Golden Bear emerges
“Now that the big guy is out of the cage, everybody better run for cover.”
- Arnold Palmer, June 17, 1962
Golf’s most charismatic figure knew whereof he spoke. His loss to “the big guy” - Jack Nicklaus, of course - in an 18-hole playoff for the 1962 U.S. Open title marked a distinct changing of the guard at the sport’s top level.
Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player would battle heroically for years to come, creating widespread new interest in their game. But never again would Palmer be “the man” after Nicklaus tapped in a “gimme” putt on the 18th green at Oakmont outside Pittsburgh to complete a round of 71 and win the playoff by three strokes.
In those days, Nicklaus was a pudgy, 22-year-old professional rookie who couldn’t begin to approach Palmer’s popularity. During the playoff, members of “Arnie’s Army” constantly berated Jack. At one point, an overwrought member of the gallery held up a sign reading, “Hit It Here, Fat Boy.”
That guy was probably lucky to avoid a black eye or a bloody nose. One of Nicklaus’ few supporters in the crowd of 11,000 was Woody Hayes, the rough and tough football coach at Jack’s alma mater, Ohio State, whose career ended 16 years later when he punched an opposing player on the sideline.
“I had no idea what the gallery was doing,” Nicklaus told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette decades later. “A 22-year-old kid wouldn’t even have a clue. When you’re that age and you got something on your mind you want to do, you don’t pay much attention to what’s happening on the outside.”
And plenty was happening.
It’s hard to remember in this age of mostly stoic swingers just how much the country was in love with Palmer. Frequently charging from behind with a cigarette dangling from his lips as he strode down the fairway, Arnie won his only U.S. Open in 1960, the Masters four times from 1958 to 1964 and a total of seven majors. Yet only one of these, the ‘64 Masters, came after Nicklaus turned pro.
“[Arnie] was John Wayne and Jim Thorpe, Joe DiMaggio and Amelia Earhart, a player with … the swashbuckling flair of a matador,” the Post-Gazette gushed in 2007. “Better yet, he was a Western Pennsylvania treasure at age 32 - Latrobe-born and the son of a groundskeeper - and he was trying to win the tournament at Oakmont Country Club, not 40 miles from where he grew up.”
This putative plot would have delighted the hackiest Hollywood screenwriter, but Nicklaus smashed it to pieces - with some unwitting help from Nearly Everybody’s Hero.
On the final round of regulation play a day earlier, Palmer led by three shots with 10 holes to play before a balky putter did him in; he and Nicklaus finished with 72-hole scores of 283. The next day, their positions were reversed. Jack, calmer and steadier, was up by four strokes after six holes only to see Arnie stage one of his patented rallies.
This time, though, it fell short. On the 18th hole, Palmer missed with his second putt, then knocked aside the coin Nicklaus had used to mark his place and stuck out his hand to congratulate the new champion.
Surrounded by well-wishers, Nicklaus was reminded by an official that he had not holed out. Jack then did so and broke into a big smile - possibly the first time in five days he had let his emotions show on the course.
Palmer had other chances to win his second U.S. Open but never did, losing subsequent playoffs to Julius Boros in 1963 and Billy Casper in 1964. Like it or not - and most fans at the time didn’t - the King’s brief reign was over.