Their last great duel
Fifty years ago, Jack beat Arnie at the U.S. Open – and their rivalry would never be the same
June 12, 2017
By Jim McCabe, PGATOUR.COM
Fifty years ago, Jack beat Arnie at the U.S. Open – and their rivalry would never be the same
Literary license is a wonderful thing when in the hands of a master such as the late, great Red Smith. So when the Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist took to explaining how the 1967 U.S. Open unfolded, he painted a picture around the legend of Baltus Roll.
By all historical accounts an amiable farmer, Roll was assaulted by thieves and left to die on a bitter cold evening in 1831. Taking note that Roll’s Springfield, N.J., farmland was now known as Baltusrol Country Club, Smith suggested that 136 years after the farmer’s death, the rolling terrain was site of another assault – on the record books and the crowd favorite.
“This time,” wrote Smith, “the villain was that Ohio desperado, Red Jack Nicklaus of Columbus.”
For the second time in 10 major championships, Nicklaus had broken a Ben Hogan scoring mark. At the 1965 Masters, Nicklaus’ 271 clipped Hogan’s 274. At Baltusrol, Nicklaus’ 275 was one better than what Hogan fired at the 1948 U.S. Open.
The fans at Baltusrol could forgive him for breaking Hogan’s records. Tougher to accept was the broken heart suffered by Arnold Palmer.
For the second time in five years, Nicklaus had denied Palmer a U.S. Open victory. The first came in 1962 in a playoff at Oakmont, where Arnie had the decided home-course advantage. His Army tried everything it could – some even crossing the line with pointed jabs directed at Nicklaus -- to lead their man to victory. Instead, the wound really never healed; a half-century later, Palmer still referred to the 18-hole playoff loss as “the biggest disappointment” of his life.
Now he was dealing with disappointment again at Baltusrol, a runner-up for the fourth time in the last six U.S. Opens. Palmer couldn’t hide the agony, and his fans couldn’t hide their frustration. Thus, this question was posed to Nicklaus during his post-round interview after a closing 65 provided a four-stroke triumph: “Are you intimidated by the nauseous adulation of the psychotics accompanying Palmer?”
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According to reports, Nicklaus diplomatically deflected the antagonistic tone of the question. He did, however, address the adoring fans who cheered on their hero. “Any time you play with Arnie, you know you’ve got to put up with it,” Nicklaus said that day. “It’s part of the game.”
He had learned the hard way at Oakmont when Nicklaus emphatically announced his arrival at age 22 to usher in a dynamic era. Jack and Arnie would eventually combine for 11 wins in 1962, 12 more in 1963, and from 1962-67 they each won 25 times. Their aura was enhanced by how they fared in the majors – finishing 1-2 in the 1962 U.S. Open, 1964 Masters (Palmer winning), 1965 Masters (Nicklaus winning), then again at Baltusrol.
When Nicklaus won that ’67 U.S. Open, the sixth straight year with at least one of them winning a major, they had combined to capture 10 of the last 22 majors.
But if one accepts that the Palmer-Nicklaus relationship was forged on many levels, you could argue that the U.S. Open at Baltusrol and the 1967 season pulled down the curtain on their fiercest competitive period.
From 1968 to 1973, the year when Palmer won for the last time, Nicklaus was clearly more dominant. He won 27 times (five majors) to Palmer’s 10 (zero majors) and while loyal fans remained devoted to Arnie, it was never the same after Baltusrol, especially since everything had lined up for Palmer.
He got his rival head-to-head for the final two rounds.
He was tied with Nicklaus going into Sunday.
He was the only player to break par 70 three times.
He closed with 69.
Yet, he lost by four.
Author James Dodson agrees that a sense of resignation enveloped Palmer after that. He was 37 at that point and clearly cognizant of the gap between he and this ferocious talent named Nicklaus. “He told me as much,” said Dodson, the acclaimed author of “Final Rounds” and the Palmer autobiography, “A Golfer’s Life.”
“I have the desire, but I just don’t have the game,” Dodson said recently, recalling how Palmer responded when asked by his biographer what was going through his mind in the days when he tried to match Nicklaus’ might. “But I don’t think it fazed him, either. It bothered him, yes, and his will to win was still strong, but I think it was OK with Arnold (that Nicklaus was better); he realized there was a bigger role for him.
