From the Golf Journal Archives - Dual Remembrances of a Duel Past

May 11, 2012

Arnold Palmer, the seemingly uncatchable leader in the 1966 U.S. Open, was overtaken by Billy Casper, and 21 years later, they recall that memorable day.

By Arnold Palmer and Billy Casper

(Note: This article originally appeared in the May/June 1987 issue of Golf Journal.)

Arnold Palmer

THIS YEAR had to come; the Open Championship back at the Olympic Club. I had pretty much forgotten about 1966, and I really don’t care about remembering it now, but I suppose it was inevitable that with the Open there again for the first time since 1966, the old questions would come up, leading to the main one – what happened on those last nine holes?

I don’t remember many of the details about the first three rounds, except that I really felt I was playing well.

(Al Mengert led the first round with 67, Bill Casper opened with 69, and Palmer shot 71. After 36 holes, Palmer and Casper were tied, at 137, though Rives McBee stole the attention the second day by shooting 64 and tying the Open record. He had 140 for 36 holes. Arnold then moved three strokes ahead of Casper by shooting 70 on Saturday. With 18 holes to play, Arnold had 207 and Billy 210. Palmer then shot 32 on the first nine Sunday while Casper shot 36.)

By the turn Sunday, I had built my lead to seven strokes over Casper. I was very intent on what I was doing. My main thought was winning the tournament, although I did have in mind the possibility of breaking Ben Hogan’s 72-hole record (Hogan had shot 276 in the 1948 Open). That had been brought up before I started, but I didn’t think that much about the record, and I certainly never thought of losing the tournament. I didn’t think it was humanly possible, but as I found out later, it was.

Everything was positive when I holed a long putt at the ninth for 32 to go ahead by seven. Bill and I had hit our tee shots at 10 and were walking down the fairway when he came over to me and said, as I remember it, “If I don’t play better, Nicklaus will beat me for second.” It was rather casual, no panic or anything in his voice. We were just sort of making conversation, and I said to him, “Don’t worry. If I can help you, I will.” I didn’t mean that in any dishonest sort of way, you understand. Just sort of moral support. Well, I did help him. I helped him win the tournament.

THINGS BEGAN to turn around slowly. I hooked my approach to the 10th and lost a stroke to Bill. I lost another on the 13th. I still led by five, but at some point in there, I began to think that there was a chance of losing. Still, I didn’t get defensive. I just kept going strong all the way. In fact, if I had played a little defensively, I might have won, but I have never looked back at a tournament and said I should have changed the way I played. I’ve made some of my best shots in similar situations, and I’ve won. Thank God that happened more often than it did the other way.

Some days you just feel like, hey, I’ve got it and I can handle it, and some days you can’t. I don’t think I would have done things any differently on those last holes at Olympic. Really, I felt that there was only one thing that could have changed my situation, and that was to make a couple of putts. When you think about it, I really only had to make just one.

The big swing came at the 15th and 16th. Bill picked up four strokes on those two holes. The 15th is a par 3 of about 150 yards. Casper hit it on the green, but about 35 feet from the hole. That’s where I probably made the mistake that really got me. I went for the pin. Maybe I should have gone for the fat of the green. Anyway, the shot missed by inches and fell into the bunker in front. I came out long, Casper holed his putt for a birdie, and I missed my par. Two shots gone.

Now the 16th, I guess if there have been questions about my strategy on those last holes, they were about the 16th, a long par 5 that doglegs left. Some said I should have hit a 3-wood off the tee. I could have hit a 3-wood straight away and not got into trouble, but if I hit a good driver straight away, I could go through the bend in the fairway and into the right rough. I felt the 3-wood was for someone else, not for me. I hit the driver and duck-hooked it into the heavy rough. Then I tried to hit a 3-iron and left it in the rough. I hit a shorter iron out, and still couldn’t get home. My 3-wood wound up in the bunker in front of the green.

Now I was lying 4 in the bunker, and Casper was on the green in 3. My memory plays tricks here, I can visualize him putting from the fringe just a few inches off the green about 30 feet from the hole, but I guess he was only about 15 feet from the hole. What’s the difference? He holed the putt for the birdie, I had to make a pretty good bunker shot and a 4-footer for the 6, and I lost two more strokes.

FROM THE 10th through the 16th I had lost six strokes, and now I was only one stroke ahead. Then I left my approach to the 17th short of the green, pitched to about 6 feet and left it short. Casper made his par and we were even going to the 18th. I had lost five strokes over the last three holes.

We both hit the 18th green, but I had had to play my approach from the rough. I put it about 25 feet above the hole. (“A fantastic shot,” Casper said later.)

