Arnold Palmer Gets A Big Revenge
This article first appeared in the April 16, 1962 issue of Sports Illustrated.
The golf duel of the year was settled in an extraordinary playoff of a three-way tie on Monday as indomitable Arnold Palmer, performing in that high-tension, high-rolling fashion that electrifies (one could almost say electrocutes) his galleries, won his third Masters championship in five years. In so doing he grandly evened the score against those two foes who had combined to dramatically defeat him a year ago: Gary Player and the Augusta National's 18th hole. In victory Palmer displayed, stunningly, the interior texture of his remarkable game. It is a game composed of human failings that let him fall seemingly hopelessly far behind and of superhuman resources that enable him to come fighting back as no golfer ever has before. Ahead on Sunday, he gave his lead away with woeful play, then—at the equivalent of five minutes to midnight—got two birdies to struggle into the playoff against Dow Finsterwald and Gary Player. On Monday he played nine dismal holes again, falling three strokes behind Player. Then, like a counter-puncher who revels in temporary adversity, he struck back. He birdied the long 10th hole and the difficult par-3 12th. He smashed a daring shot to the green and two-putted for a birdie on the treacherous 13th, then sank a 16-footer to birdie the 14th. Galleries call it "charging," and it's a word they reserve just for Palmer. In five holes he went from three strokes down to four up. He finished with a 68 to Player's 71 and Finsterwald's 77. For Alfred Wright's story on the events that produced the closest Masters ever, turn the page.
AND THEN THERE WERE THREE...
Anywhere else it would have been a sporting fantasy too absurd to believe. But when the 72 holes of the 26th Masters Golf Tournament ended in an unprecedented three-way tie last Sunday afternoon, and when the three players concerned turned out to be about the most dramatic combination of personalities there, it was hard even to be surprised. The finish of the Masters has become, year after year, a piece of fiction—characters by Saki, plot by Hitchcock—and the 1962 event enlarged but did not alter the pattern.
The estimated 40,000 spectators, the largest crowd in the many long years of golf who surged and roared their way across the rolling terrain of the Augusta National course, saw Arnold Palmer blow a two-stroke lead by hitting golf shots that would have sent a duffer scurrying to his pro for help, and then, typically, come crushing back with two last-gasp birdies just when he had seemed utterly defeated. They saw Gary Player, Palmer's arch-antagonist and the man who snatched the title when Arnold all but had it won last year, miss a 12-inch putt and alternate strangely between displays of rare caution and ill-starred boldness. And finally they saw Dow Finsterwald, who epitomizes golfing conservatism as Palmer does gambling rashness, carefully and quietly become the big third man in what everyone had assumed was going to be a two-man battle. As the crowd drifted away in the Augusta dusk the huge numbers on the scoreboard told the exciting and exasperating plot with which the Masters was torturing the nerves of its followers this year:
The fabric of a Masters tournament, particularly one as eventful as last week's, can be formed by a sequence of events as episodic as the pageant on an Aubusson tapestry. Before play started, for instance, there was the arrival of a herald from GHQ announcing that the 1962 army of competitors would total 110, considerably more than the previous high. (Grumblings heard from the tents of the commanders where past Masters champions are in session: "Too many lousy foreigners!")
Next come the scouts who have been swarming over the course on their practice rounds. "It is playing a little longer this year," they report, the same as they have been reporting every spring since 1934.
And then the opening day appears under skies as murky as Mississippi silt. The masters of other times are there—Hogan, Snead, Demaret, Nelson—but the conspicuous figure on Thursday was Defending Champion Gary Player. Prematurely discounted in much of the early speculation, he shot a 67. Gary had played on the winter pro tour this year before flying home to his new house, two children and expectant wife in Johannesburg, South Africa. In recent years the Masters has gone to one of the leading performers in the winter tournaments, and Gary's few showings had been disappointing.
"To be honest with you," Player kept insisting in his clipped British accent, "I've been hitting the ball far better than I did last year. I've hit many more greens this year than I did last year, but I've had a complete lapse in my putting."