“He told me, ‘I knew this guy was going to beat me more than I beat him.’ ”
When he arrived at Baltusrol, Palmer’s U.S. Open nightmare from the previous year was revived. Nearly every pre-tournament interview dealt with his massive collapse at The Olympic Club: Seven ahead with nine to play, Palmer squandered the lead and was tied by Billy Casper, then he lost a U.S. Open playoff for the third time in five years.
“Right now, all I’m concerned with is keeping this thing together for four full rounds and winning this tournament,” Palmer told reporters.
With rounds of 69-68, he was doing that. It was his first-ever 36-hole lead in the U.S. Open, softened by the fact Nicklaus was just one back and Casper just two. Still, Palmer promised patience this time. “When I lose control of myself, you see what happens.”
Early in Saturday’s third round, as if on cue, Palmer’s grip loosened. Having built an early three-stroke lead, a series of bogeys set him back. Playing alongside Nicklaus, Palmer needed to birdie the par-5 18th just to salvage a 3-over 73. He was one back but tied for second with Nicklaus, who shot 72, and Casper, who signed for a disappointing 71 that included bogeys at Nos. 15-16-17.
The post-round focus was on the trio of giants at even-par 210. That didn’t bother the leader, a young amateur from Port Arthur, Texas, named Marty Fleckman. He had shot 67 for the 18-hole lead, becoming the first amateur since Billy Joe Patton in 1954 – interestingly enough, also at Baltusrol – to lead after any round of the U.S. Open. Now with a 73 and 69 added to it, Fleckman was 1-under and again at the top.
No amateur had won the U.S. Open since Johnny Goodman in 1933, but the 23-year-old Fleckman was undaunted. “Everybody’s human and anybody can win if they have the game,” he said.
When Fleckman pushed from the first tee Sunday, Casper was by his side, and two young boys were holding a sign that read, “Mazel Tov, Marty.”
If he saw the sign, Fleckman might have been the only one. Everyone else, it seemed, was watching Palmer and Nicklaus.
The humidity was stifling at Baltusrol that week. “On days like this, all you need for a warm-up,” said Palmer’s good friend Dave Marr, “is to walk to the first tee.”
With temperatures were locked into the mid-90s, New York Times writer Arthur Daly expressed surprise at record crowds. “They even paid $7 a head for the privilege of getting par-boiled,” he wrote.
Palmer and Nicklaus were draws, yes, but so, too, was the chance to see the great Hogan, then 54, one more time. Hogan had refused to go through 36-hole qualifiers in 1962-63-64-65, understandably at odds with USGA officials unwilling to waive that archaic procedure for a four-time winner. In 1966, they acquiesced and Hogan – with the first-ever special exemption – finished 12th to earn his way into Baltusrol. He talked confidently of being able to contend, but when, after a 72-72 start, he faded into a share of 34th, the inevitable question came: “Is this your last U.S. Open?”
Vintage Hogan, he replied, “This year it is.”
Turns out, it was forever. Hogan would never play another major.
Elsewhere, an unheralded pro named Rives McBee went through six caddies over the first 54 holes and seven in all. Between heat exhaustion and relief caddies who didn’t want the job, the Texan struggled and at one point was critical about wet grips.
“Why blame me?” You ain’t playing so good yourself,” the kid caddie told McBee before bowing out.
Names popped into view that perhaps meant very little at the time but surely do now. The Strange who finished joint 48th, Tom, was a polished club pro from Virginia whose son, Curtis, would win the first of two straight U.S. Open titles 21 years later. The unknown Texan who finished solo fifth, Lee Trevino, would earn an exemption into the following year’s U.S. Open, which he would win to set in motion a Hall of Fame career.
The rookie pro in a share of sixth, Deane Beman, was “a crewcut little insurance executive from Bethesda, Md.,” according to an Associated Press story. He was also a fierce competitor who stunned members by how he manhandled Baltusrol’s brutish opening hole – a par 5 disguised as a par 4. Beman holed a 4-wood from 225 yards for an eagle in Round 1, then followed with birdies each of the next two days.
