SI Vault
Dan Jenkins
June 11, 1973
...out came The Bear. The scene was Oakmont and the 1962 Open. Palmer was king and Jack Nicklaus was a winless young pro, but suddenly a five-stroke lead vanished and the world changed
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June 11, 1973

Arnie Opened The Cage And...

...out came The Bear. The scene was Oakmont and the 1962 Open. Palmer was king and Jack Nicklaus was a winless young pro, but suddenly a five-stroke lead vanished and the world changed

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All of this was before the Fat Bear became Golden Jack, before the floral shirt and the buckled shoe, before Supermex, flared pants and the hydrogen shaft, before Arnold Palmer needed eyeglasses; back there in those wonderfully serene and uncomplicated days when they could play a golf tournament and if it were important enough to Winnie and the girls, or Mark McCormack, or Dwight Eisenhower, or Bob Hope, then this army would mobilize—the Army—and it would go out and win it for the only golfer in town. The Army would do it by assembling as a group of 20,000 rioters from a strike at the mines and it would holler, "Heee, haaa, go get 'em, Arnie, kill, ravage, plunder," and their man would grin appreciatively, hitch up his trousers, smoke a carton of filter tips and respond, usually on Sunday at dusk, by sinking another incorrigible putt. This is about the week when it all began to stop happening, a week that changed golf forever.

Everyone with a sense of golfing history knew in 1962 when the U.S. Open returned to goofy old Oakmont that something unique, something utterly fanciful, might occur. It always had. On a course like Oakmont, a place with a sort of grotesque charm, what with its lack of water hazards coupled with its satin greens, hidden ditches and furrowed bunkers, unaccountable things were encouraged to happen. Oakmont had been the course where Bobby Jones in 1927 had played his worst Open, where Tommy Armour won that same summer with a 301, the first over-300 winning total in eight years, where in 1935 golf's alltime super unknown, Sam Parks Jr., had managed to beat, among others, Walter Hagen, who in that hour made his last serious bid (he finished third) for one more major championship. And finally, Oakmont had been the course where in 1953 Ben Hogan had won his last Open, that being the season of Hogan's triple crown—the Masters, the American and British Opens—the nearest thing we have yet seen to a pro's Grand Slam.

So this was Oakmont, an odd and eerie place with its huge lightning greens and multiplicity of evil sand pits; a course smothered in history, a rolling land of ghosts, a place that had produced both comedy and greatness, most of the laughter coming from Oakmont's members watching the pros try to putt the greens and dig out of the traps. And there was one thing more about Oakmont in 1962. It was located right there in Arnold Palmer's backyard when he was the real Arnold Palmer. That the real Palmer could have lost this Open the way he did, practically at home and on the greens, and that he could have lost it to the kid who beat him, a pre-diet and pre-fluff dry Jack Nicklaus who had not won a professional tournament, seemed at the time to be another of Oakmont's tiny amusements. But so it went, and as we now know, so went the sport.

In the 11 years that have passed since the Nicklaus-Palmer Open of 1962, or roughly in the decade between Oakmont's last Open and the one it will stage next week, Jack Nicklaus not only trimmed down, dressed up, let his hair grow and got handsome, he took four Masters titles to Palmer's one, two PGAs to Palmer's none, two British Opens to Palmer's one, and added two more U.S. Opens to his count, making an overall total of 10 major championships to Palmer's two during this period. Their career total incidentally, is now 13 for Nicklaus (tied with Jones) to eight for Palmer.

If this is not evidence enough that the torch has passed, having been lit at Oakmont, then consider that over the same period of time Nicklaus has won 60-odd other tournaments in America and elsewhere, which is about 20 more than Palmer, and has banked at least half a million dollars more in tour money.

To fully absorb the significance of the '62 Open and what it meant to both Jack and Arnold, if not the golfing world, one has only to remember what each player was at the time and what he represented. Quite simply, Palmer was America's darling, while Nicklaus was the fat kid with the blond crew cut, a platoon leader in the ROTC.

Arnold Palmer was never more idolized than he was going into that very week at Oakmont. He was young (32), energetic, virile, human and a winner. Television and an adoring press had made him not only popular and familiar to millions of nongolfers but he had become something of a worldwide sporting Beatle. In the way he swung at the ball, which was rather badly, he personified the American notion that hard work, sweat, confidence, optimism and a good wife paid off in fame and riches. In those days Palmer seemed always to win or nearly win. And when he lost it was as if his public just hadn't cheered loudly enough, or the event was not that important. All alone, it was Arnold Palmer who had doubled the tournament purses, increased television coverage of golf, revitalized the British Open, thought up the modern Grand Slam and taken the game to other parts of the globe. To top it off, Palmer had just won another Masters (his third), he had six major titles now, he was talking about the Slam, and Oakmont was home. His game was at its peak and the record crowds would be all his. At Oakmont, he would win. Somehow. Palmer knew it and the world knew it. He might have to slash his way through an evergreen along the way, or bounce one off a caddie's jawbone, but he would perspire and chain-smoke and one way or another he would summon a charge, that curious thing he kept reading about, and it would be magic time again.

Meanwhile, Jack Nicklaus was something else. He was hardly the Golden Bear, for one thing. Actually, he was the Red Bull. Red in the round, baby-sullen face and red on the meat-hook arms. He wasn't really fat. He just seemed fat, looking like an offensive tackle for Woody Hayes who took up golf. Most people did not know how to pronounce his name. They called him Nick-louse, Nick-lows and Nick-loss, no puns intended.

Jack's reputation as an amateur had been the grandest since Lawson Little in the '30s. He had twice won the U.S. Amateur on classic courses, Pebble Beach and Broadmoor, and he had annihilated Merion, another relic of distinction, by shooting 269 in a World Amateur. He had even been a force in the Open already. In the two Opens preceding Oakmont, the one at Cherry Hills in 1960 and the one at Oakland Hills in 1961, he had finished second and fourth.

Back at Cherry Hills, the Open Palmer won, Nicklaus, then only 20, wound up only two strokes back although he three-putted nine times. Most remember that it was Ben Hogan who lost that Open when he hit a wedge into a pond on the 71st hole while he was tied with Arnold for the lead. But they did not hear what Hogan said later. Ben had been paired with Nicklaus throughout the final 36 holes at Denver.

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