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Un-Bear-able Loss for 'Army'

Golf: Forty years ago this month, Jack Nicklaus beat Arnold Palmer, and his legion of fans, in a playoff at the U.S. Open to win his first major.

June 11, 2002|CHRIS DUFRESNE | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Jack Nicklaus first saw Arnold Palmer play golf in 1954, first played against him in 1958 and first challenged him for a major title in 1960.

But it was in the 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club outside Pittsburgh, 40 years ago this month, in Palmer's backyard and on his back nine, that the 22-year-old rookie Nicklaus began nudging Palmer off golf's throne.

Imagine the gall of that kid Jack, wielding his crooked stick against Arnie's Army.

Palmer's bond with western Pennsylvania had been forged almost as tungsten steel. He grew up in Latrobe, 40 miles east of Pittsburgh. Palmer's father, Pap, tended the grounds at Latrobe Country Club, and it was there that Arnie swatted buckets of balls with a swing so cork-screwy it would later give teaching pros the willies.

Oakmont '62 was a homecoming, and Palmer swaggered like John Wayne toward it. Palmer was a driver in a bag of tour-playing wedges, an icon with Grand Slam notions in the wake of his third Masters title in April.

There was not a more transcendent figure in sports than Palmer--talented, tan, taut and only 32--no one who better capitalized on his charisma at a time when 90% of American households received the gift of television; all those electromagnetic waves god-knows-how reconvening into our Kennedy-presidency living rooms.

"It's hard for me to capture in words the magnitude of Arnold Palmer in golf at that time," Nicklaus writes in "Jack Nicklaus: My Story." "He was not only the game's undisputed king, but the emperor-in-chief of contemporary American sports heroes."

The Open at Oakmont was supposed to be a coronation, not a coup d'etat. Palmer fans were rabid to the point of salivation and different, maybe the first in golf who didn't applaud politely during play and extend pinkies at clubhouse tea socials.

Palmer followers were beer and bratwurst types--Cleveland Brown fans minus the dog biscuits--and in no mood to accommodate an unkempt kid from Columbus.

Arnie's Army was out in force at Oakmont and in for a shock.

Jack Nicklaus?

He was a crew-cut blond who could have benefited from charm school and sunscreen. His body type leaned toward early Bob's Big Boy and he dressed as if Ray Charles had picked out his clothes--hit the road like that, Jack?

"Always friendly," author Dan Jenkins, who covered the 1962 Open, recalls of Nicklaus, "but my god he was unsightly."

A black hat to Palmer's white?

"Not among the press," Jenkins says, "but he was among fans. They wanted Arnold to win every damn week."

Palmer knew Nicklaus was rising, sure as the sun. He even made a mental notation when the two first played together in a 1958 exhibition--take flier on this guy.

As a 20-year-old amateur, Nicklaus had nearly toppled Palmer at Cherry Hills in 1960, before Palmer staged his famous charge to salvage what turned out to be his only U.S. Open title.

Yet few thought Palmer was susceptible at Oakmont, although one man had a hunch: Arnold Palmer.

"You'd better watch the fat boy," Palmer told reporters.

Fat chance, right?

Nicklaus turned pro in late 1961 and went winless in his first 16 PGA Tour events. In his debut at the Los Angeles Open, Nicklaus finished 50th and took home a whopping $33.33. A few months into his career, Nicklaus wondered if he would ever win, asking himself, "When, oh when, is it going to happen?"

Oakmont was the happening.

Jack rode in on the Pennsylvania Turnpike and knocked golf on its grass, stunning Palmer in a playoff and changing golf's face from chiseled to cherubic.

"That tournament was a turning point for both men," John Feinstein writes in his book, "The Majors." "It was a launching pad for Nicklaus and the beginning of the end for Palmer as a dominant player."

Or so went the myth.

Actually, the truth has more nuances.

Ken Bowden, who has written 11 books about Nicklaus, knows better than most.

"The baton wasn't passed in '62, but there was a sign it was going to be," Bowden says. "It was the beginning of the rivalry. It certainly wasn't the end of Arnold."

In fact, Palmer won two of his seven major titles after that 1962 defeat by Nicklaus. Palmer rebounded from Oakmont to take the 1962 British Open at Troon by six shots and earned his fourth Masters' green jacket in 1964, another six-shot victory.

Palmer, not Nicklaus, was named PGA player of the year in 1962, and Palmer won the money title in '62 and 1963.

Palmer's two post-Oakmont major victories rank as his most dominating and satisfying accomplishments. He remained a factor in major events through 1970. Palmer lost heart-wrenching U.S. Open playoffs to Julius Boros in 1963 and Billy Casper in 1966--who would ever forget Palmer's final-round collapse at San Francisco's Olympic Club?--and finished second to Nicklaus at Baltusrol in 1967.

Palmer also finished second in the PGA Championship three times, in 1964, '68 and 1970.

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