I left my first putt about 6 feet short and to the right. We had the continuous-putting rule then (in stroke play, the player who putted first had to continue until he holed out), and I had to go for it. At the time it was probably the biggest putt I ever had in my life. I saw it had a left-to-right break. I gave it a firm stroke – and I made it. Now Casper had to be careful with his first putt. He lagged it within a foot, and tapped in for the tie. He had played the second nine in 32, the same score I had shot on the first nine.

Twice in the Open I have come to the last hole and needed a putt like that to tie. The other time was at The Country Club, in 1963. Julius Boros and Jacky Cupit were already in with 293, and I made a 10-footer to catch them. Excuses, excuses, don’t give me excuses; I don’t want to hear them. But I really was sick that night in Boston, and I didn’t sleep at all. (Boros won the playoff, shooting 70 to Cupit’s 73 and Palmer’s 76.)

OLYMPIC? I really don’t remember much about the playoff. To be perfectly honest about it, I can’t even relate to the playoff. 1 had to ask what I shot when the subject came up years later. I was surprised when I was told that I led early in the round. Somebody described it as a dream, but I guess I would have to agree with others who called it a nightmare.

(Palmer led by two strokes at the turn, but Casper caught him at the 11th by holing a 25-foot birdie putt as Arnold was taking three from the edge. Casper holed from 30 feet to go in front for the first time at the I3th} and his lead grew to three strokes when Palmer bogeyed the next two holes. The 16th again was Palmer’s ruin. He took a 7 to Casper’s 6, and it was over. Casper finished with 69, Palmer with 73.)

One of the things I do remember about Olympic was how I disappointed my friend Ed Douglas. He was a vice president of Pennzoil, and we had become very close friends when he had been my host during the 1955 Open. He wanted me to win more than anything in the world, probably as much as I did. I wanted so much to win to please him, but it wasn’t to be.

Sometimes I draw some consolation for the big ones that got away from me when I realize that no one is infallible. I’m thinking now about the Open and the other important tournaments that you really prime yourself for. They say that Hogan had ice water in his veins, but he lost the Open as I did at Olympic – to Jack Fleck – and the next year he finished second to Cary Middlecoff, at Rochester. There hasn’t been a player who ever lived who didn’t lose big ones, whether it was Jones or Hagen or Jack Nicklaus. How about Sam Snead? One of the greatest players who ever walked, and he never won an Open championship.

I HAVE FOND memories of Olympic. The people have always been very gracious and nice to me. And the course? When I’ve had to pick the top courses in America, I’ve always picked Olympic among them.

I have absolutely no ill feelings about anything that happened there. It was quite a different situation from that Masters that I let get away in 1961. That was a bad, bad deal . . . just stupid, irresponsible golf. I made a mistake there that I have never let happen again.

In the last round I was walking up the 18th fairway leading by one stroke and had my tee shot in the middle of the fairway, right where I wanted it. A friend of mine called me over to the ropes. He said, “Congratulations,” and shook hands with me. I said thank you, and I made 6 and lost the Masters.

I was very upset after that one, but Olympic was different. The consequences were not bad at all, sort of the reverse of what you would expect. People seemed to understand. They were fantastic. The receptions I got were so big and so warm. It got to the point at times that I was joking about losing the Open in speeches and interviews and the like.

(During the 1984 Senior Open, at Oak Hill Country Club, in Rochester, Palmer was asked if he had ever seen such a radical change as the eight-stroke swing between himself and Bob Goalby during the second round. Arnold replied. “I’ve seen everything you can imagine on the course. I’ve even seen a man lose a seven-stroke lead in nine holes.”)

So, people have been very understanding about that 1966 Open. But I still would much rather have won. You can be sure of that.

Billy Casper

(Billy Casper was tied for the lead of the 1966 United States Open with Arnold Palmer after two rounds, but when Casper shot 73 in the third round at The Olympic Club, in San Francisco, he fell three strokes behind Palmer, who would be his playing companion during a memorable fourth round under a vividly blue June sky. With nine holes remaining, it seemed that it was all over but the awards ceremony. At the turn, Palmer held a seemingly insurmountable lead of seven strokes.)

When I think back on it now, I have to wonder at how much has been made of nine holes of golf. We’re always out there to play our best, and I’ll settle for 32 any time over a nine-hole stretch. But don’t forget – Arnie had 32 on the first nine. When you look at it that way, I can just be happy that I played the first nine in 36, just one over par. Don’t misunderstand; it was wonderful to win, and I was pleased as a professional to play as well as I did, but I am surprised by all that has been written over the years about that finish.

