Jack Nicklaus, Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer during a practice round at Royal Troon.
AP Photo
Wednesday, April 22, 2009

This article first appeared in the July 23, 1962 issue of Sports Illustrated.

Old Troon

Palmer responded to Scotland's fierce challenge with what he himself called the four best rounds of his career. Mauling the formidable course almost as he pleased, he shot a remarkable 71-69-67-69, crushed the British Open's finest field in decades and set the English to exclaiming what many Americans have been saying all along—that Palmer may well be the greatest golfer ever to play the ancient game.

It has been more than 25 years since the British got quite so worked up over their Open championship. From time to time in the past there were exciting American invaders—Palmer, of course; Hogan, who won in 1953; Snead, the 1946 winner; and an occasional collection of lesser players. But this time they had the best foreign field since the days when Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Walter Hagen and their contemporaries made the Open an annual pilgrimage. In addition to Defending Champion Palmer and U.S. Open Winner Jack Nicklaus, there was Snead again, still a wondrously smooth golfer at the age of 50; there were Gene Littler, in the prime of his career, and brash young Phil Rodgers, whom the British golf writers most politely referred to as "wise-cracking." From South Africa came Gary Player and an able delegation of his lesser-known countrymen. Australia was represented by Kel Nagle and Peter Thomson, and New Zealand by young Bob Charles.

"Truly the world championship of golf," wrote more than one British paper with undisguised pride.

A good many of the visiting players felt, however, that they were competing on uneven terms. How, they asked, can you ever make a decent score with the wind tearing across the links, and the fairways impossibly hard?

To be sure, Troon is a strange course by American standards. The first six holes, which run alongside the Firth of Clyde, are not too different from some of our own seaside courses—flat and bordered by the long, tough grass that the Scots call bent. But then the course, newly lengthened to 7,045 yards, turns inland over hilly dunes. The fairways are narrow, splotched with steep-sided bunkers that look like moon craters and burned brown by one of Scotland's worst droughts. In some areas it is possible to get a better lie in the rough than the fairway. But in other places the rough is full of those bushes that are as prickly as the Scots conscience: varieties of spiny broom and an impenetrable menace called whin.

Some of the shots that must be hit through or around these dangers are absolutely blind. The second shot on the 9th is over a hump of dune to an unseen green nestling on the edge of a trailer camp, from which casually clad mothers and babies peer across at the golfers. The drive on the 10th is another blind shot over enormous dunes and between the towering poles supporting the approach lights to one of the jet runways at Prestwick International Airport. The peeps and chirps of the commuter trains, which sound exactly like a dime-store whistle, are just one of the minor hazards on the 11th. Gary Player said early in the week that the last nine holes were "the most difficult in the world when the wind is blowing." Later in the week the wind didn't blow, and Player still couldn't handle them.

"There's so much luck involved," Gene Littler observed one morning before starting a round. "You can watch two perfect drives go right down the middle of the fairway, and one will bounce into the rough, while the other will kick straight ahead and roll 50 yards."

This sounds horrible, as well as unfair, but the British view of the game is that a course should test a man's fortune as well as his fortitude. As one Englishman explained: "Our people think that a golf course should follow natural terrain, whatever that may be. On most seaside courses you are going to get bumpy ground. Your chaps feel that if you hit a fine shot you should be entitled to a good lie on the fairway. You can't say either philosophy is right or wrong. It is simply a matter of one's traditions and the way one is used to playing a game. We feel that over 72 holes the bad bounces and the good ones will even out among all the players. On our courses, if you let a bad bounce get you down, you are done for."

Approach shots to the greens seemed to bother the Americans even more than the stray bounces. As on many British courses, the greens at Troon are hard. American pros, who are used to hitting their iron shots dead to the pin and watching them dig in and stop within a few feet, have trouble learning the British technique of hitting short and letting the ball roll to the hole. In addition, the smaller British ball, lying tight on the sparse Troon fairways, does not take the backspin that American pros like to get on their shots.

Thus it was with some dismay that all our players approached their task at Troon—all, that is, except Palmer, who doesn't believe in dismay, and Rodgers, who never recognizes grounds for it.