"Today," Player said after coming in from the first round, leading the tournament by two strokes over Julius Boros, "I played as well as I ever have, and I putted very well. I went back to the putting style I used last year when I won here. Until today I'd used a different putting style every day for the last three days, but that's not unusual for me. I never do use the same putting action for more than two weeks in a row."
There was something else about Thursday's Gary Player besides his good putting. There was the same tunneled intensity that had been so evident up to and through his Masters victory in 1961. After that, he became upset by the attentions that distract many a celebrity. Now, back on the golfing circuit after six weeks at home, he was all business and in the best of spirits.
Player explained his new frame of mind this way. "My wife is having a baby in April, and I want to be home when it's born. If I win this tournament I'll go home to my family right away. I'll be on the plane Monday. I was not home when my other two children were born, and that doesn't make me a very good husband. But I can't go home unless I win. It wouldn't be fair to my sponsors, the men who put out the clubs and shoes and other things with my name on them, if I went home when I wasn't doing well."
Although Thursday was decidedly Player's day, it was Palmer who captured the largest galleries. For three weeks Arnold had been trying to hone his game to a championship edge. He, too, was desperately worried about his putting. He had lost confidence in it, though the idea of an unconfident Palmer is hard to grasp. On Thursday he had a three-putt bogey on the first hole and eight scrambling pars thereafter.
"Arnie has been very concerned about his putting," said Palmer's pretty wife, Winnie, as she trailed unobtrusively along with his gallery. She also explained the presence of a white cap on Arnold's head. He hates hats, but he had been having trouble with his ears. A winter infection had never completely cleared up, and he didn't want to risk a cold. After the three putts on the first green, off came the cap, for good.
On the second nine Palmer hit a five-iron into the pond bordering the 11th green to go two over par. Something about that shot seemed to ignite the fire in Palmer that burns brightest in adversity. He produced a stretch of four birdies over the remaining seven holes to finish the round in 70—two under par.
By Friday Palmer was ready to justify the spotlight that had been on him all week. He had whopped a savage drive off the first tee. The birdie he had had on the 18th hole the day before had cheered him up considerably, for it was there that he lost last year's championship to Player. "I'm going to get even with that hole," he said. Palmer hit a lovely seven-iron to the first green and sank the 12-foot putt for a birdie.
Here a middle-aged lady slipped up to Winnie Palmer and handed her a dime. "She does it every time Arnie gets a birdie," said Winnie. "This has been going on for years here." Winnie was to collect a pocketful of dimes that day. And Arnie had left his cap back in the locker room.
When he reached the 13th hole, Palmer stood two under for the day, having produced four birdies and two bogeys in the first 12 holes. From there on he delivered a streak of golf that well deserves that overworked adjective of the game—sizzling. He was entering that stretch of six closing holes at Augusta which is purposely designed to make or break the golfer who is brash enough to try to make them yield a sub-par score. Palmer birdied 13, 14, 15 and 16 in succession and finished the day with a typical Palmer display that so often overwhelms the opposition as he inflicts one of his violent attacks on a golf course.
Player, who was about half an hour in front of Palmer, was able to finish his round without realizing the full effect of Palmer's surge.
U.S. Open Champion Gene Littler, on the other hand, was playing a good hour behind Palmer, and by the time he reached the 11th green he could see what was happening. But Littler—who has been called Stoneface—is one of the few golfers not fazed by this sort of unsettling news.
Littler was playing—and continued to play—the best round of golf he had ever produced at the Masters. He had birdied the first two holes and just missed a birdie at the third when a 10-foot putt rimmed the cup and went out again. From there on he actually made the course look easy, acquiring his pars and birdies coolly, flawlessly. His final score was 68, but it could just as easily have been 63 or 64 with a little bit of luck.
Saturday afternoon Dow Finsterwald marched to the forefront. A ripe old veteran at 32, he has hardly caused a headline in more than a year. In his six best years as a regular on the tour, Dow won 11 tournaments and was consistently among the leading money winners in pro golf, once being in the prize money 72 straight times. Last year, for reasons he can't quite explain, the enviably fluid swing that made his shots look so easy gradually disappeared, and so did his victories. He has played well in previous Masters and would have tied Palmer in 1960had he not called a two-stroke penalty on himself for taking a practice putt early in the tournament.
