Arnie: Palmer and the agony of defeat(s)

By Ryan Reiterman September 10, 2014, 10:00 am

It’s an interesting debate: What made Arnold Palmer a transcendent figure not only in golf, but in sports?

The easy answer: It was the whole package.

He was the handsome leading man with the hard-charging swing and blue-collar background who came along at just the right time when televisions were sprouting up in living rooms around the world.

But one ingredient that is often overlooked in this perfect superhero recipe is that, sure, Palmer won big (seven major titles, 62 PGA Tour wins), but he also lost big.

“Arnold was majestic at winning and losing," said former player and longtime golf announcer Peter Alliss.

His flair for the dramatic often resulted in oh-my-gosh-did-you-see-that?! victories (see, 1960 U.S. Open), but could also result in how-in-the-world-did-he-lose-that-big-of-a-lead?! collapses (see, 1966 U.S. Open).

For all of the heartbreak Palmer caused himself, he often felt worse for his adoring army of fans, knowing that they had pushed him so hard to win, only to see their hero come up short in the end.

Palmer was always a man of the people, even in defeat.

“The minute his car pulled into the drive the neighbors would arrive,” said Amy Saunders, Palmer’s daughter. “It was a ritual, they all came. And I think it was a great opportunity for him to be able to unwind and share a lot of that with them. You know I think probably (sister) Peg and I first felt a little bit as though we wanted his time, but now in hindsight I realize how important that was for him, but also good for us because he could share with them and vent all of the frustrations of the week or the highlights of it. We were always included. It wasn’t like we were excluded from it, but it was a gathering of adults and he would come home and they would enjoy sitting together and talking and reflecting on the week.”

What’s even more intriguing about Palmer’s career arc is that some of his jaw-dropping collapses happened during his prime, not when he was an inexperienced young gun.

At the 1961 Masters, Palmer was leading Gary Player by one stroke and his ball was sitting pretty in the 18th fairway. Palmer was about to win his third green jacket in four years and become the first man to successfully defend at Augusta.

But Palmer got caught up in the moment (he accepted congratulations from his friend George Low while walking to his drive on 18), and he forgot an important lesson his father, Deacon, had drilled into him – don’t ever get ahead of yourself.

Palmer’s second shot sailed into the right greenside bunker, and before he knew it Palmer was tapping in for a double bogey to hand Player his first green jacket.

Arnold Palmer

Arnold Palmer walks off the 18th green after losing the 1961 Masters (Getty)

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It was a simple mistake at the worst possible moment. But other collapses would be harder to explain.

At the 1962 U.S. Open, Palmer was riding a huge wave of confidence. He had rebounded from his disappointing loss at the 1961 Masters by capturing his first claret jug at the British Open at Royal Birkdale.

At the 1962 Masters, Palmer had extracted revenge against Player by storming back in the final round to tie the gritty South African and Dow Finsterwald and force the first three-man, 18-hole playoff in Masters history. Palmer defeated both men handily the next day to capture his third green jacket.

Now he was the heavy favorite to win his second U.S. Open title, with the championship being held about 40 miles from his hometown of Latrobe, Pa., at Oakmont Country Club, just outside of Pittsburgh.

“He had visions of winning the Grand Slam,” said Rand Jerris, author, historian, and USGA director of communications. “He knew this was a real possibility for him this year, and he knew given the emotional benefits, the excitement, that Oakmont was going to bring out the very best in his game.”

Palmer was in control in the final round, but a fatal flaw was beginning to emerge – he wanted it too bad. He flubbed a chip shot on the par-5 ninth and wound up making bogey on a hole he could have easily birdied. Instead of extending his lead, Palmer gave a 22-year-old Jack Nicklaus an opening.

The soon-to-be Golden Bear didn’t have the added pressure of trying to win the biggest tournament in his home state with scores of friends and family members in the gallery.

“I went to Oakmont the week before the tournament … played a couple practice rounds, and I sort of felt going into Oakmont that that was my tournament, nobody else’s,” Nicklaus said. “I had finished second in 1960, fourth in 1961. I had a chance to win both golf tournaments, didn’t do it , and I really liked what I took from the practice rounds, and I said this is going to be my week.”

