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Arnie Gets The One He Wanted

Brian Gay, Verizon Heritage
Darren Carroll/SI
Brain Gay won by a record 10 shots Sunday at Harbour Town.

This article first appeared in the July 24, 1961 issue of Sports Illustrated.

There were gale winds, torrential rains, and sandy dunes covered by a nasty, knotty little bush called willow scrub, but irrepressible Arnold Palmer conquered them all last week to win the British Open. "I wanted this championship more than anything in my life," he said when it was all over, "but anything you want real bad is awfully hard to get."

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It had indeed been hard to get. Yet it would have been a travesty if anybody else had won, for the world's best golfer dominated this 101st British Open as it has not been dominated since that other American, Ben Hogan, won in 1953.

No better setting could have been found for the exhibition of Palmer's immense muscular power and inner fortitude than the links of the Royal Birkdale Golf Club, hard by the Irish Sea, near Liverpool, on the coast of Lancashire. Many of the tees are high up on the sand hills, exposed to the full fury of winds that steadily lash the area. Others are comparatively sheltered, but when the ball soars up from the shelter it receives a sudden, mighty buffeting, and unless it is perfectly struck it will be carried far off line into that ferocious scrub bordering the fairways.

After seeing good shots blown helter-skelter during qualifying rounds, Palmer made two vital adjustments in his booming game. He began using a one-iron, that difficult club he controls so well, off some tees; and he started hitting all his irons low—screeching waist-high bullets that somehow retained enough backspin to bite on the soft Birkdale greens.

Reasonable weather prevailed on the tournament's first day, and 68s by Dai Rees, Harold Henning of South Africa and Kel Nagle, the Australian holder of the title (who beat Palmer by one stroke last year) led the field. There were three 69s, and then came Palmer, comfortably placed with five others at 70. The weather had been kind, deceptively kind.

On the second day the lid blew off. A 50-mph gale flattened refreshment tents, overturned trailers and reduced Royal Birkdale to a shambles. "I've never seen so many egg sandwiches flying so high in all my life," said a parking lot attendant.

Starting in the morning, Palmer played into the height of the gale, and the way he attacked the ball was a joy for the overcoat-wearing gallery to behold. Scorning any temptation to try and steer the ball safely down the narrow fairways, he gave it all he had, occasionally grunting with effort as he struck a shot. At the 6th hole he actually carried a bunker, that most of the field had failed to reach by 30 yards. When onetime British Ryder Cup player Syd Scott heard this, he shook his head and said, "In that case, I give up."

Palmer birdied four of the first six holes and finished with an excellent 73. Morally speaking, it was a 72. On the 16th hole—a 510-yard par 5, which harassed him throughout the championship—he hit a very long drive. But his five-iron approach failed to hold the green, bouncing into a small sand trap. "It was nothing serious," said Palmer later. "An easy shot." But three-quarters of the way through his downswing, the wind blew the ball backward. He hit squarely on it, blasting it over the green.

Following the wonderful ethic of golf, Palmer immediately reported to an official that his ball had moved. He was told there would likely be no penalty because he had done nothing to cause the ball to move. However, the rule is quite clear on this point, and Palmer later had to add a stroke for his misfortune, ending up with a 7 instead of a 6. As Mr. Bumble said in Oliver Twist, "the law is a ass." Not such an ass as some of the rules of golf.

Nevertheless, Palmer's 73 came within one stroke of being the best round of the day and left him bracketed with Nagle at 143, a stroke behind Rees, the Welshman who is Britain's Ryder Cup captain, and Henning, who had gone out in the afternoon when the wind was not quite so fierce. Out of the running was Palmer's archrival, Gary Player, who had 73-77. Gary, fighting against illness, eventually quit the tournament.

The next day, as Palmer put it, "what hadn't blown away before was washed away." As the early-arriving gallery sought refuge, even under parked cars, rain flooded the course. Thirty-six holes had been scheduled, but the committee called off the morning round when greens turned into lakes, and postponed the afternoon round as more rain turned the lakes into rippling seas.

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