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THE SLAM THAT FAILED
Herbert Warren Wind
July 18, 1960
Arnold Palmer's campaign for a sweep of golf's major titles was halted by Kel Nagle—and the St. Andrews Old Course
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July 18, 1960

The Slam That Failed

Arnold Palmer's campaign for a sweep of golf's major titles was halted by Kel Nagle—and the St. Andrews Old Course

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While the New Course is a shortish resort-type course with little or no dignity, it, too, can be troublesome. Many of its extremely narrow fairways are hemmed in by gorse (see page 26), it is pock-marked with pesty pot bunkers and its small greens are like cement. Henry Cotton took a 79 on it and became the major casualty of the qualifying rounds.

While Gary Player led the qualifiers with a total of 135, from a sentimental point of view those two days belonged to Gene Sarazen. Now 58, playing in his 14th British Open 37 years after his debut in that championship at Troon, old Gene, grinning like a schoolboy, put together two gorgeous rounds of 69 and 72 to lead the American entries. He demonstrated how long a golfer's game lasts if he is a genuinely great player. The effort exhausted him, and he was forced to withdraw after the first round of the tournament proper, but what a heart-warming thing was this Indian summer of glory for Sarazen, over the years the truest American friend of British golf.

The second act of the Open is made up of the first two rounds of the championship—18 holes each on Wednesday and Thursday before the climactic double round of 36 holes set for Friday. The three favorites proceeded about as expected. Player stood at 143, Thomson at 141, Palmer also at 141. Ordinarily in a championship staged at St. Andrews this standard of scoring would have placed them in the lead or close to it. However, two tremendous and entirely unanticipated performances by Roberto de Vicenzo and Kel Nagle (who both took full advantage of the absence of any strong winds) altered the prospect completely. De Vicenzo, the powerful Argentine who now plays out of Mexico, was around in 67 on both days, making it all look very easy and leading observers to wonder if he really had the stuff this year to go all the way. De Vicenzo had four times in the past been within reach of winning. As for Nagle, who is the Australian Open champion, his rounds of 69 and 67 were built principally on his terrific putting. On his first round, for example, he holed successive long ones on the 14th, 15th and 16th and followed with a twisting 40-footer on the 17th that he had to coax over the sharp bank which separates the lower level of the green from the upper level.

Palmer, on the other hand, took 34 putts on his first round, 35 on the second. He was stroking the ball well, but he was having trouble reading the greens, and putt after putt ghosted by the cup or slid off the lip. His iron play was somewhat irregular, but off the tees he was meeting the challenge of the Old Course remarkably well. When it was called for, he was fading the ball expertly from left to right and using the wind from the left, a type of shot he has seldom been required to play in the States. All in all, his golf had exceeded what one could reasonably have hoped for, but with the last 36 holes to go, he was seven full shots off the pace, the same position he had occupied with 18 to go in the U.S. Open at Cherry Hills in June, before he cut loose with his fantastic burst of six birdies on the first seven holes.

The third act of the Open is the final 36. This year it took the form of two distinct scenes, for shortly after 2 o'clock on Friday, just after the leaders (out last) had finished their morning round, a startlingly heavy downpour suddenly broke. Within 20 minutes, two greens and sections of many fairways were underwater, and a small waterfall cascaded down the steps of the Royal and Ancient clubhouse onto the first tee. After suspending play for an hour, the championship committee decided to postpone the final round until Saturday, feeling that the inevitable grumbles over the delay would be minuscule compared to the torrent of criticism that would have been forthcoming had no halt been called.

The putts drop

Palmer was fretful about the postponement, and this was understandable. Around in 70 in the morning, he had succeeded in making up five shots on De Vicenzo (75) and one on Nagle (71), and until he wavered on the last two holes he had seemed well on his way toward overhauling the leaders. He had holed four fine putts of nine feet or over, and on the long 14th he had been the recipient of a saving piece of luck. There his drive, the wind nullifying most of its right-to-left draw, finished barely inside the long stone wall which marks the out-of-bounds line along the right. (Moments later De Vicenzo was to lose his lead to Nagle when his tee shot landed on top of this wall.)

However, on the 17th and 18th Palmer misjudged his approaches, being far short of the pin area with both. They proved to be costly errors. He three-putted the 17th (for the third consecutive day) and also three-putted the 18th from the notorious Valley of Sin, the deep hollow at the front left of the home green which punishes timorousness (and a short approach) by making three putts almost a certainty. With a round to go, then, Palmer stood at 211, four shots behind Nagle (who had finished with a three and a four for 207), two behind De Vicenzo. Thomson, at 216 after a 75, and Player, at 215 after a 72, were out of it.

Palmer started his final round as if he were still at Cherry Hills. He birdied the first by sticking his wedge two feet from the cup, birdied the second by sticking another wedge 15 inches away. He missed a 10-foot birdie putt on the third by the nearest fraction. After that, some of the fire seemed to go out of his game, especially after he took three from the edge on the long 5th. He finished the first 9 in 34, but so did Nagle, who, playing just behind him, holed for birdies on the 7th and 8th during the height of another sudden Scottish rainstorm. So, in effect, what Palmer had gained by his quick start Nagle had won back.

Down the stretch the two-man duel—De Vicenzo was now out of it—tightened again when Palmer holed a seven-footer for a birdie on the 13th. Now he was only three shots behind. He gained another when Nagle three-putted the 15th. He kept his chances alive on the treacherous 17th, after overshooting the green, with a wonderful recovery over the sharp bank of clumpy rough, running the ball up with his putter so that it just bobbled onto the slippery green and rolled dead two feet from the cup. Now he finally had a lift after surviving for two hours on fight, fight, fight, and he roared on to birdie the final hole after a fine wedge that stopped four feet from the cup.

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