Arnie Gets The One He Wanted

November 7, 2011

This article first appeared in the July 24, 1961 issue of Sports Illustrated.

There were gale winds, torrential rains, and sandy dunes covered by a nasty, knotty little bush called willow scrub, but irrepressible Arnold Palmer conquered them all last week to win the British Open. “I wanted this championship more than anything in my life,” he said when it was all over, “but anything you want real bad is awfully hard to get.”

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It had indeed been hard to get. Yet it would have been a travesty if anybody else had won, for the world’s best golfer dominated this 101st British Open as it has not been dominated since that other American, Ben Hogan, won in 1953.

No better setting could have been found for the exhibition of Palmer’s immense muscular power and inner fortitude than the links of the Royal Birkdale Golf Club, hard by the Irish Sea, near Liverpool, on the coast of Lancashire. Many of the tees are high up on the sand hills, exposed to the full fury of winds that steadily lash the area. Others are comparatively sheltered, but when the ball soars up from the shelter it receives a sudden, mighty buffeting, and unless it is perfectly struck it will be carried far off line into that ferocious scrub bordering the fairways.

After seeing good shots blown helter-skelter during qualifying rounds, Palmer made two vital adjustments in his booming game. He began using a one-iron, that difficult club he controls so well, off some tees; and he started hitting all his irons low—screeching waist-high bullets that somehow retained enough backspin to bite on the soft Birkdale greens.

Reasonable weather prevailed on the tournament’s first day, and 68s by Dai Rees, Harold Henning of South Africa and Kel Nagle, the Australian holder of the title (who beat Palmer by one stroke last year) led the field. There were three 69s, and then came Palmer, comfortably placed with five others at 70. The weather had been kind, deceptively kind.

On the second day the lid blew off. A 50-mph gale flattened refreshment tents, overturned trailers and reduced Royal Birkdale to a shambles. “I’ve never seen so many egg sandwiches flying so high in all my life,” said a parking lot attendant.

Starting in the morning, Palmer played into the height of the gale, and the way he attacked the ball was a joy for the overcoat-wearing gallery to behold. Scorning any temptation to try and steer the ball safely down the narrow fairways, he gave it all he had, occasionally grunting with effort as he struck a shot. At the 6th hole he actually carried a bunker, that most of the field had failed to reach by 30 yards. When onetime British Ryder Cup player Syd Scott heard this, he shook his head and said, “In that case, I give up.”

Palmer birdied four of the first six holes and finished with an excellent 73. Morally speaking, it was a 72. On the 16th hole—a 510-yard par 5, which harassed him throughout the championship—he hit a very long drive. But his five-iron approach failed to hold the green, bouncing into a small sand trap. “It was nothing serious,” said Palmer later. “An easy shot.” But three-quarters of the way through his downswing, the wind blew the ball backward. He hit squarely on it, blasting it over the green.

Following the wonderful ethic of golf, Palmer immediately reported to an official that his ball had moved. He was told there would likely be no penalty because he had done nothing to cause the ball to move. However, the rule is quite clear on this point, and Palmer later had to add a stroke for his misfortune, ending up with a 7 instead of a 6. As Mr. Bumble said in Oliver Twist, “the law is a ass.” Not such an ass as some of the rules of golf.

Nevertheless, Palmer’s 73 came within one stroke of being the best round of the day and left him bracketed with Nagle at 143, a stroke behind Rees, the Welshman who is Britain’s Ryder Cup captain, and Henning, who had gone out in the afternoon when the wind was not quite so fierce. Out of the running was Palmer’s archrival, Gary Player, who had 73-77. Gary, fighting against illness, eventually quit the tournament.

The next day, as Palmer put it, “what hadn’t blown away before was washed away.” As the early-arriving gallery sought refuge, even under parked cars, rain flooded the course. Thirty-six holes had been scheduled, but the committee called off the morning round when greens turned into lakes, and postponed the afternoon round as more rain turned the lakes into rippling seas.

Professional golfers have commitments all over the world, and a championship cannot be extended forever. In England, though it is possible to play on a Sunday, it is illegal to charge gate money. Bearing all this in mind, the committee, late Friday afternoon, issued a unique communique:
The Championship Committee of the Royal and Ancient Golf Club have decided that the 1961 Open Championship must end on Saturday, July 15, whether four rounds have been completed or not. If it is impossible to complete the four rounds, the 1961 Championship will be declared void, and neither the cup nor the medals will be presented.