At the time, when I was seven strokes behind Palmer and we were walking down the 10th fairway, I was worried about hanging on to second place. Jack Nicklaus was just ahead of us, and you always worry about Jack, who was only one stroke behind me when the day began. You never take that man for granted.

(Billy Casper and his wife, Shirley, are active in the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints, and his faith played a role on that Sunday 21 years ago.)

In the excitement at the end of the tournament, much is a blur. But I’ve read several times what I had said, and it is true: “My faith sustained me and kept me going even when I was seven strokes behind Arnie with nine holes to go at Olympic. I kept praying, and I knew that others were doing the same. I was playing for second place, if nothing else. Then, when Arnie slipped, I was fortunately able to enter the door he opened, and we tied. It was somewhat the same way in the playoff.” (Golf Journal, July, 1966)

(The dramatic turn-around was slow to develop. Palmer did lose a stroke on the 10th hole to reduce his lead to six strokes, but both players matched par with 4s at the 11th, and they then matched birdie 3s at the 390-yard par-412th hole. Thus, Palmer led by six strokes with six holes to play.)

Keep in mind that I was one over par for the day through the 10th. As it turned out, I would still be one over after 11 holes for the round and the Open. Mine was hardly an impressive charge.

Things began to turn around at the 13th hole – funny, isn’t it? That’s supposed to be an unlucky number; I don’t put much stock in such things, though – and in looking back, I guess I owe most of it to my putter.

When Casper won the 1959 Open, at the Winged Foot Golf Club, in Mamaroneck, N.Y., he used 114 putts in 72 holes, three-putting only once and theoretically putting at 30 under par, based on two putts per hole. At Olympic, he used 117 putts and did not three-putt once during the four championship rounds.)

Picking up a stroke on Arnie at the 13th, a par-3, where he had a bogey while I was making par, wasn’t cause for dancing in the streets of my hometown (San Diego). Things looked no brighter when each of us parred the 436-yard 14th hole, I was down by 5, with four to play.

It took a while for the events of the next half-hour or so to sink in. I was praying and concentrating, certainly not expecting any great collapse by Arnie, or miracles on my side. What did happen wasn’t sudden; it was gradual, a hole-by-hole thing. At the little par-3 15th, I left my tee shot about 35 feet away, but Arnie’s tee shot popped into a forward bunker. When he came out long and I rolled my pull in, I realized in a vague way that two of the five strokes were gone.

The 16th hole, which is more than 600 yards, had not given me too many problems earlier. I think I bogeyed it on the first day, but birdied it in the second round. The crowd had grown considerably. I guess word had spread, and with most of the field finished, people were joining Arnie’s Army. To tell you the truth, I was so intent on what I was doing, that I was only half aware of the mob scene. My first two shots were safe, but Arnie used a driver off the tee and wound up in the heavy rough around the corner to the left side. When he didn’t get out of trouble on his first try, I began to wonder – could it be? He finally came out with a more lofted club, then hit his fourth shot into a front bunker. I put my third shot on the green, below the hole. He escaped the sand quite well, but once again, my putter did its job and I had 4. Arnie made his putt for bogey, and now I was one stroke behind.

An hour earlier I would not have predicted any such thing. Just think – I was worried on the 10th hole about holding second place. I managed to finish par-par, and that little par-4 18th had given me fits earlier. I had bogeyed it in each of the first two rounds. Meanwhile, Arnie gave up the critical stroke on the 17th hole to send us into the 18th all even.

It is hard to describe your inner feelings at such a time. In a way, it is just that – something you feel. You may set your mind apart and know what is happening, and think about it, but it is the inner feeling that pushes you on.

Everyone knows, of course, what happened. We each parred the 18th, forcing a playoff. The next day seemed something of a copy of that fourth round. Arnie won the front nine (33 to 35), and I won the final nine (34 to 40), and the Open.

As I said earlier, much has been written and talked about since that Open, especially the fourth round, but I’d like to point out something. Some have said that Palmer lost that Open; I think they forget that he shot 71 on that round, one over par on an excellent golf course under typically tough Open conditions. It was a performance for which no one ever need apologize.

For my part, I still have a slight sense of disbelief whenever I happen to see the record book.

A disconsolate Arnold Palmer, accompanied by Bill Casper, walks off the 18th green at The Olympic Club Lake Course in San Francisco, after losing by four strokes in the playoff of the 1966 U.S. Open. Palmer held a seven-stroke lead with nine holes remaining in regulation play, but saw his advantage dissipate. William Ward Foshay, then USGA president, followed them off the green. (USGA Museum)