“I was there when he holed that 4-wood,” said David Fay, a local teenage caddie who would go on to become Executive Director of the USGA. Years later, he would convince Beman to give that 4-wood to the USGA Museum.
Beman finished in a share of sixth, and given his friendship with Nicklaus and his relationship with Palmer, he had a unique view of the rivalry. “I think by ’67 Arnold pretty much accepted that Jack had already become the dominant player,” said Beman, who would win four PGA TOUR events then become its commissioner in 1974.
“Arnold was still the golden boy, still ‘The King,’ but he wasn’t winning all the chips,” Beman added. “Those days were over.”
Baltusrol was the confirmation.
Beyond being an eyewitness to Beman’s eagle at the par-4 first, David Fay joined thousands of other fans and marched in the Palmer-Nicklaus gallery that warm Sunday. He concurs with others that what unfolded was perhaps the epilogue to the Palmer-Nicklaus rivalry.
With Fleckman boarding the bogey train early, it was clear that the winner was going to come out of the penultimate pairing – and it was Nicklaus who seized control. He bogeyed the par-4 second but reeled off birdies at the par-4 third, par-3 fourth, par-4 fifth, then added others at the par-4 seventh and par-4 eighth.
It was a dynamic stretch with Nicklaus at his best. “Jack was more powerful than Arnold and he got his power with more ease than Arnold did,” Beman said. The added attraction was an Acushnet Bull’s-Eye putter painted white. The “White Fang,” as they called it, was introduced to Nicklaus by Beman after the two played a practice round.
“He was putting poorly,” said Beman, who wielded a “White Fang” that Nicklaus liked. Beman explained about his friend, Fred Mueller, who had a “White Fang” in the trunk of his car. They retrieved it and Mueller went back to Maryland without his putter.
Certainly, it met with Nicklaus’ approval, because when he turned to Baltusrol’s back nine with the lead, he had birdied seven of his last 11 holes, stretching back to the 17th and 18th holes of Round 3.
Fleckman was en route to an 80 that would drop him into a share of 18th and Casper settled for 72, so Nicklaus was left with only Palmer. As they left the 12th green, two strokes separated them, but Fay remembers watching the knockout punches.
“At the (par-4) 13th, Nicklaus made a birdie, Palmer made a bogey and you could see the look of dejection on (Palmer’s) face,” he said. “I was in the gallery behind 13 green, to the left of 14 tee, so when he walked by, I was very close and was watching him. He knew it was over.”
If he didn’t then, he did at the 14th green, because after missing his 40-foot attempt for birdie, Palmer stepped aside and watched Nicklaus convert yet another iron shot stuffed within 8 feet. The lead was now five; it may as well have been 25.
How it ended that day is part of Nicklaus folklore. He stood on the tee of the 542-yard 18th with a four-stroke lead and imagined Palmer making eagle. Nicklaus knew he could win with a bogey, so he hit 1-iron to be safe – and pushed it into right rough. An 8-iron recovery left him 237 yards away, so Nicklaus again brought out the 1-iron.
This time, from 237 yards, “I just nailed it,” he said, after his 22-footer – his 10th birdie in the final 20 holes – gave him a 5-under 65 and the record.
Palmer grew solemn after his round while speaking to reporters, as if he were abdicating his throne. He focused on the cold realities of his golf world. Of shooting 283 at Oakmont in 1962 but losing a playoff to Nicklaus; Hogan, Arnie noted, won by six by shooting 283 at the 1953 U.S. Open at Oakmont. Then Palmer pointed to the 279 he had just shot at Baltusrol; Ed Furgol had won at Baltusrol in 1954 at 284.
Left unsaid was the change in the landscape. Nicklaus was now the dominant force. He had already completed the career Grand Slam, and the win at Baltusrol was his seventh major.
The final moments of the 1967 U.S. Open featured a long walk up to the 18th green, which is when Nicklaus explained to Palmer that he had played 1-iron to be safe, knowing Palmer could possibly make eagle.
“You flatter me,” Palmer said with a smile, and Nicklaus laughed, too. Their mutual respect was solidified. Their rivalry, though, was over.