Casper and the 1966 U.S. Open

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Billy Casper and Arnold Palmer after the 1966 U.S. Open (AP)

Billy Casper never thought he had a chance. No one did. No one thought anyone other than Arnold Palmer was going to win the 1966 U.S. Open.

All Casper wanted to do was hold off Jack Nicklaus for second place. Standing on the 10th tee during the final round at Olympic Club in San Francisco, Calif., he confessed as much to Palmer.

“And Arnold Palmer being an extremely nice guy says, ‘Billy, don’t worry about it. I’ll do anything I can to help you. Hang in there and make some birdies and you’ll be fine,’” said Ian O’Connor, author of “Arnie and Jack: Palmer, Nicklaus, and Golf’s Greatest Rivalry.”

When a man leads the national championship by seven strokes with nine holes to play, and that man is a seven-time major winner, and that man is Arnold Palmer, that man is not concerned with anyone else in the field. That man is focused on history.

And history said Ben Hogan held the 72-hole U.S. Open scoring record at 276, set in 1948 at Riviera.

That’s what Palmer wanted. He and Hogan had history. Ever since …

But, this isn’t about Palmer.

Casper shared the 36-hole lead at Olympic, but fell three back after shooting 73 to Palmer’s 70 in the third round. Palmer shot 32 to Casper’s 36 over the first nine in the final round and, voilà: seven-stroke cushion.

All Palmer had to do was shoot 1-over 36 on the back nine and the Open record was his.

But …


Billy Casper reacts to a birdie at No. 11 during the 1966 U.S. Open playoff. (AP)


Palmer started making bogeys and when Casper birdied the 15th and Palmer dropped another shot, the difference was three with three to play.

“All of a sudden, Casper says to himself, ‘I’ve got a chance to win this tournament,’ and he stops talking to Arnold,” O’Connor said. “Arnold gets mad at that because, ‘Hey, you’re my buddy. I encouraged you earlier and all of a sudden you’re trying to take this away from me?’”

There was another birdie-bogey exchange at 16 and Palmer made bogey again at 17. Seven shots, gone in eight holes. Palmer had to get up and down on the 18th, and have Casper miss his birdie putt, just to make an 18-hole playoff.

Monday was a similar scenario. Palmer led by two at the turn but fell apart on the back nine, shooting 40. Casper won by four shots to claim his second of three career major victories. Walking off the final hole of competition, Casper put his arm around Palmer … and apologized.

“I said, ‘Arnold, I’m sorry.’ And I truly was sorry, because he had played such great golf,” Casper said recently. “He should have and potentially could have won the championship, but the back nine was his nemesis.”

People will forever remember the 1966 U.S. Open for Palmer’s defeat. But Casper, ever in the shadows, played his part and earned his victory. He shot 69 that day and had shot 32, to Palmer’s 39, on Sunday’s back nine.

“It was such an important thing in my life, because I had the good fortune to win the Open in ’59. I had learned course management from watching Hogan when I was a teenager and it resulted in me winning,” Casper said. “As I won the Open I wanted to win it again, and then to be locked up in such an experience with Palmer there at Olympic Club – it was fascinating, because everybody was in Arnie’s Army and as I started catching up, many of them became Casper Converts.”