By Friday not only had Faldo missed his first cut in a major since the 1986 PGA, but the defending U.S. Open champion, Lee Janzen, was gone too, not to mention Payne Stewart, Nick Price (and the five putters he brought with him), Corey Pavin and John Daly, who became the first player to shoot 81-73 and still take home $30 million, that being his reported payday for the 10-year deal he signed with Wilson Sporting Goods Co. on Tuesday.
It was a week when the course and the temperatures and the traffic and the pressure could suck the emotions out of a strong man, and Arnold Palmer, 64, was that man.
Showing a sense of poetry, the USGA blazers gave Palmer a special exemption, and Arnie had announced beforehand that it would be his last Open appearance. Palmer shot 77 the first day and three-putted the last four greens Friday for an 81. Still, for an 81, you never heard such a sustained jet-engine roar as the 18th-hole gallery gave him. But that ovation and the sun and the moment and the realization that the end was at hand finally caused him to break down.
The end did not seem at hand for Nicklaus, who was leading the tournament by one shot at the very moment when Palmer was saying his tearful goodbye. At 54 Nicklaus shouldn't have been anywhere near the lead, and yet, somehow, he was. In practice he had played absolutely abysmally, but on Thursday morning, as he was heading out the door, his wife, Barbara, spun him around, opened her eyes as wide as they would go, started wiggling her fingers and chanted, "It's 1962...you're 22...you're 22...."
Which turned out to be wrong, because Nicklaus played better than he had when he was 22. He went into the world's largest outdoor sauna and dragged back a 69, three shots better than the 72 he had on the Thursday when he won here in 1962 and only one shot back of the Thursday leader, another collectible, Tom Watson. And when Nicklaus followed that with a one-under 70 on Friday, you wondered if something was happening here. Why not? For a time on Friday the leader board looked more like 1978. You had Nicklaus, 44-year-old Watson and 49-year-old Hale Irwin hanging around at the top with their bad backs and their yippy putters and their Metamusil.
Naturally, this was too much fun for Oakmont, which put the kibosh on it. Watson hexed himself on Saturday night when he said, "Oakmont is a friend of mine." Some friend. Watson could've—should've—won twice at Oakmont before, but in 1978 the course handed him a 38 on the back nine Sunday when he lost the PGA to John Mahaffey in a playoff, and another 38 on the back nine to lose to Larry Nelson in the 1983 Open by one shot. This time, at least, Watson didn't shoot 38. He shot matching 37s for a three-over 74, sixth place, and his four millionth broken heart.
As for Nicklaus, Barbara must have wiggled her fingers Saturday morning and told her husband, "You're Angelo Spagnola...You're Angelo Spagnola..." because he played like America's worst avid golfer, shooting 40 on the front nine, 77 for the day and 76 the next, thus proving that Oakmont has the heart of a repo man. "Well," said Nicklaus. "I got back on my game, you might say."
In exchange for the two greatest American players of the 1970s, Oakmont coughed up New Zealander Frank (Blackbeard) Nobilo, a man descended from pirates, and the extralarge, blond, 24-year-old, gum-chewing, pin-knocking kid from Johannesburg, Els, who led by two strokes on Saturday night after throwing in a little 30 on the front nine and a 66 for the day.
When Sunday came, things started to get ugly. The eight players atop the Sunday-morning leader board—from Els at seven under to Strange at three under—wound up 19 over par for the day. Even the three guys who ended up in the Monday playoff were flubbing. They hit 27 fairways out of 42 (Els hit only seven), 30 greens out of 54 (miserable) and made 12 bogeys. Not one of them played the back nine in par or better. Congratulations, gentlemen. Now please leave the premises.
Which is why it almost made sense for a while that a urologist from Indianapolis should win the Open.