From the Golf Journal Archives - Age Will Win Out

Jul 29, 2011

The U.S. Senior Open Championship at Oakland Hills had everything – including
nostalgia and renascence for the elders.


By George Eberl

(Note: This article originally appeared in the September 1981 issue of Golf Journal.)

IN THE DOG DAYS of the summer of 1954, Arnold Palmer, then a 24-year-old Pennsylvanian playing out of Pine Ridge, Ohio, won the U.S. Amateur Championship at the Country Club of Detroit, in Grosse Pointe Farms, Mich. It had not been easy; he was taken 39 holes by Edward L. Meister, Jr., in the semifinal round, and he was extended to 36 holes by Robert Sweeny, in the final match, winning, 1 up.

This was an early display of Palmer’s tenacity and fortitude in the Midwestern heat of late August. Who then could have foreseen that Palmer would one day expand the public’s interest in golf and raise its popularity to new levels, as Francis Ouimet and Bob Jones had done, and as Ben Hogan and Sam Snead had done.

Nor, at that time, would any prophet have predicted that the young man from Latrobe, a rural community of 12,000 in southwestern Pennsylvania, would stride up the 18th fairway of the Oakland Hills Country Club, in Birmingham, Mich., 27 years later, in 1981 – and a mere 19 miles from Grosse Pointe Farms – as the United States Senior Open champion.

However long the time and short the distance since that 1954 hint of things to come, none of the man’s appeal has diminished; his continuing power to charm a gallery was a palpable thing as he marched to the 18th green at Oakland Hills, raising his hand almost shyly in response to the enthusiastic welcome of the crowd.

Arnie had done it; there was Life After the PGA Tour, the very Tour that Palmer had been instrumental in lifting to broad public acceptance in the 1960s.

If he had been a central figure in broadening the base of the game’s constituency, 20 years ago, Palmer is now seen as the player whose remarkable mystique has sufficient power to thrust the fledgling Senior Tour into the larger headlines of the nation’s sports pages. And, in the end, his extra-round playoff victory over Bill Casper, a rival from the Tour days, and Bob Stone, a stolid club professional, did nothing to harm the cause. Indeed, his performance was vintage Arnie; he trailed Stone by six strokes after six holes of the playoff and finished four strokes ahead of him. Palmer matched par 70, Stone had 74, and Casper 77.

Scores were deceptive, however; after 14 holes, Palmer and Stone were tied at one over par, one stroke ahead of Casper. In the final analysis, Palmer coped with the five difficult closing holes at Oakland Hills; Stone and Casper did not. Palmer played them one under par while Stone lost four strokes to par and Casper five – including four fatal, excess strokes at 16 when he splashed two balls into the otherwise beautiful lake in front of the green.

Yet, there was much more to the Senior Open – on and off the course – than those five fateful holes on that afternoon in mid-July.

THIS MAY BE thought of as the Year of the Reprieve for many of the professional players who have reached 50. Indeed, those who followed the game in the 1950s and 1960s could not be blamed if they felt they were reliving their past when they glanced at leader boards. So many names were so familiar: Palmer… Casper… Sam Snead… Lionel Hebert… Gene Littler… Miller Barber… Bob Goalby… Art Wall… Doug Ford… Gardner Dickinson… George Bayer… Mike Souchak… Dan Sikes…

When the minimum age for the Senior Open was lowered from 55, as it was in 1980, to 50, the field was conspicuously enriched. Casper, for example, was the youngest player at Oakland Hills; he became 50 on June 24, five days before the cutoff date for eligibility. Ten of the top 12 finishers were in the 50 to 54 age bracket. Only Art Wall, 57, in fourth place, with 290, and Mike Fetchick, 58, in a tie for eighth at 296, broke up the domination by the younger set.

Now in its second year, the Senior PGA Tour of five events, augmented by eight other tournaments, among them the U.S. Senior Open, has been lucrative for many players who might otherwise have allowed their games to deteriorate. Before the Senior Open, Littler led the money-winners among the seniors with $108,350. His fifth-place finish, at 292, added $6,136 to his winnings. Palmer’s victory brought him $26,000 and moved him into fourth place, behind Littler, Goalby ($90,536), and Don January ($88,075). Palmer now has won $58,500.

The money may be nice, but it wasn’t the major item of conversation among the players. Sam Snead, still a remarkable striker of the ball at the age of 69, had a characteristically strong comment: “The seniors are good for the game. You check out the galleries – I’ll bet most of those people out there are over 45.”