It is the Palmer response to challenge—whether from a golf course, a golfer or even fate—that separates him from the other top players the game has known. When the qualifying rounds began on Monday there were, in addition to the course, two other very evident challenges for Palmer to meet. The first was Jack Nicklaus or, more specifically, the problem that Jack Nicklaus had created for the Palmer career. A month ago in the U.S. Open at Oakmont, Palmer had come to the closing holes of the tournament needing only one of his Garrison-finish putts to defeat Nicklaus for the championship, and failed. There were those who wondered whether this would blunt the edge of Palmer's magnificence and deprive him of his overwhelming confidence in his ability to produce the successful shot when it is most needed.

The other Palmer challenge at Troon was a good deal more prosaic. A few hours before he was due to tee off in the first qualifying round on Monday, he sneezed. He thought nothing of it at the time, but a short while later, as he was warming up on the practice tee, he felt some sharp twinges in his hip and some acute pains down his left leg. His stomach also was upset. The pains in his back and leg persisted as he played, and he went around the windswept course in an unimpressive 76.

That night and the next morning his wife, Winnie, massaged the twinging muscles with Ben-Gay. On Tuesday, playing his final qualifying round on the shorter, less demanding Lochgreen course, Arnold had a 67 that showed he could swing a club the way he wanted, though he was careful to keep himself wrapped in long underwear. "It hurts," he said, "but I don't think it's anything more than a little cold in my back."

Winnie said later, "I keep rubbing his back every day and it seems to feel better, but the pain comes back each time he sneezes. I think there is some pollen in the air that keeps making him sneeze."

Tuesday night, as the qualifying rounds ended, there began seven blessed hours of rain that at least slightly softened Old Troon for the championship play about to begin. Wednesday dawned warm and clear, the kind of day to gladden a man with an aching back.

It was obvious as Palmer shot his first-round 71 that day and followed it up on Thursday with a 69 that he had met the physical challenge of his ailments and overcome them. The man the British press charmingly calls "A. Palmer" was already ahead, with "K.D.G. Nagle" two strokes back and hardly anyone else with the slightest chance.

Then, on a thrilling and tumultuous Friday, Palmer played 36 holes that stood as his answer to the psychological challenge posed both by the course and by his failure at the U.S. Open, and showed he is still the master of his violent game (see page 29). Bored with his lead, as always, he promptly lost it when Nagle birdied the first two holes of the morning round. On the fourth hole Palmer drove into a deep fairway bunker and lost a stroke coming out; Nagle now led the tournament. Palmer was irritated. He tugged sternly at his white coat sweater and speeded up his pace, walking briskly to the fifth tee, where he rammed a long, firm iron shot 12 feet from the cup on this 210-yard par 3. When he curled in that birdie putt the Palmer charge seemed to be on. He birdied the 6th, too, and still held a one-stroke lead through 10.

It was the 11th hole, more than any other problem on this complex golf links, that brought out the verve and skill of Palmer's golf. Measuring 485 yards, the 11th required a drive from an elevated tee with a carry of better than 200 yards over a vicious, hilly tangle of heather and long, weedy grass. The toughest area of the fairway is scarcely 30 yards wide and full of Troon's dispiriting humps and valleys. On each side of the fairway is some of that miserable whin. Furthermore, along the entire right side of the fairway lies a four-foot stone wall separating Old Troon from the railway. Beyond the wall is out of bounds. "The most dangerous hole I have ever seen," said Palmer.

From the start of the tournament Palmer had been using a one-iron for accuracy off the tee here and then hitting a low, whistling two-iron up the hill to, the green. Including his own qualifying round at Old Troon, Arnold had played the hole three times and gotten two eagle 3s and one birdie 4.

Others found the 11th more difficult. In one single round of the tournament two 10s and two 11s were recorded there Jack Nicklaus typified his futile week with a 10 on the 11th during his final round after driving into the whin, completely missing the ball once, hitting a shot onto the railroad track and finally arriving on the green in eight.

