From the Golf Journal Archives - Thirty Years of British Open Memories

Oct 12, 2012

Thanks to Tip Anderson, my caddie, some good golf under pressure, and the friendly British, it’s been a wonderful three decades.

By Arnold Palmer

(Note: This article originally appeared in the July 1991 issue of Golf Journal.)

IT’S OVER! Three decades, 22 trips to Britain for the British Open Championship, twice coming back as the winner, and I wouldn’t trade a minute of the time or a mile of the travel for just about anything else that might have happened in my career. Oh, maybe another victory or two in England or Scotland, but everything about it has been great. I have no regrets about my decision that last year’s at St. Andrews would be my final British Open.

When I think back over the years, I go far beyond that first trip to Scotland and St. Andrews for the 1960 British Open. As a boy, I dreamt of playing in the major championships. Every year I followed the progress of the play in the British Open in the newspaper. Those strong feelings grew as my career progressed through my high school, college, and Coast Guard years. I often talked to my father and later my wife, Winnie, about playing in the British Open. I felt that my career, professional or amateur, would not be complete without an important championship outside the United States. I always had the British Amateur and the British Open at the top of the list as major challenges. That was one of the things I had read about, talked about, and felt strongly about most of my life. I was never able to take a shot at the British Amateur because I simply didn’t have the money to try it, and the timing just wasn’t right.

The British Open was another story. I had always planned to play in it once I felt I could afford to go abroad. Things had been going pretty well for me on the Tour in those first few years, and I had every intention of entering and playing in the 1960 Open at St. Andrews well before I won the Masters and the U.S. Open earlier in the year. In fact, my father and Harry Saxman, who was the president of Latrobe Country Club and both my father’s boss and good friend, had made plans to go with me to St. Andrews, never thinking that I would be going there with a chance to match what Ben Hogan had done in 1953, when he won the Masters, the Open, and the British Open. I had a shot at doing even better. I could win the first-ever professional Grand Slam if I could win the PGA Championship back in the States. Hogan couldn’t; the 1953 PGA and British Open had conflicting dates.

I had begun thinking about the Grand Slam after I won at Augusta, telling one writer I figured it was a 1,000-to-l shot, but that it could be done with a little luck.

EVERYBODY HAD to qualify to play in the British Open in those days. The qualifying was right at St. Andrews, and I made it easily with 142, thanks at least in part to Tip Anderson, a St. Andrews caddie who skillfully guided me around the Old Course all week. He’s caddied for me in England and Scotland ever since. A friend had recommended Tip to me beforehand, and I acted on that suggestion. Golf in Britain would not have been the same for me without Tip.

My first two rounds in the championship – 70 and 71 – were mediocre and left me seven strokes behind Roberto De Vicenzo, ironically the same deficit I had made up the previous month in our Open at Cherry Hills. Kel Nagle was two strokes back, and Peter Thomson, who had won four British Opens in the 1950s, was tied with me. Now it was Friday, the day they always finished the Open in those years by playing 36 holes in one day. Even though I three-putted the last two greens of the morning round, I shot 70 and moved within four strokes of Nagle, who was leading. One never knows what might have otherwise happened, but a midday thunderstorm wiped out play for the rest of the day, and the final round was rescheduled for Saturday.

I was not happy about that turn of events, because I had a lot of confidence in my game then and had momentum going for me. Still, I got off to a fast start Saturday. Playing just ahead of Nagle, I hit it close and birdied the first two holes, cutting Kel’s margin to just two strokes. More bad weather moved in, but Kel got those shots back with birdies at the seventh and eighth. De Vicenzo faded from contention, leaving it between the two of us. I birdied the 13th, and my chances improved further when Kel three-putted the 15th. Now the 17th, the Road Hole. If any one factor caused my downfall that week, it was my putting at that hole. I had three-putted that green in all the previous rounds. [Nagle had only four putts on the 17th in the four rounds to Palmer’s 10.] My approach trickled over the green, but I ran it close with my putter to save the par, then hit it four feet from the hole at the 18th and made the putt for 68 and 279. That left it up to Kel to protect his one-stroke lead. He did; he made his pars on the last two holes.

NOT WINNING was a great disappointment to me, but the British Open was everything I thought it would be – and more. For one thing, the British writers seemed to take a liking to me and my game, and during the week they encouraged and convinced me to remain in Europe for the French Open, which came up the following week. That proved to be a big mistake, because I never got to play in France. I assumed from the writers that my entry had been handled, stayed in England the first week with a friend from home who was in the Air Force, then flew across the Channel to register and practice for the French Open. When I showed up, I was told my entry had arrived too late. The tournament officials were adamant and, a little hot under the collar, I returned to the States for the PGA Championship, at Firestone, in Akron, Ohio. I was making a good run at an American Slam [Masters, Open, and PGA] until I took 8 at the 16th, a par 5, the third day, and finished seventh.

