It was just like the good old days. Arnold Palmer hitched up his trousers last week, marshaled his army and played himself proud in a major tournament. Only thing was that this wasn't the U.S. Open but the U.S. Senior Open, at Oakland Hills Country Club outside Detroit. The conclusion of golf's newest big championship also turned out to be eerily reminiscent of one of those majors Palmer had figured in back when—the 1966 U.S. Open at San Francisco's Olympic Country Club, where after four rounds he found himself tied with Billy Casper, and the two had to settle matters in an 18-hole playoff next day.
Late last Sunday afternoon Palmer and Casper found themselves tied once again, but this time they were joined at 289 by former touring pro Bob Stone of Independence, Mo. At Olympic, Casper beat Palmer by four strokes on Monday. This time Palmer's 70 won, beating Stone by four strokes and Casper by seven.
Inaugurated last year, the Senior Open was conceived by the USGA as a national championship for which professionals and amateurs 55 and over would vie. Because there already were Senior Amateur and PGA Seniors championships, there was precedent for this one. Playing at Winged Foot near New York City, Robert de Vicenzo won and Bill Campbell, an amateur, finished second. It was all very pleasant, in the finest USGA spirit, but attendance was scanty and few cared deeply about the result. ABC televised it and the ratings were so bad that the network dropped its option for 1981.
Part of the reason for the rather ho-hum reception the new event got was the rather so-so promotion it received. But mostly what was wrong was that certain name golfers were missing, especially Palmer, who at 50 was still five years from being eligible. Back to committee went the problem, and lo and behold, the minimum age was dropped to 50.
Sam Snead calls it "the Palmer rule," although it also allowed for the immediate inclusion of such other still-talented players as Casper, Gene Littler, Miller Barber and Bob Goalby.
"The lowered age brings this championship into conformity with all the other senior events, such as the Legends of Golf and the Senior PGA Tour, for which the age is 50," says P.J. Boatwright Jr., an executive director of the USGA. "We knew the idea wouldn't go without the players from the PGA Tour's senior events. But to be frank," he added, "the club certainly wouldn't have sold 30,000 tickets in advance without Palmer."
With Arnie as the draw, Oakland Hills' promotion was so successful that the purse was increased from $100,000 to $150,000.
Palmer likes to say, "The game is bigger than myself or any other individual." Don't believe it. Palmer didn't invent golf, but he made it into a big-money game when most of the current seniors were young, and he's doing it again for them now.
Take Goalby. His best season on the Tour was 1967, when he finished 10th on the money list with $77,107. This year he has earned more than $90,000 in senior events. "If I'd known there would be golf after 50, I'd have worked harder to stay in shape the last 10 years," Goalby said after assuming a one-stroke second-round lead. His 142 total matched his 36-hole score in the 1961 "other" Open, when he finished second by a stroke to Littler on this same course. Littler is at the very top of the born-again list, with $114,486 in senior money, more than he has won in all but two of his 27 years as a pro.
Several "name" seniors, notably Julius Boros and Tommy Bolt, were absent because they felt they couldn't play creditably unless they were allowed to ride in carts, which are used in other senior events but aren't permitted in this one. Snead, 69, was on hand, but he would have liked a cart, too. "This is Oakland Hills, and it's not fair to us older fellows," he complained. Snead made his remarks after an opening round of 72, which left him just two shots behind Lionel Hebert, the only player to match par of 70 on Thursday.