The news appalled the determined Palmer, who had come so far and was so near his goal. “If necessary, I’m prepared to play in a rowboat,” he said.

Blankets as blotters
However, the weather relented, if this type of British weather can ever be said to relent. There was a high wind and bitter cold on Saturday but almost no rain. The gallery dressed as if on a winter goose hunt, and blankets were used as blotters to sop up puddles on greens.

At first, it appeared that the final rounds of the championship would develop into a man-to-man duel between Palmer and Nagle and, since they were partnered together, almost a match-play one at that. Palmer opened with a 4 at the 520-yard first, and Nagle had an orthodox 5. Just behind them Henning started with a 6 and thereafter faded from the picture. Rees, meanwhile, after waiting a long time to play his second, did what most handicap golfers do in those circumstances: he hit the ball straight along the ground into the face of a bunker. The shot cost him a 7, and his chance seemed to have vanished almost before he had begun.

This poor hole angered the resolute Rees, however, spurring him on, and he became Palmer’s lone challenger. Playing just in front of Rees, Palmer was going great guns. He nearly holed his wedge shot to the 315-yard 5th and sank a 4-footer for a 2 at the 7th. He pounded his way out in 32, Nagle by this time trailing by three shots. Rees got a birdie at the 3rd and sank a vast putt for his 3 at the 212-yard 4th, following it with another long putt at the 6th. He struggled out in 36.

And now Palmer was at the 510-yard 16th, that hex hole again. Looking back on championships, professionals often talk of the “big” shots-big, not in the sense of distance, but of importance. After hooking his drive at the 16th, Palmer played safely back over a large sand hill and then hit a five-iron a little thin to the green. It shot over the back and up into a bank of scrub, where it lay directly behind a thick bush.

Surveying the prospect for a considerable time, Arnold detected a small gap in the bush, about half the size of a football. Later he recalled thinking to himself, “It could get through, but if it doesn’t, it’s the end of the game.” He laid back his wedge, swung, and the ball popped through the opening. Not only that, it rolled within 18 inches of the cup. Palmer finished with a 69. Rees, hanging on doggedly, had a 71. Nobody else was close.

In the final round Palmer, with a par 5 at the first, a 3 at the 7th and all the rest 4s, was out in 36. Rees had a 38 to drop 3 behind. Each started home with three orthodox 4s, and each failed to get a 3 at the 202-yard 13th. Palmer had a birdie 4 at the long 14th against the wind, Rees, a par 5. Four behind for Rees, and only four holes left—but what holes they turned out to be.

Again Palmer hit a “big” shot, this time at the 15th. His drive had rolled one yard off the fairway to the right, ending up at the bottom of a small sandy bank, buried deep in some blackberry bushes. Changing from a seven-to a six-iron, Palmer hit a shot that did not waver in the wind and that flew onto the narrow, deeply bunkered plateau green some 150 yards away. This feat of strength and skill brought gasps from the gallery. Even Nagle was forced to smile. The ball went so fast that the grass was cut as though by a scythe. “I have never hit a ball so hard in my life,” said Palmer later. Henry Cotton, a former British champion who was standing beside Palmer, called it “one of the greatest shots ever.”

Palmer got away with a 4, but minutes later a huge distant cheer told him that Rees had holed an 8-yarder for a 3. This time Palmer played the 16th safe, intentionally hitting his ball into a puddle in front of the green, dropping without penalty and chipping up for an easy par. He then parred in for a 72, and a 284.

Rees birdied 16, almost birdied 17 and birdied 18 to finish a stroke behind.

As fond as the galleries are of Dai Rees, it is doubtful that there was a man present at Birkdale who really wanted Palmer to lose. It is impossible to overpraise the tact and charm with which this American has conducted himself on his two visits to Britain. He has no fancy airs and graces; he wears no fancy clothes; he makes no fancy speeches. He simply says and does exactly the right thing at the right time, and that is enough.

Perhaps, too, the British sense acutely that Palmer meant it recently when he said, “I play for championships, not for money.” Now Palmer has another championship—one of the biggest.