Most important, after the experience at St. Andrews, I was determined to go back until I either won the British Open or something convinced me I wasn’t ever going to win it. I planned to make the British Open trip a sort of annual sojourn, and pretty much did over the years. Fortunately, I only had to wait 12 months for my victory, which came at Royal Birkdale, in Southport, England, where they’re playing it again this month. Again, only a handful of Americans went over and qualified. My enthusiasm and respect for the British Open hadn’t rubbed off yet on many of the others.

We found the weather our greatest challenge at Birkdale; it was as rough and tough as you could imagine. This was one of the most exciting tournaments of my career, and to win it in such drastic conditions made it even more rewarding. I was bantering with some of my writer friends about golf weather after the heavy rains had soaked the parched fairways during the first round on Wednesday. I contended that nothing could be as bad as some of the storms that had blown in off the Pacific Ocean during a couple of the Crosby tournaments at Pebble Beach. Well, a storm moved in Thursday with ferocious winds that did tremendous damage to tournament and club structures and equipment. The heavy weather continued, or threatened, until the final hours after the scheduled 36-hole finish was postponed from Friday to Saturday, a very rare occurrence for a British Open in those days.

I started well enough, shooting 70, which left me just two strokes off the lead. Then, when the weather turned bad Thursday, I felt pretty confident, because I knew I had the game to deal with the wind. I hit low, boring shots off the tee and into the greens, keeping my ball down and out of a wind that was playing havoc with those who hit the ball high. I shot 73 despite a 7 at the 16th hole, where the wind was blowing so hard that it moved my ball after I had taken my stance in a bunker. I had to call a penalty stroke on myself [Rule 18-2b]. It was one of the lowest rounds of the day, and it moved me ahead of everybody except the Welshman, Dai Rees, who had been close many times but had never won an Open.

The wind was still blowing a gale when play resumed Friday under the threat by the R&A Championship Committee to cancel the championship if there were further serious interruptions. I felt I was on top of my game, took the lead for good at the very first hole, and went out in 32, six strokes better than anybody else. But Dai Rees fought back to a 71. He might have caught me if I hadn’t pulled off a pretty fair recovery shot at the long 16th hole. My third shot there nearly went out of bounds to the right of the green behind some thick gorse, but I spotted a hole in the bushes and knocked a wedge shot through it two feet from the hole. So, after 69, I set out in the afternoon round with a one-shot lead over Rees. I didn’t do anything spectacular on the front nine and was out in 36, but it gave me a three-stroke lead. I needed all of those strokes at the end because Dai wouldn’t quit. In fact, on the last four holes, I finished 4-5-3-4 to his 3-4-3-3 to win by a stroke.

I hit one of the best pressure shots of my career to get that 4 at the 15th. I pushed my tee shot there, and it wound up pretty well buried in the wet rough. Perhaps the prudent play was a wedge back to the fairway with the prospect of making five and giving Rees a bigger opening, but that wasn’t my style. I felt sure I could get a six-iron on the ball and had the strength to get it out of there and onto the green. That’s what I did and, after I had won, the members at Birkdale put a plaque in the ground at the spot to commemorate the shot. When I made that final 4 at the 18th, Rees had to hole from the fairway to tie. His approach wound up 12 feet from the cup, and he finished with that last birdie. What a thrill that victory was; another thrill came a few hours later when Walter Hagen called from America to congratulate me.

THINGS WERE quite different the following year when I won my other British Open championship, at Troon. It was very dry in Scotland that summer; the fairways were hard and the ball was taking a lot of bounces – not necessarily good ones for most of the players. That was the secret of my success, though. I drove it in the fairway all week. It was the best golf that I ever played in England or Scotland; in fact, it was one of my best performances in any tournament. (Arnold had rounds of 71-69-67-69 for 276, a new Open record.)

Even though I led by as much as 10 strokes during the tournament, it was never cut and dried. For most of the week, I was bothered a bit by a sore back, and I didn’t have much confidence in my putting until Winnie and Bob Drum, my old golf writer friend from Pittsburgh, double-teamed me on the practice green. Winnie told me that she thought I was moving my head; Bob agreed. I worked on that for a while, and it certainly helped. My putting was excellent the rest of the way. In the third round Friday morning, for instance, I had nine one-putt greens. I had led Nagle by two strokes after 36 holes, and that 67 Friday morning opened it up to five strokes. Eventually, I would win by six strokes.

