There were some omens that week—some mystical stuff happening. Before a practice round, I found a letter in my locker, but with no name or return address. It said, “You’re gonna win the U.S. Open.” Then later a woman came up to me and said, “I predict things, and I’m never wrong. You’re gonna win the U.S. Open.” I said, “Well, thanks,” but it was in one ear and out the other.
I’m paired with Arnold Palmer for the first two rounds. Playing with Mr. Pennsylvania at Oakmont in 1973 was an honor but also a challenge. Talk about chaos. If he made a 15-footer, the gallery didn’t stick around to watch my 10-footer. And he was in the hunt, so his Army was going crazy. Playing with Palmer there was harder than playing with Tiger today, but it prepared me for the pressure of Sunday.
Arnie and I were on the 36th hole. I drive into the rough and end up with a downhill hooking 12-footer for par that I made. As we’re walking off, Arnie says, “That was some great puttin’, son.” I thought, “Wow, no one ever compliments my putting.” He didn’t know that I’d actually mis-read the putt but accidentally pushed it perfectly into the hole. It was that kind of week.
I was three off the lead after 36. I kept seeing that lady. She’d say, “You’re going fine. You’re gonna win.” I’m thinking that maybe she’s right, and maybe the person who left that letter was right. Maybe I am gonna win the U.S. Open.
Then comes Saturday. I get to the course, and I’d left my yardage book on my nightstand. I went crazy, because my iron game was very precise, and if there are any greens in the world where one or two yards means the difference between birdie and bogey, it’s Oakmont’s. To make things worse, back then the USGA said that you couldn’t bring your regular caddie [to the Open], and I had a guy on my bag who’d literally never caddied for someone who’d broken 90, so he wasn’t much help. I don’t know who at the USGA came up with that rule.
I was 6-over through eight holes [on Saturday]. I was falling apart. I eagled the ninth and somehow shot a [5-over-par] 76. And that lady? She wasn’t there. I went looking for her. I wanted to tell her, “You were wrong! I blew it!”
“Crestfallen” is a strong word, but I was really disappointed that Sunday morning. I was going through the motions on the practice tee. Looking at the leaderboard, I’m six strokes back, and you had names like Tom Weiskopf, Julius Boros, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Arnold Palmer and Lee Trevino up there. It wasn’t like I had to catch Duffy Waldorf—everybody and their dog was ahead of me. I felt like I had no chance. On the range, I had a few balls left when I hear this voice say, “Open your stance way up.” The voice was so clear—I was startled. I opened my stance and hit the last three or four balls pretty good, and I walk to the first tee, thinking, “Do I really want to try that tip on Sunday at the U.S. Open?” But I figured I was out of it, so what the heck.
On No. 1, I hit a 5-iron to five feet. On No. 2, I hit an 8-iron to six inches. Then I make a 15-footer on No. 3 and almost eagle No. 4. So I’m 4-under after four holes. That little voice has always been good to me.
After four holes, I think, “Geez, I’m only two or three back, and leaders tend to choke on Sunday, so I’m right in this!” I knew I had a great shot, and that made the hair on my neck stand up. I got a little chokey. I started leaving putts short, and after a perfect 4-wood on the par-3 eighth, I three-putted from 16 feet.
That bogey on No. 8 was a wakeup call. I went from nervous to ticked off. It settled me down. My feeling from then on was total confidence. I could place the ball wherever I wanted, like I was in a dream. I hit every green in regulation, missed one fairway, and my average iron was three feet off line from where I was aiming. If Hogan had been my caddie, he would have said, “Are you kiddin’ me?”
I could not wait to hit my next iron, because I knew I was gonna knock everything on the green. I only played [my approach shot] away from the flag twice all day. The rest of the time I was flag-hunting. And I hadn’t even been playing that well the first three days. Just so-so. This was the round out of nowhere.