Golf’s Greatest Year?

In April, though long retired from the cut and thrust of tournament golf, three old friends reunite as joint honorary starters to commence the proceeding of a southern golf championship. On the face of it, there might seem nothing special about three elderly gentlemen wafting their golf balls from the 1st tee and then strolling back to the clubhouse for a leisurely breakfast. But appearances can be deceptive, and certainly are for this particular occasion. The three gentlemen in question—Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player—collected 13 green jackets between them in the space of 28 years (from 1958-86). And without their historic exploits over the hallowed turf ‘consecrated’ in the early 1930s by the late, great Bobby Jones and his attendant ‘angel,’ Dr. Alister MacKenzie, it is safe to say that the four Major championships would not enjoy today’s exalted status.

After a sequence of curtain-raising tournaments in the sunshine of Hawaii, California, Arizona, Florida and Texas, the Masters provides the fanfare that ensures the golf season grabs the sporting public’s full attention, a process that is very much the legacy of that halcyon era when Messrs. Palmer, Nicklaus and Player were in the ascendancy.

Nowadays, Georgia in early April is on everyone’s mind. TV crews descend upon the former nursery to pay homage to the kaleidoscope of golfing skills and floral colors on display. And they are rewarded with action that is never less than thrilling—how can it be when a treacherous stretch of holes like Amen Corner lies in wait to separate the claims of the pretenders from the contenders?

The excitement is almost routine nowadays, but it’s a routine that was honed half a century ago when the aforementioned triumvirate, teamed together as honorary Masters’ starters for the first time in 2012, were attracting rather more attention for the way they finished tournaments than started them.

Back then, the concept of the modern ‘grand slam’ of Major championships was taking hold. The idea was that the Masters would tee up the four-month program and propel it with gathering momentum through the U.S. Open, [British] Open and PGA Championships.

Perhaps the principal reason why the idea captured the imagination so swiftly, and so permanently, was the way in which these four great championships unfolded in 1962. Each one was a collector’s item and once the dust had settled on the season the four prestigious titles were duly shared between Palmer, Nicklaus and Player.

With the dark cloud of the Cuban Missile Crisis looming throughout the year over the American way of life, people needed an escape from their political fears—and these golfing greats played a far from insignificant part in providing some much-needed relief.

Never slow off the mark, sports agent Mark McCormack rebranded the illustrious trio as the ‘Big Three,’ set them up with a series of made-for-TV matches, and along the way created a golfing dynasty, the likes of which has never really been replicated.

So what was all the fuss about?

To put the 1962 Majors’ season into context, our story should begin with the Masters 12 months earlier, a tournament remembered mainly for Palmer’s double-bogey 6 at the 72nd hole that handed a one-stroke victory to Player. Player led Palmer, the defending champion, by four shots after three rounds but was going in decidedly the wrong direction on the final-day back nine, so much so that by the time they stood on the 18th tee Palmer held a one-stroke lead. However, a momentary distraction, accepting premature congratulations from a well-wishing friend in the gallery, followed by a sand-trap catastrophe beside the 18th green, was all that was required to send Palmer through the trap door and into a tie for second place behind the diminutive South African.

Fast forward a year and Palmer arrived at Augusta still steaming about his costly lapse in concentration, hell-bent on setting the record straight. “Doggedly determined to make up for my embarrassing collapse at 18 the year prior, I played superb golf for three rounds,” Palmer, who had already won twice during the early part of that season, recalls in his autobiography A Golfer’s Life.

Scores of 70, 66 and 69 gave Palmer a four-shot lead over Player (the exact reverse of 1961) going into the final round, but fellow American Dow Finsterwald, with a 54-hole total of 207, was sandwiched between them in second place just two back. A closing 75 from Palmer, 73 from Finsterwald and 71 from Player meant that all three players finished the regulation 72 holes tied on 280, eight under par.

