112th U.S. Open Day 1 Recap
By Steve Buchanan
One of U of A’s favorite golf sons is off to a red hot start at this year’s Open. Jim Furyk, who already has one U.S. Open title to his name, has put himself into position to win a second with a first round score of even par. Furyk, who is currently tied for seventh place with seven other golfers, is just four strokes off the pace, set up 26-year old Michael Thompson. Furk, at the tender age of 43, looks like one of the young guns out there, and thus far has had no trouble in keeping up with the game’s biggest hitters by turning in a U.S. Open-like first round that featured one birdie against a single bogey.
The big story of the day, of course, was the 1-under par round of Tiger Woods. The last time Woods broke par in the 60’s on Day 1 of the Open, he won the thing in 2008. Despite Thompson besting Woods by three strokes Thursday, there’s not a person in their right mind – besides maybe Thompson and his family – who think the 26-year old has any chance of fending off Woods for the next three days.
Woods’ featured threesome (no pun intended) that included Phil Mickelson and Bubba Watson turned out to be a solo act as Mickelson carded a 76 while Watson was a non-factor, shooting 78 and now has himself chasing the cut line heading into Friday’s second round.
While there’s plenty of golf action to come this weekend, here’s a truly remarkable U.S. Open story from 1966 when Arnold Palmer and Billy Casper turned in a memorable battle on the famed Olympic Club layout.
1966 – Golf’s Golden Age – Palmer vs. Billy Casper
It may be hard for those born prior to 1960 to recognize the impact that Arnold Palmer has had on the game of golf.
Take any of today’s stars at their peak, combine their charismatic efforts, and in all of their charm, none of them hold a candle to Palmer. In the 60’s, Arnold Palmer was GOLF. Palmer was the people’s champion – the first player of the television age who truly connected individually with each fan, and it was his persona that created the modern PGA tour and everything that has made the success of professional golf in the modern era. It is no coincidence that the very emblem of the PGA, and the swing it portrays is that of Palmer.
Golf Channel's Win McMurray could rival peer Holly Sonders for "Official Friday Fizz Girl" status. You can see McCurray on GC's Golf Talk.
Who were these pros of the 1960’s? They were a collection of incredibly talented athletes playing with equipment of inconsistent quality – persimmon woods that once found to fit a player’s swing, were guarded and protected as family members because their “feel” could never be duplicated if damaged or lost.
On a personal note, while working for “Golfsmith” in the 1970’s, our company hired a custom club maker who made 10 Drivers for Lee Trevino so that he might find one that had the right combination for his swing. Mind you, all of them to the eye were identical. Only one made the final cut. These were the days of balata balls that would cut wide open, exposing strands of rubber band windings if struck slightly off center. Today our equipment is so much better. I’ve told beginners that it is almost impossible to buy a set of clubs made today that are horrible, and honestly, even for pros of the 40’s, 50’s and 60’s, finding an entire set of clubs that all felt the same was hit or miss. Yet their skill level was unbelievable they were always able to overcome the tools they were provided. I played a golf round as a teenager in Florida with Chick Harbert, the 1954 PGA Champion, who was far removed from his prime, when he was in his early fifties. On the first hole, Harbert hit his shot into a fairway bunker, but calmly strode up to his ball, nipped it out of the sand, and and from 170 yards hit it to three feet. I remember thinking, “this guy is good.” I was wrong, These guys were great!
Arnold Palmer arrived at Olympic’s Lake course for the 1966 Open in his prime and at the top of his game. He had won 34 times in the 60’s, including six major championships. In his day, Palmer didn’t swing at the ball – he walloped it. He slashed, ripped, and violently subdued those poor balata balls, and the golf courses on the PGA tour into submission. Palmer was known as the longest, straightest driver of his day. Nicklaus would come along in the early 60’s, with his high, long fade, and Palmer was the counterpoint, with his lower trajectory drives that bore through the air, piercing, fighting the wind – defying the wind if any dared to stir while he played. Palmer took a vicious swipe at the ball, holding on with his left hand with all his strength after impact to keep the ball from duck hooking. The fans loved Palmer. Why did Palmer strike such a resonant chord with the average fan? Probably because as a risk taker, a go for broke gambler, trying to pull off the unexpected; Palmer Was America, the embodiment of everything that was good, noble and right about the U.S.A.
The major story line of 1966 was that Palmer had subdued the USGA set up, typically the most difficult test of the year. Going into the back nine on Sunday, Father’s Day, 1966, the famed Olympic Course, perhaps the toughest test of golf in the country, had been brought to its knees by arguably the most popular athlete of the era.
Heading into the turn, Palmer was a cinch – he had a seven stroke lead – insurmountable by everyone’s standards. So assured was the Palmer win that his playing partner that day, pudgy Billy Casper, confided in Palmer; “I’d really like to place second today.” Graciously, Palmer replied; “I’ll do what I can to help you do that.”
Casper was no slouch, in fact, he was a great tactician of the game, and had won the U.S. Open before. He finished his career with three majors, two U.S. Opens and a Masters championship. But he was the tortoise to Palmer’s hare. He was strategic, tactical, and an uncanny putter, perhaps the best in the game those days.
Casper had some other interesting aspects of his personal life. In 1966, Casper had discovered that he had a number of food allergies that when diagnosed resulted in his adopting some very exotic, for the day, types of food such as Buffalo, which hadn’t been part of the American diet, since, oh, the 1880s. You have to realize that in the 1960’s, Americans didn’t eat much besides beef, potatoes, the occasional salad, Kentucky Fried Chicken, ice cream and martinis. Definitely, don’t forget the Martinis and Whiskey Sours.
After finishing the third round, and three strokes behind leader Palmer, Casper honored a commitment that he had made weeks earlier to speak to a Mormon church just north of San Francisco. He drove to the church, spoke to the gathering of the faithful, answered all their questions, and finally drove back to San Francisco at 11 p.m., getting to bed just past midnight for what would become the defining round of his career.
Palmer strode confidently through the first nine on Sunday, shooting 32 and lengthening his lead to 7 over Casper.
The front nine was the epitome of everything classic about the Palmer era, and all that the King brought to the game – a swashbuckling, hitch up the pants, knock the hell out of the ball, go find it and make another birdie type of round. America watched on national TV, and accustomed to Arnie’s take no prisoner approach, awaited the fait accompli – another Palmer victory.
But on the back nine Casper caught fire, shooting his own 32, while Palmer faltered to an in 39. Palmer squandered the seven stroke lead, and allowed Casper to catch him.
Unfortunately, for Casper, the ‘66 Open was always looked upon by the world of Golf as the Open that he backed into and that Palmer lost. That stigma stayed with him until many years later when his entire body of work was evaluated, and appreciated. Of the 15 sub 70 rounds shot on Olympic in 1966, Casper shot four of them, including his 69 in the playoff that ultimately knocked “The King” out. However Casper’s improbably win is defined, it was the second time in a row at Olympic Club that an unusual outcome occurred. As history would prove, it wouldn’t be Olympic’s last rollercoaster finish.
Up Next: A synopsis of the 87 and 98 Opens and projected winners for 2012.
Steve Buchanan is a regular contributor to Wildcat Sports Report.