Indeed, variations on Snead’s view were heard often in the galleries, along with the assessment that whatever the reasons, whether because of pressure, indifference, or merely youth, today’s younger players have a kind of sameness; they play with machine-like precision, but they lack the vital warmth that reaches out and touches the galleries.

This, of course, has never been Palmer’s problem, and his presence clearly gave support to Goalby’s remark about the Senior PGA Tour:

“We’ve got the best in our age bracket, and while this may not carry as much prestige as the Tour, the Senior Tour – and this tournament – could get much bigger.”


DAY I

WITH THE CONTINUING baseball strike creating large voids in sports reporting, a minor-grade controversy that developed over whether Oakland Hills was too difficult for senior players received extensive coverage in the Detroit newspapers. Snead, one of the older entrants (the distinction of oldest belonged to Henry Ransom, 70), and Doug Ford grumped that the course had been made too tough, and argued further that carts should be permitted.

Some players shared their opinions, while others, including Palmer, disagreed. A majority of those interviewed planted themselves in the middle ground. Lionel Hebert remarked, “Make it as tough as you want; I’ll just have 20 guys to beat.” Goalby allowed that “we get a little embarrassed (by high scores). We have our pride.” But he also pointed out after the second round that his score of 142, two over par, was the same as it had been at the midway point of the 1961 U.S. Open, at Oakland Hills. Goalby and Doug Sanders tied for second that year, one stroke behind Gene Littler, whose one-over-par 281 won.

By early afternoon of opening day, the controversy was forgotten and three players were home with 71s – Jim Ferree, Wall and Goalby. When Snead finished with 72, a round that included an eagle on the sixth hole, a par 4, with “a soft 7-iron” that dropped into the hole on one bounce, he revived the discussion of course difficulty briefly. He was upstaged by Hebert, however, who shot 70, Hebert’s view was philosophical:

“I can go out tomorrow and have a bad day and still be in the hunt. Or, I can have another good round and be way ahead of the hunt.”


DAY II

HERBERT’S RELAXED opinion had merit, yet, as it turned out, he would have a forgettable second round of 77 and quietly drift out of contention by Sunday, ending in a tie for eighth place, with Mike Fetchick, Mike Souchak and Stan Thirsk, at 296.

The second day was Goalby’s. Playing what he described as “careful golf,” he delivered another 71 for a 142, one stroke ahead of Wall and George Bayer. Bayer put together an impressive 70 to go with his opening 73. Also grouped at 143 with Wall and Bayer was Bob Stone, whose second-round 71 after a 72 on opening day sent the press searching through record books. They learned he had played on the PGA Tour from 1968 through 1972.

Stone is a man of few words. “Are you surprised to be in contention?” he was asked. “I’m surprised,” he replied. “How surprised?” he was asked. “Pretty surprised,” he said. He added, however, that “I always expect to win.” His consistency was conspicuous, his scores ranging from 71 to 74, including the fifth day’s playoff round.

Meanwhile, Palmer stumbled to a 76 after his first-round 72 to trail Goalby by six strokes. Yet, after his second round, Palmer was still enthusiastic about his striking. His putting was a source of distress, but he was convinced it would come around.


DAY III

PALMER WAS absolutely correct – and it did not take him long to assert himself in the third round with birdies on the second and third holes. Playing before a Saturday crowd, his already substantial following grew so that it seemed joining Palmer’s gallery was like filing out of the stadium after a Super Bowl. He lost a stroke to par on the fifth hole, but he reached the turn at one under par. A birdie on the 10th hole simply improved an already favorable situation. He lost another stroke at the 15th, but he birdied the 17th to go two under par once again.

The 18th hole had been the most vicious test for the field to that point. A 445-yard par 4, it played to a stroke average of 4.81. Palmer, however, was unperturbed; after a drive to the center of the fairway, he hesitated (he explained later that he wasn’t sure which club to use) before stroking a 5-iron to the right side of the green, 15 feet from the hole. He narrowly missed his putt and settled for par, giving him 68 (which silenced the voices of doom who claimed that par would not be broken). It also created a logjam at 216, involving Palmer, Casper and Wall, with Stone just one stroke behind, at 217. Moreover, those with long memories recalled when Palmer and Casper played together in the final round of the 1966 U.S. Open, at the Olympic Club, in San Francisco. In that classic confrontation, Casper made up seven strokes in the final nine holes to tie Palmer. The next day, Casper won the playoff.

Casper and Palmer were again paired, and given the warm, pleasant weather, it seemed a recreation of days past.