Nicklaus took advantage of Palmer’s mistake with birdies on Nos. 9 and 11, and after Palmer missed a 10-foot birdie putt on 18 to win, the two leading men were heading to an 18-hole playoff on Sunday.

Palmer bogeyed the first hole of the playoff and played catch-up the entire round. He made a mini-charge with birdies on Nos. 9, 11 and 12 to cut Nicklaus’ lead to one, but then he three-putted the par-3 13th and eventually lost by three strokes.

Arnie’s Army was stunned.

A stone-faced kid from Columbus, Ohio, who had never won a PGA Tour event,  marched right into Palmer’s backyard and took down a five-time major champion.

Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus

Arnold Palmer congratulates Jack Nicklaus on winning the '62 U.S. Open (Getty)

Unlike Palmer’s previous heartbreaks, this was personal.

It hurt Palmer that not only did he let down his army, but that those same fans treated Nicklaus with disgust.

“The fans at Oakmont were not your typical golf fans,” Ian O’Connor, author of "Arnie & Jack," said. “These were blue-collar, Pittsburgh people. They were Steelers fans. They were rowdy and they were stomping the earth when Jack Nicklaus was putting.

“Nothing was out of bounds in terms of trying to throw Jack Nicklaus off his game,” O’Connor said. “They were calling him ‘Fat Jack.’”

Oh, there was more.

“They held signs that said ‘Jack Hit It Here’ when they were standing in the deepest rough on the golf course,” Jerris said. “We think about golf as this dignified, quiet sort of game, and the galleries at Oakmont were anything but that. They were true die-hard Pittsburgh natives who were pulling for their native son. They were going to give Arnold that advantage, and if it meant taking Jack down a little bit, they didn’t seem very hesitant to go in that direction.”

Their jeers and rude remarks were supposed to crush Nicklaus’ spirit, but instead they had the opposite effect.

Palmer was embarrassed. The fans showed little class, and it certainly wasn’t the way he wanted to try to win his second U.S. Open. Nicklaus’ father, Charlie, was in the crowd and was equally upset. At one point, Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes, a family friend of the Nicklauses, had to restrain Charlie from going after a boisterous member of the gallery.

The only person it didn’t seem to bother was Nicklaus.

“It never did register,” Nicklaus said. “I mean that’s the phenomenon everybody can’t understand. ‘How can you not hear the gallery?’ I say, 'I was playing golf.' I paid no attention to anybody. I wasn’t interested in that.”

The 1960 U.S. Open is Palmer’s career-defining moment, but the championship would soon also be part of his stunning Rolodex of gut-wrenching major-championship losses. Starting with the playoff loss to Nicklaus in 1962, Palmer also lost playoffs in 1963 (Julius Boros) and 1966 (Billy Casper). Palmer would also finish second to Nicklaus by four strokes in 1967.

It was that overtime defeat to Casper at San Francisco’s Olympic Club that will go down as one of the biggest head-scratchers in major championship history.

Much has been made about Greg Norman blowing a six-shot lead starting the final round at the 1996 Masters. Palmer blew a seven-shot advantage with nine holes to go.

Just like when he was standing in the 18th fairway at the 1961 Masters, Palmer got ahead of himself and forgot to take care of business. Instead of keeping his focus on playing the course, Palmer felt he had the tournament secure and now he wanted to beat Ben Hogan’s U.S. Open record of 276. Palmer and Hogan were never buddies, and now Palmer had a chance to erase one of Hogan’s hallmark records in the tournament that defined the Hawk’s legendary career.

Once Palmer lost his focus, his lead quickly evaporated.

He was still five shots ahead of Casper with four holes to play, but Palmer bogeyed the par-3 15th and Casper made a birdie.

Now he was three up with three to play.

At the par-5 16th, another two-shot swing.

One up with two to play.

Palmer recorded his third consecutive bogey when he left his par putt inches short at the par-4 17th.

All square with one to play.

Both players made par at 18, and they headed to an 18-hole playoff.

The next day Palmer shot a 73 to lose to Casper by four shots.

“It was really devastating to him, because some of his friends are my friends and many of them said that he was never the same after that,” Casper said.