After a modest start to the tournament’s first three-way playoff which saw him trailing at the turn, Palmer reeled off a blistering back nine of 31 for a 68 that sealed his third green jacket, and thus tied Sam Snead and Jimmy Demaret for the then record number of Masters victories. Player finished the playoff on 71 while Finsterwald, clearly flagging, limped in on 77.

Ironically, Demaret had unwittingly played a crucial role in the about-turn of Palmer’s crumbling final-round fortunes during regulation play. After dropping five shots over the first 15 holes, Palmer was trailing both Player and Finsterwald when he heard Demaret, in his capacity as a TV commentator, telling listeners that he faced an “impossible” chip on 16. No doubt fired up by this observation, Palmer duly rolled the ball into the cup for a 2, birdied 17 from 20ft and narrowly missed a putt from a similar distance on the home green to win the title outright.

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At his press conference following his belated triumph, Palmer famously told the assembled reporters that after so many tense, tight finishes he yearned for the day when he could walk up the 18th fairway with a handsome lead and celebrate the moment with the galleries. He finally got his wish in 1964 when he won his fourth and final green jacket by six shots from Nicklaus and Dave Marr.

In 1962, Nicklaus, who was playing in his first Masters as a professional, finished off the pace in a tie for 15th. But the pedigree of the upper echelons of the leader-board was borne out by the fact that all of the Major winners in 1961 finished in the top five—Palmer ([British] Open champion, winner), Player (Masters champion, joint runner-up), Gene Littler (U.S. Open champion, fourth) and Jerry Barber (PGA champion, tied fifth).

Two months later, Palmer found himself in another playoff—this time for the U.S. Open at Oakmont Country Club, a course, on the outskirts of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, that he knew like the back of his hand.

After three rounds, he shared the lead with Bobby Nichols on 212, one stroke ahead of Phil Rodgers and Bob Rosburg, and two clear of Player and Nicklaus, who at that stage had still not won since joining the paid ranks. Rosburg blew up with a 79 in the final round which plummeted him to 13th place. Player also struggled, closing with 74 for a tie for sixth, but Rodgers and Nichols acquitted themselves creditably, turning in 72 and 73 respectively to tie for third.

However, Nicklaus, who had finished second and fourth as an amateur in the two previous U.S. Opens, was made of sterner stuff. His final round of 69 meant that Palmer’s level-par 71, which on most occasions would have been more than enough to secure the title, only earned him a place in an 18-hole playoff with his 22-year-old rival.

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Head Start: Nicklaus won his first US Open title by going 90 holes at Oakmont with only one three-putt green

The atmosphere when the championship entered extra time was electric. Palmer, who missed a 10ft birdie putt on the 72nd green to win outright, enjoyed vociferous partisan support from his local galleries whereas Nicklaus, seen as a brash and unwelcome threat to the King’s crown, was jeered unmercifully.

Not for the last time, though, the ‘Golden Bear’ displayed a fortitude that refused to allow the catcalls to undermine his concentration, and after six holes of the playoff he held a four-stroke lead. Palmer, naturally, rallied with some birdies of his own, but in the end capitulated by three strokes, 71-74.

Admiringly, Palmer noted that the crowd hadn’t fazed Nicklaus one bit. But, as a staunch advocate of fair play under all circumstances, he was bothered by the abuse. Another thing that bothered him—although he never used it as an excuse—was a deep cut on a finger that had required stitches only a few days before the championship.

One difference between himself and Nicklaus that Palmer did rue, publicly, was the number of three-putts they had on Oakmont’s slick, treacherous greens. Whilst Palmer three-stabbed 13 times across 90 holes, Nicklaus only took more than two putts once.

Palmer also uttered a sentence that would resonate, prophetically, down two and a half decades of championship golf: “Now the big guy is out of the cage, everybody better run for cover.”