Only a couple of weeks ago Finsterwald put a brand-new hickory shaft into his beat-up old mallet-head putter. On Saturday he needed to use it only 24 times in 18 holes as he brought in a score of 65, the lowest round in the Masters in the past seven years and only a stroke more than Lloyd Mangrum's 1940 tournament record.
Palmer, meanwhile, had been moving steadily onward with a fine round of 69, but now it was Finsterwald, his closest friend on the golfing tour, who was in immediate pursuit just two strokes to the rear. Player and Littler, each with 71s on Saturday, were laying third and fourth and far from dismal.
The stage was set for the apocalyptic Sunday and the three-way tie.
When Arnold Palmer and Gary Player—it was part of the script, of course, that their scores would result in their playing together—teed off at 25 minutes past one on Sunday afternoon for their final round it seemed as if Palmer were embarking on a private contest of his own against Ben Hogan's nine-year-old tournament record of 274 strokes for the full 72 holes. The setting certainly was propitious for such a moment of great drama on this most theatrical of all golfing landscapes. For the first time all week the weather was lazily sunny with just the whisper of a breeze. The vast gallery, "Arnie's Army," lined both sides of the 400-yard first fairway several deep from tee to green.
So far this had actually been Arnold Palmer's tournament. Before it began he had been the betting favorite at the somewhat ridiculous odds of 4 to 1. He himself had prophesied it would take a score of 275 to win, and it required very little guessing to figure out who this determined man thought would shoot it—or better. He was now 11 strokes under par with his 70-66-69, and a new record was well within his reach. All he needed was a neat, efficient round of 68 to beat the Hogan mark of an earlier day.
There were only three men who could conceivably threaten Palmer at this point: Finsterwald, two strokes back by virtue of that extraordinary 65; Player, four behind; Littler, one behind Player. Oh, yes, one other—Arnold Palmer.
Trying to break Hogan's 274, Palmer began to play as if he were going to shoot 2,740. He missed a putt on the first hole. He missed another of 20 inches on 2. He drove into the woods on 3. On the three-par fourth he hit a one-iron like a pop to shortstop, and it plopped down hardly 125 yards from the tee.
The disintegration of Arnold Palmer's golf game was now as astounding as if he had suddenly undressed in the middle of one of the fairways. On the 7th hole he missed a six-foot putt, and his lead was gone. On 10 he took a dreadful double bogey to drop two strokes behind Player and Finsterwald. By the time Palmer reached the 16th hole of this disastrous round, his collapse looked irretrievable. He was still two strokes behind Finsterwald, who had holed out at the 72nd with a score of 280, and also still two behind Player, who had been hitting the ball well after a shaky start—including two bogeys on the first three holes.
At this point, Palmer hit a five-iron off the 16th tee, and his ball came to rest just off the right edge of the green, a tree-shaded, pond-bordered piece of turf that makes as pretty a sight as there is in golf. Player followed with a four-iron to within nine feet of the hole. It was Arnold's turn to play first. As he looked over the 45 feet of undulating grass between his ball and the pin, a par seemed difficult, a birdie impossible. He took a wedge from his bag and stroked the ball delicately. It rolled down the fast-sloping green and lodged itself between the flag-stick and the edge of the cup for a birdie 2. Player two-putted for his par, and now Palmer was only a single stroke behind the leaders.
On the next hole, the 400-yard uphill 17th, Palmer hit a murderous drive and followed with a beautiful eight-iron that landed 12 feet from the pin. He sank this putt for another birdie to draw even with Finsterwald and Player. And so the match ended as Palmer and Player completed the final hole in par.
Naturally, everyone wondered what could possibly have happened to Palmer's golf. "You always think you're getting smarter at this game," he explained when he finally had a chance to relax, "but every now and then you have a relapse and realize you're not as smart as you thought you were."
Arnold Palmer left it for others to say that the manner in which he turned misfortune aside was one of the supreme moments of his career. His comeback took him to the playoff and insured that the 1962 Masters would have as dramatic a climax as—well, as a Masters.