Said Palmer's daughter, Peggy: “It was very hard, and knowing that he was going to come home … after Olympic, I’ll never forget that. It was sickening.”

Arnold Palmer

Arnold Palmer during his playoff loss in the 1966 U.S. Open. (Getty)

The U.S. Open provided Palmer with plenty of stinging defeats, but he at least he could always hang his visor on his thrilling win in 1960.

The PGA Championship, however, also provided plenty of heartbreak - but no victories.

It’s the gaping hole in Palmer’s resume.

“No question, not winning the Grand Slam, not winning the PGA Championship, keeps Arnold slightly down among the all-time greats,” Jaime Diaz, Golf World's editor-in-chief, said. “I mean, it’s just unfortunately the reality of, you know, compiling a record and it’s a hole on his record. It was always so sad when he didn’t win the PGA because he came very, very close.”

Palmer had no doubt he would one day capture the PGA. He even admitted in his autobiography "A Golfer’s Life," that he kept a spot reserved for the Wanamaker trophy in his display case.

Palmer finished in the top 10 six times at the PGA, and three times he finished tied for second.

Instead of being among the men who have won all four modern Grand Slam events – Gene Sarazen, Hogan, Nicklaus, Player and Tiger Woods – Palmer is part of the group of players who completed three of the four legs of the career slam – Tom Watson (PGA), Raymond Floyd (British Open), Lee Trevino (Masters), Byron Nelson (British Open) and Sam Snead (U.S. Open).

Palmer won his last major at 34, a time when a lot of players are just reaching their prime. 

It’s often said you can tell more about a man during the tough times, and Palmer was no exception. After losing the 1966 U.S. Open, his most devastating of many painful defeats, Palmer honored a promise to a friend.

“He and Winnie flew from San Francisco to Colorado Springs where I had accepted a job two or three years prior, and we had dinner with the president of the hotel and the general manager and their wives,” Finsterwald said. “The guy was so gracious. We had dishwashers coming out of the kitchen asking for his autograph, and he accommodated their requests. You would have thought he had just won the Open instead of having one of the low points in his career.”

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McIlroy 'really pleased' with opening 69 in Abu Dhabi

By Ryan LavnerJanuary 18, 2018, 12:10 pm

It was an auspicious 2018 debut for Rory McIlroy.

Playing alongside world No. 1 Dustin Johnson for his first round since October, McIlroy missed only one green and shot a bogey-free 69 at the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship. McIlroy is three shots back of reigning Race to Dubai champion Tommy Fleetwood, who played in the same group as McIlroy and Johnson.

Starting on the back nine at Abu Dhabi Golf Club, McIlroy began with 11 consecutive pars before birdies on Nos. 3, 7 and 8.

“I was excited to get going,” he told reporters afterward. “The last couple of months have been really nice in terms of being able to concentrate on things I needed to work on in my game and health-wise. I feel like I’m the most prepared for a season that I’ve ever been, but it was nice to get back out there.”

Fleetwood, the defending champion, raced out to another lead while McIlroy and Johnson, who shot 72, just tried to keep pace.

“Tommy played very well and I was just trying to hang onto his coattails for most of the round, so really pleased – bogey-free 69, I can’t really complain,” McIlroy said.

This was his first competitive round in four months, since a tie for 63rd at the Dunhill Links. He is outside the top 10 in the world ranking for the first time since 2014. 

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Hadwin returns to site of last year's 59

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 11:04 pm

Adam Hadwin had a career season last year, one that included shooting a 59 and winning a PGA Tour event. But those two achievements didn't occur in the same week.

While Hadwin's breakthrough victory came at the Valspar Championship in March, it was at the CareerBuilder Challenge in January when he first made headlines with a third-round 59 at La Quinta Country Club. Hadwin took a lead into the final round as a result, but he ultimately couldn't keep pace with Hudson Swafford.

He went on to earn a spot at the Tour Championship, and Hadwin made his first career Presidents Cup appearance in October. Now the Canadian returns to Palm Springs, eager to improve on last year's result and hoping to earn a spot in the final group for a third straight year after a T-6 finish in 2016.

