If ever a tournament belonged to an individual, the 1966 Open belonged to Arnold. He defeated the course thoroughly—and the field behind him even more thoroughly. Many uncomplimentary things have been said and written about his collapse at Olympic, not the least of which was the contention that he never was all that good under pressure, that his come-from-behind wins in the 1960 Masters and Open had led the press to formulate a myth of Palmer as a "charger," when in reality he was an ordinary finisher at best. "We are all chargers out there," Ken Venturi once said in attacking the notion that there was anything special about Palmer. (I became intrigued with this thought. Was the "charge" a myth? So I did some research, and it showed that Palmer is indeed an excellent last-round player. His average last-round score is 69.88, compared to his average score per round of 70.57.) The theory was also advanced that Arnold was paying too much attention to breaking Hogan's Open scoring record of 276 and not enough to winning the championship. To a degree this is true enough. Arnold was conscious of Hogan's record at one point, but that consideration had left his mind before he hit the shot that really cost him the 1966 Open.
In order to explain the key shot and how and why Arnold hit it the way he did, I will have to go back. Palmer, paired with Casper, went to the 10th tee with a seven-stroke lead on Bill, his nearest pursuer. He vividly remembers Casper's remark as they were walking down the 10th fairway together: "I'm going to really have to go to finish second." Arnold told him: "Don't worry, Bill, you'll finish second."
Unfortunately, Arnold has long had a tendency, a dangerous one, to get into a frame of mind during a tournament that can almost be described as boredom. He relishes a challenge so much that when there does not seem to be one his play will get spotty or he will create a situation to work himself out of. I well remember, for example, that when Arnold was leading the British Open at Troon in 1962 by five strokes through the third round, Winnie, his wife, asked, "What can Arnie play for this afternoon? He has to have something extra to play for, because the tournament is practically over." A newspaperman told her, "He can play for the British Open, that's what."
After Casper's remark on 10 there was no challenge left for Palmer at Olympic except Hogan's record. The field was beaten. And he had certainly proved that he could handle the course. By far the most testing part of Olympic is a stretch of four early holes, the 2nd through the 5th. Arnold geared all of his pretournament thinking toward these holes, and he played them magnificently. In the last three days, counting the playoff, he shot Olympic's front nine in 34-32-33—which was six under par. But he played the back nine in 36-39-40. On this nine he lost 13 strokes to Casper in three days.
By the time Casper and Palmer reached the 15th tee on Sunday, Casper had reduced Palmer's lead to five strokes, but there still seemed no cause for concern. Now, on this short par-3, Arnold hit a shot that many critics feel cost him the championship. In an effort to birdie the hole—yes, Hogan's record was the reason—Arnold went for the pin, which was placed uncomfortably near a bunker on the right. The shot was a good one. Had it landed an inch or so to the left it would have kicked in toward the flag and stopped close to the cup. But it went into the bunker. He exploded very well, leaving himself an eight-footer for a par. Then Casper, who was about 20 feet from the pin, rolled in a birdie, and when Arnold missed his putt his lead was down to three strokes.
"For the first time," Arnold said later, "it dawned on me that Bill had a chance. But I thought it was a remote chance, because the 16th is a long par-5 that he could not reach in two, and the 17th is a long 4 that we could both bogey. Only the 18th was a good birdie chance for him. I thought that he would have to play three under on those three holes to have any chance for a tie."
To know why Arnold hit the terrible tee shot that he did on 16—the shot that truly ruined him—you have only to bear in mind the fine points of the Palmer psychology. I will let him explain it:
"Every time I have ever been in a truly tight spot before, I have tried to play the way I know best, to be aggressive, to go back to my natural game. I've had to say, 'Play Palmer. Your way is best for you.' On the 16th tee at Olympic I tried to go back to a shot I have hit a thousand times, a hard, controlled hook. I was aware that I had been hitting my drives straight, sometimes even with a slight fade, all during the week. It was some of the best driving I have ever done. But in this situation I did not want to hit a fade. I wanted a long hook. After all, the fairway doglegs to the left. It was a perfect hole for what I consider my clutch shot."
The big thing, though, was that Arnold could not tolerate the idea of playing the hole really safely. "I knew," he says, "that I could always just bump the ball down the fairway a couple of times with a one-iron, knock it on the green, take a par and the game is over. I knew it, and that's what perhaps a Casper, or maybe a lot of smart golfers, might have done. Casper, in fact, was just playing it safe. And that is what really got me. Here is a guy trying to catch me, and he was the one playing safe. I said to myself, 'There is no way that man can beat me.' And I sure wasn't going to let it be said, 'There goes Palmer using a one-iron to be safe with a three-stroke lead.' Wouldn't that be a ridiculous sight? I would rather lose." In short, Arnold was trapped by his own public image and his own private confidence. Many athletes might have felt there was a choice about whether or not to play with unusual prudence in this situation, but for Arnold there was no choice. It was not his character to run out the clock, and it never will be. A man must do what he must do, and if it costs an Open now and then, well, there will be other Opens.
So Arnold went to his driver and tried to hit his clutch shot, the one that was perfect in the circumstances, the long, hard hook. What happened was simple. He had been hitting so straight with his driver all week—in part because Olympic is a fader's course—that when he adjusted his swing for the hook he over-compensated. The result was a horrible pull into the evergreens that line the left side of the 16th fairway. A gamble to get a recovery shot into the air out of high grass failed, but he eventually salvaged a good bogey, thanks to a superb bunker shot and one putt. Meanwhile Casper, right down the middle all the way, rolled in an extraordinary putt for a birdie, and the margin was down to one. On 17 Arnold hooked his second straight drive, again going to his "clutch shot," and his lead was gone. Casper had persevered, as is his fashion, and Arnold was headed for an unforgettable defeat—in his fashion.