Arnie Gets The One He Wanted

Arnold Palmer at Royal Birkdale
Darren Carroll/SI
Palmer handled the elements, and a brutal course, to claim his first Claret Jug.

Professional golfers have commitments all over the world, and a championship cannot be extended forever. In England, though it is possible to play on a Sunday, it is illegal to charge gate money. Bearing all this in mind, the committee, late Friday afternoon, issued a unique communique:
'The Championship Committee of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club have decided that the 1961 Open Championship must end on Saturday, July 15, whether four rounds have been completed or not. If it is impossible to complete the four rounds, the 1961 Championship will be declared void, and neither the cup nor the medals will be presented.'

The news appalled the determined Palmer, who had come so far and was so near his goal. "If necessary, I'm prepared to play in a rowboat," he said.

Blankets as blotters
However, the weather relented, if this type of British weather can ever be said to relent. There was a high wind and bitter cold on Saturday but almost no rain. The gallery dressed as if on a winter goose hunt, and blankets were used as blotters to sop up puddles on greens.

At first, it appeared that the final rounds of the championship would develop into a man-to-man duel between Palmer and Nagle and, since they were partnered together, almost a match-play one at that. Palmer opened with a 4 at the 520-yard first, and Nagle had an orthodox 5. Just behind them Henning started with a 6 and thereafter faded from the picture. Rees, meanwhile, after waiting a long time to play his second, did what most handicap golfers do in those circumstances: he hit the ball straight along the ground into the face of a bunker. The shot cost him a 7, and his chance seemed to have vanished almost before he had begun.

This poor hole angered the resolute Rees, however, spurring him on, and he became Palmer's lone challenger. Playing just in front of Rees, Palmer was going great guns. He nearly holed his wedge shot to the 315-yard 5th and sank a 4-footer for a 2 at the 7th. He pounded his way out in 32, Nagle by this time trailing by three shots. Rees got a birdie at the 3rd and sank a vast putt for his 3 at the 212-yard 4th, following it with another long putt at the 6th. He struggled out in 36.

And now Palmer was at the 510-yard 16th, that hex hole again. Looking back on championships, professionals often talk of the "big" shots-big, not in the sense of distance, but of importance. After hooking his drive at the 16th, Palmer played safely back over a large sand hill and then hit a five-iron a little thin to the green. It shot over the back and up into a bank of scrub, where it lay directly behind a thick bush.

Surveying the prospect for a considerable time, Arnold detected a small gap in the bush, about half the size of a football. Later he recalled thinking to himself, "It could get through, but if it doesn't, it's the end of the game." He laid back his wedge, swung, and the ball popped through the opening. Not only that, it rolled within 18 inches of the cup. Palmer finished with a 69. Rees, hanging on doggedly, had a 71. Nobody else was close.

In the final round Palmer, with a par 5 at the first, a 3 at the 7th and all the rest 4s, was out in 36. Rees had a 38 to drop 3 behind. Each started home with three orthodox 4s, and each failed to get a 3 at the 202-yard 13th. Palmer had a birdie 4 at the long 14th against the wind, Rees, a par 5. Four behind for Rees, and only four holes left—but what holes they turned out to be.

Again Palmer hit a "big" shot, this time at the 15th. His drive had rolled one yard off the fairway to the right, ending up at the bottom of a small sandy bank, buried deep in some blackberry bushes. Changing from a seven-to a six-iron, Palmer hit a shot that did not waver in the wind and that flew onto the narrow, deeply bunkered plateau green some 150 yards away. This feat of strength and skill brought gasps from the gallery. Even Nagle was forced to smile. The ball went so fast that the grass was cut as though by a scythe. "I have never hit a ball so hard in my life," said Palmer later. Henry Cotton, a former British champion who was standing beside Palmer, called it "one of the greatest shots ever."

Palmer got away with a 4, but minutes later a huge distant cheer told him that Rees had holed an 8-yarder for a 3. This time Palmer played the 16th safe, intentionally hitting his ball into a puddle in front of the green, dropping without penalty and chipping up for an easy par. He then parred in for a 72, and a 284.

Rees birdied 16, almost birdied 17 and birdied 18 to finish a stroke behind.

As fond as the galleries are of Dai Rees, it is doubtful that there was a man present at Birkdale who really wanted Palmer to lose. It is impossible to overpraise the tact and charm with which this American has conducted himself on his two visits to Britain. He has no fancy airs and graces; he wears no fancy clothes; he makes no fancy speeches. He simply says and does exactly the right thing at the right time, and that is enough.

Perhaps, too, the British sense acutely that Palmer meant it recently when he said, "I play for championships, not for money." Now Palmer has another championship—one of the biggest.

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