"A lot of good memories here in the desert," Hadwin told reporters. "I feel very comfortable here, very at home. Lots of Canadians, so it's always fun to play well in front of those crowds and hopefully looking forward to another good week."

Hadwin's 59 last year was somewhat overshadowed, both by the fact that he didn't win the event and that it came just one week after Justin Thomas shot a 59 en route to victory at the Sony Open. But he's still among an exclusive club of just eight players to have broken 60 in competition on Tour and he's eager to get another crack at La Quinta on Saturday.

"If I'm in the same position on 18, I'm gunning for 58 this year," Hadwin said, "not playing safe for 59."

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Rahm: If I thought like Phil, I could not hit a shot

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 10:39 pm

When it comes to Jon Rahm and Phil Mickelson, there are plenty of common bonds. Both starred at Arizona State, both are now repped by the same agency and Rahm's former college coach and agent, Tim Mickelson, now serves full-time as his brother's caddie.

Those commonalities mean the two men have played plenty of practice rounds together, but the roads quickly diverge when it comes to on-course behavior. Rahm is quick, fiery and decisive; Mickelson is one of the most analytical players on Tour. And as Rahm told reporters Wednesday at the CareerBuilder Challenge, those differences won't end anytime soon.

"I don't need much. 'OK, it's like 120 (yards), this shot, right," Rahm said. "And then you have Phil, it's like, 'Oh, this shot, the moisture, this going on, this is like one mile an hour wind sideways, it's going to affect it one yard. This green is soft, this trajectory. They're thinking, and I'm like, 'I'm lost.' I'm like, 'God if I do that thought process, I could not hit a golf shot.'"

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The tactics may be more simplified, but Rahm can't argue with the results. While Mickelson is in the midst of a winless drought that is approaching five years, Rahm won three times around the world last year and will defend a PGA Tour title for the first time next week at Torrey Pines.

Both men are in the field this week in Palm Springs, where Mickelson will make his 2018 debut with what Rahm fully expects to be another dose of high-level analytics for the five-time major winner with his brother on the bag.

"It's funny, he gets to the green and then it's the same thing. He's very detail-oriented," Rahm said of Mickelson. "I'm there listening and I'm like, 'Man, I hope we're never paired together for anything because I can't think like this. I would not be able to play golf like that. But for me to listen to all that is really fun."

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DJ changes tune on golf ball distance debate

By Will GrayJanuary 17, 2018, 9:16 pm

World No. 1 Dustin Johnson is already one of the longest hitters in golf, so he's not looking for any changes to be made to golf ball technology - despite comments from him that hinted at just such a notion two months ago.

Johnson is in the Middle East this week for the Abu Dhabi HSBC Championship, and he told BBC Sport Wednesday that he wouldn't be in favor of making changes to the golf ball in order to remedy some of the eye-popping distances players are hitting the ball with ever-increasing frequency.

"It's not like we are dominating golf courses," Johnson said. "When was the last time you saw someone make the game too easy? I don't really understand what all the debate is about because it doesn't matter how far it goes; it is about getting it in the hole."

Johnson's rhetorical question might be answered simply by looking back at his performance at the Sentry Tournament of Champions earlier this month, an eight-shot romp that featured a tee shot on the 433-yard 12th hole that bounded down a slope to within inches of the hole.

Johnson appeared much more willing to consider a reduced-distance ball option at the Hero World Challenge in November, when he sat next to tournament host Tiger Woods and supported Woods' notion that the ball should be addressed.

"I don't mind seeing every other professional sport, they play with one ball. All the pros play with the same ball," Johnson said. "In baseball, the guys that are bigger and stronger, they can hit a baseball a lot further than the smaller guys. ... I think there should be some kind of an advantage for guys who work on hitting it far and getting that speed that's needed, so having a ball, like the same ball that everyone plays, there's going to be, you're going to have more of an advantage."

Speaking Wednesday in Abu Dhabi, Johnson stood by the notion that regardless of whether the rules change or stay the same, he plans to have a leg up on the competition.

"If the ball is limited then it is going to limit everyone," he said. "I'm still going to hit it that much further than I guess the average Tour player."