Oakmont 1962: The King and The Bear Square Off
Jack Nicklaus was that pudgy, blond kid from Ohio with an impressive amateur record but little to show for his first six months as a pro golfer when he took on Arnold Palmer, head to head, deep in the heart of The King’s royal realm during the 1962 United States Open Championship at Oakmont, Pa.
It was a “gentlemen’s” match with the world’s most prestigious golf title at stake in the classic 18-hole playoff 50 years ago next Sunday. But some of Arnold Palmer’s passionate followers, who made up Arnie’s Army, behaved nothing like gentlemen as they shouted “Ohio Fats” and much worse at the upstart from only about 180 miles west in Columbus, Ohio.
These folks did not cotton to the 22-year-old Nicklaus daring to challenge the greatest man in golf who, like them, came from hardscrabble roots of Western Pennsylvania, where the Oakmont Country Club course stood as golf’s toughest test in a suburb of Pittsburgh.
Disgruntled members of Arnie’s Army let Nicklaus know just how they felt while hole after hole in the playoff, the young and unintimidated Golden Bear clawed at and wounded the imperial might of The King.
Two years earlier, Nicklaus had nearly ruined The King’s greatest achievement when Palmer rallied from seven shots back after three rounds to win the U.S. Open at Colorado’s Cherry Hills Country Club. Still an amateur, Nicklaus finished second, just two strokes back of Palmer in 1960 during Arnie’s only U.S. Open triumph.
Palmer entered that 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont highly favored and not just because he was the handsome and muscular local hero with a crowd-pleasing charisma that changed the public’s perception of the sport of golf forever. He was favored because he was the reigning British Open champion; he had just won the Masters for the third time two months before Oakmont; and he had five victories on the American tour in the first half of 1962 prior to that Open.
How could any young whipper-snapper dare challenge the mighty one within a long drive and 5-iron shot from Palmer’s home in Latrobe, Pa.?
About to Steal the Thunder
Oh, but Nicklaus was not just any young golfer. He was a physically strong athlete with an exceptional mental capacity for golf who was about to reach out to steal the thunder from the top of Mount Olympus, where royalty held forth in the form of Arnold Palmer.
On that Sunday, June 17, 1962, Nicklaus stamped himself as someone the world would soon acknowledge as the best in the sport, the man who was next to wear the crown worn by the likes of Bobby Jones, Gene Sarazen, Sammy Snead, Byron Nelson, Ben Hogan and Palmer.
That was exactly half a century before the scheduled final round of this year’s U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, next Sunday, June 17, 2012. The NBC network will televise a one-hour United States Golf Association film about the 1962 U.S. Open immediately prior to its final round telecast of this year’s U.S. Open.
After Nicklaus sank his final putt on the 18th hole of the playoff to defeat Palmer by three strokes, The King said, “Now that the big guy is out of the cage, everybody better run for cover.”
Unlike Palmer, who entered that Open with such promise, Nicklaus was hardly impressive as a professional to that point in 1962. During his first six months playing for pay, the Buckeye hopeful entered 17 tournaments prior to the Open at Oakmont and did not win any of them. A few times he didn’t even come close.
However, Nicklaus was well known and respected for his achievements as an amateur. He won the 1959 and 1961 U.S. Amateur Championship, the 1961 NCAA Championship, the 1959 North-South Championship on the Pinehurst No. 2 Course, the 1961 Western Amateur Championship, and was an undefeated member of the victorious U.S. Walker Cup teams in 1959 and 1961, in addition to numerous other titles.
Rallying ’Round Their Hero
Despite impressive credentials, Nicklaus was an enemy out there in western Pennsylvania. But so were all other competitors not named Arnold Palmer.
So after Nicklaus and Palmer concluded the regulation 72 holes of the U.S. Open deadlocked at 1-under-par 283 late Saturday afternoon, Arnie’s Army remained encamped at Oakmont, alongside the Pennsylvania Turnpike that cuts through the golf course. They were more determined than ever to rally around their hero. He needed them. Maybe this Ohio kid was not a winner on the tour to that point, but he was giving the monarch a real headache.
Palmer finished in the last twosome with Bob Rosburg late Saturday afternoon and immediately behind Nicklaus, who shot 2-under 69 for those final 18 holes of regulation. The King could win if he sank a 12-foot birdie putt he had on the 72nd hole. But Arnie missed and the playoff was on.
The regulation four rounds of the U.S. Open were played in three days back then with one round on both Thursday and Friday followed by 36 holes on Saturday. Thus, any playoff necessary was staged on Sunday, as was the case in 1962.
Nicklaus ran off to a four-shot lead during the first six holes of the playoff and was never caught by Palmer, although The King narrowed the margin before finally suffering the three-stroke defeat.
The Game’s Greatest
The conclusion of this battle between the up-and-coming Nicklaus and The Mighty One, who was 10 years his senior, nearly caused USGA officials to faint in their tracks. Palmer, after holing out for a double bogey 6, turned to Nicklaus, who had a putt of a few inches for a bogey 5, and told him to pick it up because it was good. Palmer conceded defeat as if it was a match play competition instead of medal or stroke play.
Had Nicklaus done as Palmer allowed, he would have been penalized at least 2 shots and, depending upon what else he did, he would be in danger of being disqualified.
Nicklaus knew better and holed out for his first victory on the PGA Tour, his first victory in a major championship, his first of four U.S. Open championships, and the first giant step toward becoming the greatest golfer in the history of the game.
Twenty-four years later, on June 13, 1986, Jack Nicklaus, at age 46, shot an amazing 30 on the back nine of Augusta National for a 7-under 65 to win the Masters for a record sixth time. That was his 73rd and last PGA Tour victory, and his 18th and last major championship.
It seems fitting that the 1962 U.S. Open and the 1986 Masters serve as the bookends to the finest career of championship golf in the history of the game, achieved by one of the finest men ever to play the game.
When Nicklaus was beating Palmer in that 1962 U.S. Open half a century ago and was outdriving Arnie by 20 to 30 yards, everyone but Nicklaus heard the taunts from Arnie’s Army.
“I was a 22-year-old kid with blinders on,” Nicklaus said recently. “People ask me about Arnold’s backyard, Arnold’s gallery. I never heard it. All I was doing was playing golf and trying to win a golf tournament. I looked back and said, ‘Wow! Look what happened.’
“It’s amazing that was my first win. Arnold treated me great. He couldn’t have been nicer. He’s always been that way with me.”
They are two gentlemen who are the greatest examples of how the game of golf should be played. If the golf gods hand out halos, both The King and The Golden Bear should be wearing one 50 years after their momentous match.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His email is email@example.com.
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