On Friday morning Palmer reached the 11th tee with just that single-stroke lead over Nagle. He knew from sad experience that Nagle, a personable golfer who gets consistent results from a rather stilted swing, could be a deceptive and difficult foe. It was Nagle who had beaten him by one stroke in the 1960 British Open. But, Palmer fashion, Arnold chose this point to gamble. He drove off the tee with his spoon instead of the one-iron. It was a perfect shot just to the left center of the fairway. He followed it with a sensational two-iron that was on the pin all the way and appeared to run right up alongside the hole. Nagle at this! moment hit one of his few really poor' shots of the week, slicing a spoon into an apparently unplayable lie in the long grass next to the wall.

The fortunes of golf are such, however, that when Palmer arrived at his ball he found it had overrun the green and hidden itself in some long grass on the far side. Nagle, on the other hand, discovered he could extricate his ball. He played an excellent trouble shot to the green and managed to salvage what had at first seemed an impossible par. Palmer had to play his chip cautiously out of the long grass, took two putts to get down, and had gained nothing for his great effort.

Going down the 12th fairway, Palmer released an enormous sigh and said,' 'The two best shots of my life, and the ball is covered with grass." Undiscouraged, he pressed on. The situation now called for a further Palmer charge, and Arnold responded, completing what he later called "my best round of golf ever." From a deep bunker alongside the 12th green he got down in two for his par, thanks to an eight-foot putt that sent his arms skyward with joy. He birdied the 13th with a six-foot putt, parred the 14th, birdied the 15th from eight feet, the 16th from two feet, the par-3 17th with a 25-footer—four dazzling birdies in five holes. He finished in 67, breaking the course record by two strokes and breaking up the British Open as well.

By the 11th hole in the final round he had stampeded his way to a 10-stroke lead. What must have been one of the wildest galleries in golf history was joyously stampeding with him.

The enthusiastic mob of 15,000 Scots was swollen beyond all control by hordes who had entered in unusual fashion. This day was the start of a Glasgow holiday, and great swarms of its more robust citizens had thriftily worked their way along the beach of the Firth and onto the golf course without paying the 10-shilling admission price. No policeman or steward would have been so foolhardy as to risk a bashed head in the name of authority, so the invaders thundered over the course unrestrained. Palmer had to fight his way through this mob on every fairway to reach the ball. It took a phalanx of policemen to wedge him through the pushing, hollering mass of people around the 18th green, where the throng broke a clubhouse window. When Palmer finally made it he staggered and stumbled in mock exhaustion, Restoring a certain amount of good humor to a crowd that seemed on the verge of riot and giving him one more laurel that was not won by golf alone. He proceeded to sink his birdie putt to finish with a total of 276. His six-stroke lead over Nagle was the biggest victory margin in a British Open since 1929 and the best score in Open history.

The difficulty of the course that Palmer conquered and the scope of his success can best be understood when measured against what happened to some of his best-known opponents.

Bumptious Phil Rodgers played excellently and finished third, but was 13 strokes behind Palmer. Snead, playing as if age was no factor in golf, finished sixth with a 292, and only 23 players in the field could break 300. Nicklaus had an 80 the first day and ended up with a 305. "How can anybody shoot an 80?" he was heard exclaiming. Gary Player, our 1961 Masters champion, didn't even qualify for the last day's play and flew off in a huff. Littler, our 1961 Open champion, also failed to qualify and flew off slightly bemused.

If a foreigner had to take away their Open title once again, the British were delighted it was Palmer. The respect and admiration he received in the press was almost embarrassingly profuse, and well typified by the words of Pat Ward-Thomas in The Guardian. "If one adds to [his] technical ability," he wrote, "an active enquiring mind, that rare blend of immense self-confidence and true modesty, the ability to acquire concentration through a relaxed approach, and a truly formidable desire to win that is never outwardly aggressive, here is a remarkable man. For all the sum of his achievements in titles and money, Palmer remains a delightful, friendly human being who commands respect and affection."

Old Arnold, it seems, is at it again, and not-so-scary Old Troon was the first to find out.

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