• Sal Maiorana

The 1966 U.S. Open may have been the saddest day for Arnie's Army

SAN FRANCISCO (June 19, 1966) – He strode down the middle of the fairway, hitching up those polyester pants, dangling a cigarette between his lips, and waving to the galleries that were drowning him in unbridled adoration.

The sight of Arnold Palmer making one of his patented charges to victory amidst the guttural roars of his rabid Army was the foundation upon which modern professional golf’s popularity was built.

He was every man’s hero. Lawyers and laborers loved him with equal passion because Palmer – a self-made millionaire who had risen from the depths of blue-collar Latrobe, Pa., a small steel town 30 miles southeast of Pittsburgh – could relate to every class of society.

He won seven major championships in his prime on the regular Tour, but he blew almost as many, which is why he became such an endearing figure. For as great as Palmer was, he could also make you shake your head in wonderment over his gaffes.

His shocking double bogey at the 72nd hole to lose the 1961 Masters was every bit as memorable as his heart-pounding, swashbuckling final-round 65 to win the 1960 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills.

For every go-for-broke 3-wood that bounded onto the green to set up an eagle or birdie, there was a go-for-broke 3-wood that went orbiting farther off course than Apollo 13 and led to a bogey or worse.

What a ride it was, and Arnie’s Army cheered for him in victory and cried for him in defeat. And never did the tears flow more freely than the day at the Olympic Club in San Francisco when Palmer frittered away a seven-shot lead with nine holes left to play in the 1966 U.S. Open.

By butchering the back nine with a rotund 39, Palmer allowed steady Billy Casper to catch him, and the next day, Casper dusted the King in an 18-hole playoff. It would be the closest Palmer would ever come to winning another major.

“Had anyone else done what Arnie did at Olympic, they would have been labeled a huge choker, a guy who had committed one of the biggest boo-boos in the history of the majors,’’ said 1973 Open champion Johnny Miller.

Palmer had played indifferently in 1965 and he was wondering if, at age 36, his skills were starting to wane. But he won twice on the West Coast early in ‘66 and came to the Open thinking he could do some damage.

Through 63 holes, he had done plenty of damage. He started Fathers’ Day with a three-shot lead on Casper and stretched that margin to seven strokes thanks to a smooth front side 32.

As the twosome walked to the 10th tee – noticing that Jack Nicklaus had pulled within two shots of him – Casper said, “Arnie, it looks like I’m going to have to work some to finish second.’’ Palmer replied, “Don’t worry Bill, if you need some help, I’ll help you.’’

Years later, Palmer would say: “Boy, I helped him right on, didn’t I?’’

Palmer had set the British Open scoring record with a 276 at Troon in 1962, and now he had his sights set on Ben Hogan’s U.S. Open record of 276 at Riviera in 1948. “I knew what the record was and I knew I had the British Open record,’’ Palmer said. “I thought it would be nice to have both.’’

All he had to do was shoot 1-over 36 on the back and the record was his. Palmer made a bogey at 10, and he and Casper each parred 11 and birdied 12 so the lead was six with six to play. The problem was his lead had become secondary to him because he continued to mistakenly focus on Hogan’s standard.

“The worst break of all could have been that birdie (at 12),’’ Palmer recalled. “It convinced me I could break the record.’’

At the 191-yard 13th, Palmer pulled a 4-iron into deep rough and he couldn’t save par, but it wasn’t until both players parred 14 that the real unraveling began.

At the 150-yard 15th, Palmer being Palmer, he opted to take dead aim at the flagstick with a 7-iron rather than play for the middle of the green.

“I grew up thinking that’s what you were supposed to do,’’ he said. “I mean I really enjoyed shooting at the pin. I never thought about knocking it to the middle of the green. Never. I was trying to play the perfect shot, going for the record, not just the title. I tried for shots that are great when they work. If they don’t, you’re in trouble. I was in trouble.’’

The pin was cut in the right corner of the green, bringing a fronting bunker into play. Palmer’s shot hit the green, but it trickled back into the sand. Bogey. Meanwhile, Casper had played a smart 7-iron to the middle of the green and made a 20-footer for birdie. Palmer’s lead was three with three to play and, “For the first time it dawned on me that Billy had a chance,’’ he said.

Palmer yanked his drive at the par-5 16th off a tree branch and his ball came to rest in heavy rough just 180 yards from the tee box. Again, trying to pull off a bold shot, he slashed a 3-iron instead of wedging out to the fairway. The ball barely got airborne and nestled into even deeper rough and he wound up making bogey was Casper was making birdie. The lead was down to one.

“I knew that I could just bump it down the fairway, knock it on the green, take a par and the game was over,’’ Palmer said. “That’s what a lot of smart golfers might have done. Casper, in fact, was just playing it safe. That’s what really got me. Here’s a guy who’s trying to catch me, and he was the one playing it safe.

“I said to myself, ‘There’s no way that man can beat me.’ And I wasn’t going to let it be said, ‘There goes Palmer, using a 1-iron to be safe with a three-stroke lead.’ I’d rather lose. I suppose there’s a place to play it safe, but as far as I’m concerned, it’s not on the golf course.’’

Palmer drove into the left rough at the par-4 17th, shanked a 6-iron into the right rough, chipped to seven feet and missed the putt. Casper made par and the lead was gone.

If he wasn’t Palmer, prone to fascinating theater, the tournament would have ended at 18. Palmer again hooked his tee shot into deep rough while Casper was resting comfortably in the fairway. However, Palmer muscled a 9-iron onto the green, 30 feet above the hole.

“Arnie must have taken out about three feet of grass,’’ Casper said. “He took a swing that you couldn’t believe. It was a fantastic shot.’’

Palmer still wasn’t out of peril’s way. He rolled his first putt six feet past the hole, and because of a new rule that called for the players to continue putting until they holed out, he was forced to attempt his par putt before Casper went for his birdie.

“I remember looking at that putt and thinking, ‘Everything is on the line here,’’’ Palmer said. “My business, my livelihood. And there I was making it even harder.’’

He stroked it dead center, and Casper missed his birdie, necessitating the playoff.

The playoff the next day was anti-climactic. Palmer shot 33 on the front and led by two, but he fell apart again on the back nine and ultimately shot 73 to Casper’s 69.

“It was the sweetest victory of all,’’ said Casper, who had won the ‘59 Open at Winged Foot. “Palmer’s charge means tearing down the flags on the course with his shots. When I charge, I’m getting into position on the greens for a par. That’s the difference between us. At no time did I give up here, not even when I was seven strokes down with nine holes to play. It was like a dream. I was challenging for second place, but when Palmer slipped, I slipped inside the door he left ajar.’’

Palmer admitted that the wound that loss opened never completely healed, but the salve that took most of the pain away was the support of his Army.

“It’s a funny thing about that Open,’’ he said. “I think what beat me in the playoff was the memory of the day before. People felt so sorry for me afterward. They cared so damn much.’’

Because win or lose, Palmer was the King. Always was, and always will be.