As for Palmer, he had given up five shots in the last three holes. One could imagine how many he would give up now as he walked to that infamous 18th. "I thought about Hogan," he says. About Hogan and the record? "No, Hogan and Fleck."
On 18, Casper drew a driver for the first time all week and slapped it down the center of the fairway. Also for the first time all week, Palmer didn't grab a driver. Instead, he took a one-iron. "I'm just thinking, 'Get this son of a bitch in the fairway.' " Such is the pressure of an Open. Casper was now bold and Palmer timid.
Palmer's swing was too fast, and the ball flew left, into deep, monstrous rough. Olympic was getting eerie again: Palmer had hit it where Hogan had hit it 11 years before.
From Go For Broke: "My ball was caught deeply in the tangled rough, and it would take a high-lofted club—the nine-iron—to dig it out of there. And the way the ball was sitting, it figured that I wouldn't hit it much more than halfway to the green with that club. But I put everything I had—every muscle that could be brought to bear—into that nine-iron shot."
Reason "I've never seen such an ugly lie. I took a look at it and I said, 'This guy would do well to hit it in the front bunker.' The veins were bulging out of his neck. He took a swath of grass you couldn't believe. The ball barely flew over the lip of that bunker, but it came out with no spin and rolled clear to the back of the green. It was the greatest shot I've ever seen."
Casper: "Arnie must've taken out about three feet of grass. He took a swing that you couldn't believe. It was a tremendous shot...a fantastic shot."
Even so, Casper had knocked a wedge only 17 feet away, hole high, and Palmer was 25 away—with a downhill putt on a heartlessly slick green. "I really thought the tournament was over," Reasor says. "I think everybody did."
That year, in an effort to speed play, the USGA was experimenting with a rule that called for golfers to continue putting until they holed out. Palmer's first putt stopped three feet short of the hole, and now the crowd realized he had to putt again, three feet, straight downhill, with the U.S. Open on the line.
Two of the spectators, Marr and Nicklaus, had signed their cards minutes before and taken a seat on the hill to watch. As Palmer readied his putt, Nicklaus turned to Marr and said, "If he misses this, there goes the rule."
Palmer: "I remember looking at that putt and thinking. 'Everything is on the line here. My pride. My business. My livelihood.' And there I was making it even harder."
Palmer never was much good at doing it the way people figured he would. He rammed his ball in the hole. "Maybe the greatest putt Arnie ever made," said Marr.
Now the boxer had an 17-footer to put the puncher away for good. "I thought to myself, 'You've picked up seven shots on one of the greatest players the game has ever known,' " Casper recalls. " 'Maybe you better just lag this up and putt it in.' " And he did. Playoff on Monday.
Neither player said a word as they walked like zombies into the scoring tent to sign their cards. "Two of the most garbled signatures you ever saw," says Reasor.
When Casper was finished, he looked up to say something to Palmer, but his lips were so parched he couldn't get the words out. Arnie marched, glaze-eyed, for the clubhouse. Palmer later said, "All I could think was, 'I've just lost a seven-shot lead in the U.S. Open, and now I've got to tell the press exactly how I did it.' "
It wasn't easy. He had shot 39 on the back to Casper's 32. He had missed three of six fairways and five of nine greens, and, most of all, he had forgotten the lesson his golf-pro father had taught him. "Never forget your main objective," Deacon Palmer would say. "You get someone down, you keep on pressing."
"Anybody can make up excuses," Palmer says today. "Everybody's different. Some days you can handle the heat and some days you can't. I don't think I've ever met anybody or heard of anybody who could handle it every single day, day in and day out."
Palmer spent a quiet—very quiet—few hours that night at the home of his host, Ed Douglas. "We never brought up the tournament," Douglas recalls. They retired early. Casper was taken immediately from the press conference to a Mormon "fireside chat" in which he spoke and answered questions until 11:30 p.m. with nary a mooseburger for a man to eat until midnight. He wasn't in bed until one and swamped Palmer by four shots that morning in the playoff. Go figure.
Actually, the playoff was an afterthought and is mostly forgotten. "The momentum was with Billy," says Miller, and even though Palmer had a two-shot lead going into—ta da!—the 10th, it was simply a matter of waiting for Popeye to open up a can of spinach and get on with it. And so, with his magic wand, Casper calmly dropped a 40-footer with a 6-foot break on 11 (startling Palmer so much that he missed his par putt), then a real white-knuckler—50 feet—on 13. Now Casper was ahead for good. He even three-putted three times—his first three-putts of the week—and he still lapped Palmer. On 18, Casper made birdie, his 33rd one-putt of the tournament. For the back nine on the last two days, Casper shot 66, Palmer 79.
And from that final putt on, the 1966 Open has been known as the biggest one Palmer ever blew, with Casper looked upon as chief beneficiary. "They can say what they want," Casper says. "I've got the check."
And yet Casper may go down in history as one of the most accomplished golfers we never knew. "Casper has never been given credit for the kind of golf he played in the mid-'60s," says Trevino. Indeed, from 1964 through 1968, Casper won more tournaments than Palmer. And from 1960 to '68, one or the other of them won the Vardon Trophy for low stroke average, Casper five times to Palmer's four. Casper is one of 15 men to win at least two U.S. Opens, which is one more than Byron Nelson, Tom Watson and you-know-who.
As for Palmer, it has gone like this: After the awards ceremony, he made it to the clubhouse and sat dejectedly next to Reasor in front of his locker. Tears were collecting in their eyes. After a long pause, Palmer put his arm around Reasor and said, "Sorry, Mike."
Reasor figured he shouldn't be sorry at all. "Time will pass," the caddie told the legend. "You'll get over it." And so Palmer has. In fact, as he says, "Things turned out pretty well." His estimated worth is somewhere near $55 million, give or take a bank. His Q (positive-recognition quotient) rating is one of the highest in advertising, sports figures or no. He has designed upwards of 100 golf courses, owns three more, the latest of which, Isleworth in Orlando, Fla., is so lavish that the floors in Palmer's office there are made of leather.
After Olympic, Casper went on to win the 1970 Masters, but Palmer never won another major. Arnie was close, yet never closed. At the 1967 Open at Baltusrol, he went head-to-head with Nicklaus and got cleaned. At the 1968 PGA, he had an eight-footer on 18 to tie Julius Boros and missed. At the 1972 Open at Pebble Beach, he had a putt on 14 that could have given him the lead, and he missed it.
Yet none of those failures, including the '66 Open, has spoiled the man's popularity. If anything, what happened at Olympic cemented it. It may have been the turning point of his career, for in this incredible defeat he became real to fans, more human than ever. "I think they saw someone who was at least out there trying his hardest," Palmer says.
America was happy to forgive. "Had anyone else done what Arnie did at Olympic, they would have been labeled a huge choker, a guy who had committed one of the biggest boo-boos in the history of the majors," says Miller. "But with Arnie, it's 'Oh, Arnie was going for the record.' He's got the world by the tail."
And so, given that Arnie's losing is more interesting than almost anybody else's winning, we gather around Palmer, pop open a malted beverage and cry until we laugh. "The losses aren't so bad," he says today. "I mean, without them, I think there'd be a void in my life."
To wit, one last story. Once, on a Friday at the L. A. Open, Palmer needed only a par on the last hole to shoot 69. He hit his second shot out of bounds, then the next one, and the next one and the next one. He made a 12 and missed the cut.
Hearing of this, the press summoned him for an interview. "How in God's name did you make a 12 on the last hole?" somebody asked.
"Well," said Palmer. "I missed a 20-footer for an 11."