Nicklaus was the youngest U.S. Open winner since Jones in 1923 and the first, since Jones in 1930, to hold both the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur Championship trophies simultaneously. To say the least, his cover was well and truly blown.

For Palmer, Oakmont began a frustrating streak of four second-place finishes in the U.S. Open inside six years, during which time he lost two further playoffs—in 1963 (to Julius Boros) and 1966 (to Billy Casper).

When Palmer made his [British] Open debut in 1960 at St Andrews, the ‘off message’ Australian Kel Nagle beat him by a stroke. At the 1962 Open at Troon on the west coast of Scotland, it was a case of role-reversal, with Palmer finishing first (his sixth Major win) and Nagle second. This time, though, it wasn’t remotely close. Palmer led Nagle by five going into the final round, and finished with a six-stroke victory. To underline the extent of the King’s superiority that week, Nagle was a further seven shots ahead of the third-placed golfers, Rodgers and combative Welshman Brian Huggett.

It was Palmer’s second straight win in the game’s oldest championship, and his popularity that week with the spectators was such that the R&A were forced to introduce stricter crowd control measures. The roping-off of fairways and the fencing of course boundaries began a year later, at the 1963 Open at Royal Lytham & St Annes, mainly because of the volume of support that Palmer had attracted at Troon.

Palmer’s four rounds at Troon—71-69-67-69 for a total of 276 (the R&A didn’t declare a par for Open courses in those days)—tied Ben Hogan’s then low score in a Major, in the 1948 U.S. Open at Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, California.

Yet despite his margin of victory, Palmer recalls it wasn’t all plain sailing. At the halfway stage, he was frustrated by his putting (echoes of Oakmont?). His wife Winnie then told him she thought he was moving his head when he putted. He worked on the tip overnight and the result was nine one-putts in round three.

Strangely, Palmer never finished higher than seventh in a [British] Open after this, and he won just one more Major—the 1964 Masters. Of the other competitors strutting their stuff that week, 50-year-old Sam Snead, who only played in the championship five times, winning in 1946, tied for sixth with Peter Thomson, while Nicklaus tied for 34th and Player, uncharacteristically, missed the cut.

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Gary Player rebounded from the disappointment of missing the cut in the Open by winning his first PGA Championship a week later at Aronimink

Less than a week later, though, the Black Knight was back on his charger and setting the record straight. In those days, the PGA Championship was the very next event in the schedule after the [British] Open, hardly giving participants time to pause for breath, let alone regroup, but it was long enough for Player to sort out whatever had gone wrong at Troon.

The 1962 PGA Championship—Pennsylvania’s second Major of the year—was held at Aronimink Golf Club, Donald Ross’s masterpiece in Newtown Square near Philadelphia that even in those days measured well in excess of 7,000 yards. And it proved a fitting stage for Player’s third Major victory, and the sixth win of his PGA Tour career.

Trailing by one to Doug Ford at the halfway stage, Player edged ahead with a third-round 69 and went on to hold off fast-finishing Bob Goalby by a single shot with a closing 70 for a 72-hole total of 278, two under par. George Bayer, who trailed Player by two after 54 holes, tied for third on 281 with Nicklaus who surged through the field with a final round of 67, while Palmer, who won a total of nine times in 1962, was never really a factor, tying ultimately for 17th on 288.

Over fifty years later, Palmer, Player and Nicklaus are the living evidence of the symbolic heritage that the four Major championships embody. It is a heritage that stretches back beyond Hogan, Snead and Jones to the very origins of the game, a heritage that safeguards for generations to come the principles and conventions held sacrosanct by all who love the game.

The Big Three’s Finishes in the 1962 Majors

Golfer Masters US Open The Open PGA Championship
Arnold Palmer 1st* 2nd 1st Tied 17th
Jack Nicklaus Tied 15th 1st* Tied 34th Tied 3rd
Gary Player 2nd* Tied 6th Missed Cut 1st
Arnold PalmerGary PlayerJack Nicklaus
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