DAY IV

THE DRAMATIC POTENTIAL was fulfilled. Indeed, Wall re-entered the fray, and at the time when Wall and Stone had finished the 14th hole and Casper and Palmer the 13th, all four players were tied at seven over par. What happened next would have made the Perils of Pauline seem tame.

Wall lost a stroke to par on each of the final three holes; Stone three-putted the 17th and the 18th holes, leaving him in the helpless position of waiting to see what Casper and Palmer would do. Meanwhile, Casper appeared to have fallen out of the chase when he bogeyed the 14th and 15th holes. He then parred the 16th and 17th, and hope flickered. When Palmer overshot the green at 16 and missed his putt for a par, his lead dwindled to a single stroke, and he held onto that slim lead when both men parred the 17th.

On the 18th, Casper and Palmer hit fine tee shots. Palmer, however, pulled his approach, leaving himself a delicate pitch to the green, while Casper’s second shot came to rest on the short fringe, about 25 feet above the hole, on the back edge of the green. Palmer pitched to within 10 feet of the hole, on the uphill side, and Casper putted down the slope to within two feet of the hole. Palmer missed, and after both men holed nervous little putts, the stage was set for a fifth day.


DAY V

WHETHER IT WAS the continuing warm, beautiful weather or the prospect of enjoying another day away from his club’s golf shop, Bob Stone played like a man totally enchanted by his situation. He wedged his third shot at the par-5 second hole to within eight feet, and made the putt for a birdie. On the fifth hole, a par 4, he all but demoralized his opponents when he stroked a 7-iron into the hole for an eagle from 170 yards out. Even nature was in his camp; the shot nipped a tree just before the green. He was now three under par. When Palmer three-putted the sixth, he trailed Stone by six strokes. Casper, who had bogeyed the fourth hole and had parred the first three holes solely on the strength of one-putts, was four strokes behind Stone.

Palmer said later that things were bleak at that moment. He insisted, however, that he wanted only to master the course and get back to par; he was convinced no one would beat par.

Master it he did. From the seventh hole onward it was all Palmer. Over the final 12 holes he had only 3s and 4s, including four birdies and one bogey (he three-putted the par-3 13th from 30 feet). Meanwhile, Stone demonstrated that he was merely mortal, losing strokes to par on the seventh and ninth holes. Palmer birdied the eighth and ninth, thus reducing Stone’s lead from six strokes to two. Casper, typically, played steady golf with eight pars and that lone bogey, but he was struggling, and he had few realistic chances for birdies. His situation did not improve on the final nine holes; although he trailed Stone and Palmer by a single stroke after 14 holes, he was done in finally by an 8 on the 16th hole. At that, he was happy; although the playoff had kept him from his golf school in San Diego, he admitted he had played his best golf in years. In fact, Casper had been shooting in the 80s within the past year or so.

Clearly, the playoff had turned into match-play competition between Stone and Palmer. At the 12th hole, Palmer’s 10-foot putt for a birdie brought him even with Stone, who bogeyed. Stone’s par at the 13th, a par 3, temporarily restored his lead when Palmer three-putted, but Palmer drew even again at 14 when he parred the hole while Stone dropped a stroke after tussling with the rough.

Palmer won the playoff at the 15th. He stroked what he later described as a poor drive, bounced a low 3-iron shot over the right side of a greenside bunker, and sank a 40-foot putt over a rise for a birdie. He then parred his way home while Stone was stricken by three successive bogeys. Casper, after twice disturbing the ducks with errant shots into the lake at the 16th on the way to his 8, parred the final two holes.

If an aura of nostalgia had gripped the galleries at Oakland Hills during the week of the Senior Open, it was never more apparent than during the seconds when Palmer approached the final green to the swelling sound of applause.

His smile was that of a satisfied man, and the small acknowledging wave of his hand said it all: it had been a while.

Arnold Palmer, who has spoken often of the curse of putting yips, suffered occasionally during the U.S. Senior Open at Oakland Hills Country Club, but he brought his game together – including putting – when it counted. (USGA Museum)


Those with long memories recalled when Arnold Palmer and Billy Casper (above) played together in the final round of the 1966 U.S. Open, at the Olympic Club, in San Francisco. In that classic confrontation, Casper made up seven strokes in the final nine holes to tie Palmer. The next day, Casper won the playoff. (USGA Museum)


None of the man’s appeal has diminished; his continuing power to charm a gallery was a palpable thing as he marched to the 18th green at Oakland Hills. (USGA Museum)