The 85th hole is a long time to wait to get the lead in a 72-hole golf tournament, but Bill Casper can be a very patient man. By going his patient way at San Francisco's Olympic Country Club this week he defeated that cataclysm with legs, Arnold Palmer, in a stunning U.S. Open. It was an Open that for three days pitted two of golf's most contrasting stylists against each other at a time when each was displaying his characteristics to the fullest. Palmer flashed a return to the dramatic heights of his heyday, capping three and a half rounds of masterful golf with one of the most disastrous collapses in the history of the 66-year-old tournament. In the last nine holes on Sunday he blew a seven-stroke lead, and nothing quite so shocking has happened since—coincidence—Palmer came from seven strokes behind to win the 1960 U.S. Open. His last-hour unheroics dropped him into a tie with Casper at 278 and led to Monday's playoff, which was a repeat in miniature of what had gone before. Again Palmer dashed to the front, his Army bellowing behind him, and again he faltered. On the 13th hole Casper took the lead. By the time the pair had reached the 18th green the U.S. Open was a rout. Palmer had lost his third Open playoff in five years, and Buffalo Bill Casper (see cover), the steady man with the wild diet, was the new champion, winning by four strokes, 69 to 73.
Two small statistics reveal the strength of Casper's performance. There were only 15 subpar scores in the entire Open, and Casper had four of them in the rounds he played—69, 68, 73, 68 and the playoff 69. He one-putted 33 greens and did not three-putt a green until the ninth hole of the playoff. And he calmly played his own game, no matter how bad things looked. A subdued and shaken Palmer, sitting in front of his locker after Sunday's calamity, said, "It's hard to believe." By Monday night it was even harder to believe. In fact, who could?
That there was a playoff at all must go down as one of the great debacles of modern times, comparable to the Italian retreat at Caporetto, the Edsel car and Liz Taylor's Cleopatra. As late as 3 o'clock on Sunday afternoon, this was Arnold Palmer's Open. He had shot a 71 on the first day to put himself in a good position, and he had looked very strong doing it. Thus a near flawless 66 on Friday, which tied Casper for the lead, was no great surprise. The third day he played the first 11 holes the same way and came in with an even-par 70. On Sunday he finished the first nine holes in 32—three under par and seven strokes ahead of Casper. All hail to the return of the invincible Palmer. The rest should have been a mere formality. But....
Maybe it would be better to start at the beginning. Believe it or not, this 1966 Open was all hearts and flowers as it got underway at 7:30 Thursday morning. A wispy San Francisco fog rolled across the Olympic Country Club's Lake Course and put just the kind of chill in the air that makes you want to get out and exercise. The only person who seemed to resent it was Ken Venturi, the home-town favorite, who sniffed the breeze and announced that the temperature was 60�. He could tell by his hands. "Over 65 they're all right," he said. "Under 65 I have trouble gripping the club." He was playing in a sentiment-inspiring grouping with Ben Hogan. They were the first crowd-drawing names to tee off, and their breath made clouds, like that of skiers in the Sierras.
The conditions at Olympic were just about perfect for an examination to determine the national champion of 1966. The length of the course—6,719 yards—was reasonable for any of the 133 professionals and 18 amateurs who had been competent enough to be admitted to the tournament. The fairways were narrow, some 35 to 45 yards wide at the target areas, but an Open champion is supposed to be able to hit the ball straight. The four-inch rough was gummy enough to penalize an errant shot, as well it should, but it was not the knee-high pasture that had made the 1955 Open on this same course so infamous. "Olympic is one of the best," said Jack Nicklaus. Palmer put it another way: "If you keep the ball in play, you can shoot about anything. If you hit it in the rough, you are lucky to break 80."
A man named Al Mengert went out that first day, kept the ball in the fairway and shot a 67 to lead the field. An Al Mengert always leads the Open on the first day. Among the annual charms of the tournament are those brief moments of glory that come to some obscure and thoroughly likable athlete. A brilliant sun shines down on the Mengerts, and everyone rushes around in search of their personal statistics. (Mengert is a 37-year-old former touring pro who is now head pro at Tacoma Golf and Country Club.) But their dreams disappear in a nightmare of bogeys. Mengert's succeeding rounds were 77, 71 and 81.
Gene Littler was second with a 68, and Bill Casper was all alone at 69. In March Casper had taken off several weeks to tour Vietnam and hit golf balls in the general direction of the Viet Cong, to the delight of the troops. He had not been seen at a golf tournament for the past month. Although Olympic was regarded as the kind of course that would yield to Casper's wonderfully intelligent strokes and his ability to "move the ball," as the pros put it, there was some question about whether he would be sharp. Bill himself had no such fears. "I'm hitting the ball as well as I ever have," he confided early in the week. "I feel real good. I guess it's just a matter of whether I can sink some putts." He had seven one-putt greens this day. Asked when he had last putted so well in a big championship he offered an interesting answer: "Winged Foot in '59." That was where he won his last major title—the U.S. Open.
There was a quartet at 70, among them John Miller, who could make a Mengert seem famous. A 19-year-old Olympic member, he had signed up to caddie in the Open, but then qualified to play in it and eventually finished tied for eighth.
And where were Palmer, Nicklaus and defending champion Gary Player? All were well in it but Player, who seemed to have early inklings that he was about to lose his grip on the title he had won last year at Bellerive. The once confident Gary is gone. "I just haven't been playing enough golf," he announced before the tournament even began. "I don't have the desire I had last year. I haven't played a tournament since the Memphis Open, and the less you play the less you care." As if to prove it, Player three-putted everywhere and shot 78.
Palmer and Nicklaus were at 71. Before the Open, people would say that Olympic was a Hogan-type course or a Casper-type course, but then they would always add that it was a Nicklaus-type course, too, because there is no course from St. Andrews to Kuala Lumpur which, of itself, can thwart Jack's extraordinary combination of power, delicacy and golfing sense. The opening 71 pleased Nicklaus, and he learned a few things in the process, such as finally concluding he should use a three-wood more often on his tee shots.