ST. ANDREWS, Scotland — Arnold Palmer didn’t save the British Open when he played at St. Andrews in the 1960 championship, but — like wearing cardigans and mixing iced tea with your lemonade — he made it something cool for Americans to do.
Before Palmer came over to play in 1960, the British Open had fallen off the radar of American professional golf. Just a year before, at Muirfield in 1959, no American golf pros were in the field. Their reasons were simple: It was far away and it wasn’t that profitable, even if you won (the purse was $1,250 versus the U.S. Open’s $14,400).
More than that though, American golf pros didn’t see any reason to look outside their own borders. The best players and the biggest purses were in America. During this time, the top U.S. golf pros regularly bludgeoned their Great Britain and Ireland counterparts in the Ryder Cup. (Those were the days!) What was the point in traveling across the Atlantic to play unfamiliar links courses with their tricky bounces and puzzling winds?
Fortunately, Palmer had more imagination than his fellow American pros. He remembered how as a boy he read about Americans like Bobby Jones and Walter Hagen winning the British Open, and he saw winning one as important to his career. Palmer recalled his visit in 1960 when speaking to reporters at the British Open on Wednesday. Palmer was in town to celebrate the venerable tournament’s 150th anniversary, just like he helped it celebrate its 100th anniversary.
“It was exciting for me because I was trying to fulfill a desire that I had to play in the Open Championship, and I felt that if you were going to be a champion, you couldn’t be a champion without playing in the Open and hopefully winning the Open,” Palmer said Wednesday.
He didn’t win that British Open, finishing second to Australian Kel Nagle. Still, the 1960 Open was a special one for Palmer, and on Wednesday he described a Proustian* moment he had that morning when he was transported back to that time.
(*An especially vivid recollection of an event from the distant past, brought about by food.)
“Looking out the window of Rusacks [Hotel] and looking at the golf course and all the people this morning and having breakfast and relaxing and enjoying it, I saw all the things I saw and thought about in 1960,” Palmer said. “I suppose most of the week when I came here the first time, I didn’t understand well enough to respect the kind of golf I was going to have to play to do good at the Open Championship. It took me a while to begin to understand what this golf course and what European golf and what the links golf was really all about. So it was quite a thrill.”
Things have changed in St. Andrews considerably since then, Palmer noted. For one, in 1960 he knew all the reporters by name and played bridge with them. For this tournament, the media center must rival the Scottish Parliament in numbers. Palmer also remembers two mowers for the entire course in 1960. He saw 14 lawnmowers on the 18th fairway alone this week. (A greenskeeper’s son notices these things.) But the weather, that hasn’t changed a bit, he said.
“In 1960 the weather was just like it is now on one of the days of the championship,” Palmer said after Wednesday’s past-champions contest was washed out by sideways-spitting rain and chilly North Sea gusts. “The wind blew, it rained, and I said something about it then, and I got the same answer: ‘Hey, this is Scotland and you’ve got to expect it.’ And I loved it.”
In a way it was fitting that Palmer’s four-hole round got rained out today, because that happened to him 50 years ago too.
“After the third round [in 1960], I was in the Rusacks Hotel and I was looking out the window, and my father and a friend was with me and it started raining,” Palmer said. “They said, ‘It’s raining hard, Arnie.’ I said, ‘Yeah, don’t worry about it. The Open Championship has never been rained out. That’s number one. Number two, the Open Championship has never been played on a weekend.'”
Of course, his second round on Friday was rained out (back then, they played 18 on Wednesday, 18 on Thursday and 36 on Friday), and he finished the tournament on a Saturday, losing by one stroke after finishing par-birdie.
“Kel Nagle played wonderfully, unfortunately,” Palmer laughed. “But he was a great guy and it was a great championship.”
Palmer did win the Open Championship the next year at Royal Birkdale and again the following year at Royal Troon. Wherever Palmer went, American sports fans paid attention, so now everybody in the States knew about this historic championship played on dramatic seaside courses. American golf would never be so insular again. After Palmer, the greatest American players repeatedly found success on the links courses of England and Scotland: Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Tom Watson and Tiger Woods, all of whom expressed their deep passion and affection for links golf and the creativity and shot-making it demands.
So when you’re sipping coffee and enjoying the final round of the British Open on television Sunday morning, think about Palmer playing those same St. Andrews holes in 1960. Sure, the Open Championship would always have been here, but without Palmer it would have never been the same.
[Information on Palmer’s 1960 Open Championship from 'Duel in the Sun: Tom Watson and Jack Nicklaus in the Battle of Turnberry,' by Michael Corcoran, $14.95, amazon.com]