First, there was Phil Rodgers, a cocky, abrasive 24-year-old with a butch haircut and a chunky build that make him look vaguely like a smaller edition of Nicklaus. In 1958, while on one of those golfing scholarships at the University of Houston, Rodgers had won the NCAA championship. He joined the pro tour last summer, has won the Los Angeles and Tucson Opens and might well have won the U.S. Open had it not been for what is now the most famous little evergreen tree in all Pennsylvania.
Rodgers was among the leaders on Thursday when he came into the 17th hole one under par. He tried to reach the green with his tee shot on this short, 292-yard par 4, but pulled his ball into a clump of small spruce trees that were recently planted a few yards in front of the green to discourage just such boldness. The ball was lodged solidly in one tree. Rather than take an unplayable lie penalty of two strokes, Rodgers tried to hit his ball out of the tree. Two swings later he was still trying. On his fourth swing the ball fell from the tree and bounced clear. Rodgers then chipped to the green and two-putted for a horrid 8, a quadruple bogey. In spite of this and a four-putt green, he was only a stroke behind as play began Saturday afternoon. But he never could catch up.
The other unfamiliar name in the cast was Bobby Nichols, 26, who grew up in Louisville and now makes his home in Midland, Texas. Nichols is a tall, well-built and uncommonly handsome man who first came to prominence by winning the St. Petersburg Open in March and following it up a month or so later with a victory in the Houston Classic. After three excellent rounds he started Saturday afternoon at Oakmont in a tie with Palmer at one under par for the tournament. But in what was to be an afternoon of frustration for all, he couldn't get the lead either.
Of this quartet, Palmer had spent the morning playing the best and putting the worst. He hit 16 greens, including a par 5 in two and a par 4 in one stroke. Yet Oakmont's greens, getting harder by the minute, had led him to take 38 putts. He even missed three two-footers. At the lunch break he had a ham-and-cheese sandwich, a horrid concoction of Coke and milk and a plea. "Come out and putt for me," he asked a writer. "Me!" exclaimed the writer. "Yes," said Palmer, "you," figuring anybody would putt better than he had.
Jack Nicklaus, eating only a table away (and without a covey of writers standing around him), had putted better, far, far better. Through 54 holes he was yet to three-putt a green, but he still trailed Palmer by two strokes.
The pairings on Saturday were such that Rodgers was playing about half an hour ahead of Nichols, who was followed in order by Nicklaus and then Palmer. By the time Palmer reached the ninth hole of his afternoon round, he was three under par, having birdied the second and fourth holes. This gave him a solid-looking two-stroke advantage over Rodgers and Nichols, and four strokes on Nicklaus.
It was here—if you were among the many ignoring the snowballing but rather subtle disaster that Palmer's putting had become—that he readmitted the field to an Open that was his. Nine is a long-playing, uphill par 5 of 480 yards. Palmer had reached it with two shots in the morning round, and then three-putted. This time he left his second shot hole-high in some trampled rough to the right of the green, but hardly 50 feet from the pin. He had a sound chance for a birdie. Instead, he flubbed a wedge, hitting it perhaps 10 feet. His next chip was way short, like the bleating effort of a duffer, and his eight-foot putt for a par was off-line from the start. As Arnie's army groaned his lead was down to one.
The last nine holes were simply the summer of everybody's discontent. Nichols and Rodgers, with grand chances to be upset winners of a big championship, hung a stroke behind Palmer like two becalmed sailboats. They couldn't get the crucial birdie—not even at 17, one of the easiest birdie holes.
Palmer, meanwhile, bogeyed the par 3 13th by hitting a six-iron into a trap, and Nicklaus' earlier birdie of 11 meant the tournament was tied.
For the closing five holes Nicklaus and Palmer both played extraordinary and seemingly' devastating golf; and just as devastatingly, the extraordinary greens of Oakmont kept them from achieving a thing. At 14 they both missed birdie putts from inside 10 feet. At 15 and 16 neither could sink a birdie putt again. At 17 Nicklaus thought he had lost the tournament. Trying to reach the green he drove into a trap on the right side, hit a weak shot from the sand that barely cleared the top of the bunker and had to chip up to salvage a par. Now Palmer, playing right behind Nicklaus, would surely birdie 17. That morning he had taken the tournament lead by scoring a tremendous eagle 2 on the hole, driving the green and sinking an 18-footer that had set him to dancing with joy. This time Palmer went to the left in the vicinity of Rodgers' famous spruce tree. A delicate wedge left him eight feet from the hole.