Somebody once asked Arnold Palmer why his army was so feverishly devoted to him. "Well," Arnie said, "maybe it's because I'm in the rough so much I get to know them all personally."
And therein lies a good part of the reason Arnold Palmer became America's favorite—not best, not winningest, just favorite—golfer. For in Arnie you had an athletic god who could come down from the heavens and screw up royally, and the nation loved him for it. When Palmer stood over a three-iron in weeds as long as his inseam, needing to carry that pond way up yonder, you had the feeling that even he had no idea what would become of the ball. It might land three inches from the pin or three blocks from the clubhouse. What made it impossible not to watch Arnie is the same thing that makes it impossible to put down a good book—suspense.
Either way, coming or going, Palmer always tried uproariously hard. He swung as if slashing his way out of a Brazilian rain forest. His face contorted with every tortured heave. Golf is an unplayable game. Why fool around pretending it's not? And everything about Arnie—from his untuckable shirttail to his uncombable hair—screamed it out. Arnold Palmer did for finesse what Oliver North did for procedure.
And so it was that Arnie could bank on fans' forgiving and forgetting. If he could come from seven shots behind on the last day to win a U.S. Open, as he did heroically at Cherry Hills in 1960, then he had the inalienable right to blow one of equally colossal proportions. Twenty-one years ago this month, he did. Leading by seven shots with nine holes to play in the Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, he committed perhaps the grandest golf gaffe in history, ultimately falling to Casper and the Ghost—the putting of Billy Casper and the legend of Ben Hogan—in a loss that never healed in his psyche. Palmer never won another major after that, and some people say he hasn't been quite the same since.
The Olympic Club, a storied institution boasting an athletic and social club in San Francisco as well as the country club about 10 miles away, has had its sporting moments. Gentleman Jim Corbett was a member in 1892 when he beat John L. Sullivan for the heavyweight title. Olympians in a variety of sports have called it home. But on June 19, 1966, on the fourth day of that year's U.S. Open, Olympic was golf itself.
Here was golf's past in the becapped Hogan, returned to the scene of his most famous flop, his 1955 Open loss to the widely ignored Jack Fleck, who is said to have had only $3 in his pocket when he beat Hogan that week. Hogan lost the playoff when his tee shot at 18 went awry. He said his foot slipped, but some said it was his heart. Fleck was barely seen on golf's map again. Yet here they were together again in 1966—Hogan by invitation, Fleck as a qualifier—both of them living apparitions at old, shadowy, haunted Olympic.
Here was golf's future, too: Hale Irwin, Bob Murphy and Deane Beman all played the '66 Open as amateurs. Then there were two unlikely newcomers, a quiet El Paso pro playing in his first major and a 19-year-old amateur who had signed up to caddie but instead qualified—Lee Trevino and Johnny Miller. Miller, a junior member of Olympic, played two practice rounds with Jack Nicklaus himself. "What do you think of our kid?" a member asked Nicklaus late Wednesday. "Not bad," said Nicklaus. "But we'll see how he reacts with the heat on him."
So nervous was Miller that on the first day he overslept and his mother had to wake him. Trevino's week was unremarkable, but Miller finished eighth, the low amateur.
The story line, however, was golf's present. And golf's present then, golf's everything, was Palmer. Trevino stood at the entrance to Olympic one day and stared as Palmer drove up in a Cadillac. "I remember he couldn't get out of his car because so many people were trying to get his autograph," says Trevino. "They pushed past me. And I thought, I never dreamed this is what it could be like."
But if Palmer was far and away the people's choice, Nicklaus, 26, was fast becoming history's. Ten years Palmer's junior, Nicklaus had already won five majors to Arnie's seven, owing partly to Palmer's alarming knack for fumbling away majors at the goal line. SPORTS ILLUSTRATED'S Alfred Wright once called Palmer "that cataclysm with legs," and, indeed, Palmer's bumbling down the stretch was getting to be a habit. Three majors had slipped through his big knuckles in the early '60s. At the 1961 Masters, Palmer led by a shot with his ball in the middle of the 18th fairway on Sunday (he had even accepted a congratulatory handshake from a fan as he walked to his ball), then made a double bogey to give away the green coat to an astonished Gary Player. He went glare-to-glare with Fat Jack at Oakmont in the 1962 Open and lost in a playoff. The next year at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., he lost another Open in a playoff, this time against Julius Boros and Jacky Cupit; Boros won.