A new kid in town: Jack Nicklaus defeats Arnold Palmer at Oakmont in the 1962 U.S. Open

August 19, 2011

Sometimes the first chapter gives away the whole book. When Jack Nicklaus took on Arnold Palmer at the 1962 U.S. Open, he was a 22-year-old rookie with a JC Penney wardrobe and no wins in 17 professional starts. Palmer, meanwhile — 10 years older and way cooler with his bicep-hugging shirts and his John-Wayne-sizing-up-the-Indians squint — was the undisputed king of golf. Palmer was the reigning British Open champ. Palmer had recently won his third Masters title. Palmer made female hearts flutter, healed the sick, and could leap tall buildings at a single bound.

So when Nicklaus beat Palmer for the first of his record 18 major-championship wins, it was not one of those “pass the baton” affairs where one generation gallantly hands off to the next. Nicklaus yanked the baton out of Palmer’s hand and threw it over the fence onto the Pennsylvania Turnpike.

Oh, did we mention where the ’62 Open was played? It was at Oakmont Country Club in Western Pennsylvania, a mere 40 miles from Palmer’s home in Latrobe. The spectators? They were Pittsburgh people. They loved Arnie and they hated Jack. Or rather, they hated anybody who wasn’t Arnie, and that included the other 148 players in the field. But it was Nicklaus who was paired with Palmer for the first two rounds, and it was Nicklaus who showed how scared he was by making birdie on his first three holes of the tournament. Palmer was five strokes back before he could light up his fourth L&M.

Golf is a gentleman’s game, so nobody threw anything at Nicklaus. But hecklers popped up like tulips in springtime. They shouted “Fat Jack” and “Ohio Fats,” monikers that made you think you were in a pool hall. They cheered if his approach shot missed the green. They milled about like restless wildebeests as he went through his methodical putting routine. “They don’t understand,” an apologetic Palmer would tell Nicklaus.

Actually, they did. The fleshy rookie was outdriving their hero by 20 yards. Nicklaus hit his irons higher and farther than Palmer did. He read the greens and putted better than Palmer did. And Nicklaus didn’t rattle. Which was important, because the first-round see-saw dipped back in Palmer’s favor. At day’s end, Palmer had shot 71 and trailed the leader, Gene Littler, by two. (Nicklaus settled for a one-over-par 72.) The next day, Palmer shot 68 to share the second-round lead with Bob Rosburg. Nicklaus, giving no indication that he was aware of the fans’ abuse, shot 70.

In those days, of course, the final two rounds of the Open were played on Saturday. Palmer and the impudent rookie were no longer paired, but Arnie’s Army followed their hero with divided attention, worried that the Ohioan might make a run. It didn’t happen in the morning. Nicklaus picked up only one stroke on Palmer, and that was a gift, Arnie missing a two-footer on the final hole. After a quick lunch break, during which a ticked-off Palmer ran into the pro shop to bend his putter in a vise, play resumed with Palmer and Bobby Nichols sharing the lead.

Palmer, as was his wont, charged. He birdied the second hole. He birdied the fourth. Nicklaus, playing in the group ahead of Palmer and Rosburg, couldn’t answer, and after seven holes the rookie was five behind and no longer a threat. But then, with victory in sight, Palmer flubbed an eagle chip on the par-5 ninth hole. Furious, he wimped a second chip 10 feet short of the hole and wound up making bogey.

That was all the encouragement Nicklaus needed. He surged as Palmer struggled, and when Jack tapped in for a par on 18 he was the proverbial leader in the clubhouse at 283. But Palmer, minutes later, thrilled his fans by bouncing a 4-iron to within 10 feet of the flag on 18. If he made his birdie putt, he would fulfill his dream of winning the Open at home. Palmer settled into his knock-kneed putting stance, glanced at the hole, and then gave his ball a firm rap. The crowd, poised to roar, moaned instead as the ball rolled by on the high side. There would be a Sunday playoff.

Palmer, of course, had the crowd. Ian O’Connor, in his book Arnie & Jack, quotes newspaperman Jerry Izenberg, who remembered how Palmer’s fans, many of them steelworkers, tried to affect the outcome. “Every time Nicklaus was ready to line up a putt,” Izenberg said, “they started to stamp their feet. The freaking ground was shaking.”

But so was the firmament of golf. Nicklaus outdrove Palmer by more than 30 yards on the first hole of the playoff and took a one-stroke lead when Palmer bogeyed. A Nicklaus birdie on the fourth made the lead two. Then the lead was four, as Nicklaus birdied and Palmer bogeyed the sixth. For the rest of the afternoon, Palmer tried to claw his way back. He birdied 11 and 12 to pull within a shot, but a pushed 4-iron on the 13th hole led to another bogey. When the two men reached the 18th, Nicklaus had a two-stroke cushion.

The end was humiliating for Palmer. On the back fringe in three, Palmer missed his downhill putt for par and then carelessly slapped at the comebacker while he was still moving, missing that as well. Tapping in for a 6, he then picked up Nicklaus’ marker in an act of concession — forgetting that they were not playing match play and Jack still had to putt out. (Nicklaus did so, from two feet, for a score of 71, three better than Palmer’s 74.)

It was Palmer’s putter, in the end, that had let him down. (Arnie had 11 three-putts over 90 holes. Nicklaus had just one.) But blaming his defeat on a hunk of metal would have been an act of self-deception. Palmer knew, and even his staunchest fans would soon understand, that the fat kid from Ohio was changing the game, changing the way golf would be played. “Now that the big guy is out of the cage,” Palmer said, “everybody better run for cover.”

Most did.