Besides my solid play, I will always remember those great crowds at Troon. They really got behind me right from the start, and their enthusiasm and support kept feeding my confidence and pumping me up. By the time I came up the 18th that final afternoon, which was a holiday in Scotland, the people in the fairway behind me were almost out of control. They swarmed past me when I hit my shot to the green; Winnie told me later that she thought they were going to run right into the clubhouse just behind the green.

My best finish in the 19 Opens since Troon was seventh at Turnberry in 1977, the first weak performance coming in 1963 at Royal Lytham and St. Annes, in England. I got off to a bad start with 76 and went on to a 26th-place finish. Even though we won the Ryder Cup there in 1961 and I played reasonably well in the Matches, I think I got an uncomfortable feeling about the course from that week there two years later, and skipped Lytham when it came up on the Open schedule in subsequent years. In a way, I’m glad that we are playing the British Seniors there this year. I’ve read the impressive history of Lytham, and I’m hoping to find out that it was not the course those many seasons ago.

Many people were surprised, I guess, when I didn’t play in 1964 when the Open returned to St. Andrews, but I was simply exhausted at the time, physically and mentally. I had played steadily on the Tour for 10 years and was hustling to get my full life in order. I was really tired and didn’t want to make the trip, much as I liked St. Andrews. I didn’t make the final decision until after our Open because I had won my fourth Masters in April and would surely have gone for the Grand Slam no matter how tired I was, had I won the Open at Congressional.

In a way, I was there in spirit, though. Tony Lema, who was at the peak of his game at the time, had decided to play in the British Open for the first time. We talked about it and, when I was sure I was not going over, I arranged for Tip Anderson to caddie for him. Tony won the Cleveland Open the Sunday before the Open and arrived at St. Andrews just in time for a nine-hole practice round before the tournament started. So Tip’s intricate knowledge of the Old Course played an important role in Tony’s greatest victory, just two years before he and his wife died in a plane crash near Chicago.

I WAS VERY disappointed with my performance when I went back to defend at Birkdale. The golf course was just the opposite of what it was when I won – dry, and a lot of shots were rolling into the rough. I didn’t play well at all. And I didn’t play that much better the next year when I went to Muirfield for the first time. I really liked Muirfield, the accommodations, the way it was set up. But I had a lot of distractions beyond my golf at the time, expanding my personal staff and other things, and I wasn’t happy about finishing eighth. It was about then that I began to experience problems with my putting, and it affected my play in most of the British Opens after that. I enjoyed the new venues like Turnberry and Royal St. Georges, where I had won the British PGA Championship in 1975. As the 1980s rolled on, I became less and less competitive and played in fewer of the Opens.

Which brings us to 1990. I was enthusiastic about going back to St. Andrews with the thought in mind that it would probably be my last shot at an Open championship. We flew over in a private jet directly from Latrobe to St. Andrews, and Winnie and I checked in at Rusacks Hotel, along the 18th hole of the Old Course, where we stayed 30 years earlier. Tip was there to caddie for me once again. Memories flowed; I was excited about being there.

I played and putted reasonably well during the first two rounds and, as I moved through the incoming nine on Friday, I felt that, if I could play the final holes in one under par, I would make the cut. That’s exactly what I did, and I felt that I was in fairly good shape with my 144. That score almost always makes the cut at an Open. Besides, the weather had started to get a little rough, and it was looking like rain. I’m told that the BBC thought I was in, too, and announced after I had finished that I had surely made the cut. Then the weather changed abruptly. The wind died and the threat of rain disappeared. When that happened, I became doubtful that I would make the cut and, much to my disappointment, that was the case.

Do I regret my decision that my playing days in the British Open are over? My game would have to hit a sprinklerhead and pop out again before I would even think about it. I will play in the British Seniors for a few years more and try to win that one. As for the Open Championship itself, I’m not known for changing my mind very often – but that’s not to say that I don’t feel free to do so.

When I won the 1962 British Open at Royal Troon, I set the new Open scoring record of 276; it was one of my best performances in any tournament, and I was proud of my play. (USGA Museum)

I was in the sand at Royal Birkdale more than once during the 1961 British Open; in fact, I once had to call a penalty on myself because the wind moved the ball while I was addressing it! (USGA Museum)

British Open rough can be a challenge. Here, at Muirfield in 1966, I managed to hack it out, but I still had to score a 7 on the tough 10th hole. (USGA Museum)