How Arnie Revived the British Open

By: Tony Dear


The Open Championship had definitely seen better days. Morrises, Old and Young, helped establish the new competition in its early years with eight victories between 1861 and 1872. Vardon, Taylor and Braid, the Great Triumvirate, picked the baton up in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, winning 16 titles in 21 years. In the 1920s and '30s, the championship's status reached new heights as America's best - Hagen, Sarazen, Jones and Armour - came and conquered.

Then World War II happened.

Though the Allies managed to thwart evil Adolf Hitler and the Nazis, Britain was left reeling from the expense of its war effort. Rationing was introduced shortly after the conflict began but certainly didn't end the moment General Alfred Jodl announced Germany's unconditional surrender on May 7th 1945. With luxuries like steak and bananas still hard to come by, and purses not able to cover their travel expenses, American golfers found little to tempt them to cross the Atlantic immediately following the war.

Sam Snead was one of just four golfers from the U.S. to make the trip to St. Andrews in 1946 and, with a 72-hole total of 290, he won the Claret Jug by four from Johnny Bulla and Bobby Locke. The Virginian was not particularly fond of the Old Course, however, saying it looked abandoned. And by earning just 600 first-place prize money, he returned to the States significantly out of pocket. Not surprisingly, Snead chose not to defend his title and didn't return to compete at the Open Championship until 1962. In 1953, Ben Hogan ventured across the "Pond" for his first tilt at the Jug and won by four. It would be his only appearance at the Open.

Australians and South Africans, specifically Peter Thomson, Bobby Locke and Gary Player, dominated the remainder of the 1950s as the Americans stayed away. In 1954, just six played at Royal Birkdale. Five turned up at St. Andrews a year later and, at Hoylake in 1956, there were four. In '57 only two, Cary Middlecoff and amateur Frank Stranahan, appeared, while 1932 champion Gene Sarazen was the only American to show up at Royal Lytham and St. Annes in 1958. At Muirfield in 1959, there were three.

Then Arnold Palmer happened.

Encouraged by manager Mark McCormack to play in the Open Championship and thus help bolster his global appeal, Palmer was in the field for the Centenary Open, in 1960. The then three-time major winner had won the Masters earlier in the year and arrived in Scotland shortly after claiming his one and only U.S. Open title at Cherry Hills in Denver with a dramatic final-round 65 that included six birdies in the first seven holes.

Besides taking the Palmer brand overseas, the opportunity to match Hogan's feat of winning the Masters, U.S. Open and Open Championship in the same year was also great motivation for the 30-year-old, who opened with rounds of 70 and 71. Five behind Australia's Kel Nagle and seven back of Argentinean Roberto de Vicenzo with 36 holes to go, Palmer maintained his challenge with a 2-under-par 70 in round three. However, Nagle still had a four-shot lead going into the final round, which was actually postponed shortly after it began thanks to what was perhaps the worst downpour in the Open's wetter-than-average history.

Play resumed the following day when both Palmer and Nagle went out in 34. Palmer then picked up two shots at the 13th and 15th and made his first par of the week at the wicked Road Hole. A birdie at the last saw him round in 68 and in the clubhouse just one shot shy of Nagle, who faced a tricky par putt on the 17th. The 39-year-old holed it bravely and made a safe four up the 18th to win, thus denying Palmer the "Triple Crown."

He may not have won, but Palmer's decision to make the trip was extremely significant. In its summary of that year's event, www.Opengolf.com says Palmer's appearance was "undoubtedly the catalyst which re-ignited world-wide interest in the championship." Indeed, the last Open Championship of the 1960s saw 13 of Palmer's compatriots in the field. At St. Andrews a year later, there were 24.

The first of Palmer's two victories came just 12 months after his debut. The venue was Royal Birkdale in Southport, Lancashire, and the weather was even worse than it had been at St. Andrews.

Three months prior to his first appearance in England, Palmer had lost the Masters to Player after making a hash of the 72nd hole, where he bladed his third shot from a bunker clean over the green and then failed to get up and down to force a playoff. In his defense of the U.S. Open at Oakland Hills in Detroit, he finished tied for 14th, eight shots behind winner Gene Littler.

At Birkdale, determined to right these wrongs, Palmer shot an opening 70 and was two shots off the lead. He followed it with a 73 that included a penalty stroke at the 16th hole, where a strong breeze moved his ball in a bunker just as he had begun his downswing. Now he was tied for second, a shot behind Welshman Dai Rees, who had added a 74 to his opening 68.

The third round was postponed 24 hours after wind and rain bought down several marquees and tents, but when the round did eventually get underway, Palmer demonstrated just how adept at links golf he was becoming. He finished with a brilliant 69 - one of just three sub-70 scores all morning - that included his famous explosion shot from out of a bush at the 15th hole (now the 16th). With his ball buried at the base of a particularly gnarly blackberry bush just a few yards off the fairway, Palmer hit a 6-iron that shot out of the bush, fizzed through the wind and finished on the putting surface 150 yards away. "I have never hit a ball so hard in my life," said Palmer. "One of the greatest shots ever," seconded England's Henry Cotton.

Palmer played well in the final round too, fending off Rees with a 72 to win by one with an aggregate of 284. "I wanted this championship more than anything in my life," he said afterwards. "But anything you want real bad is awfully hard to get."

Henry Longhurst, writing in Sports Illustrated, said it would have been a travesty had anyone else won. "The world's best golfer dominated this 101st British Open as it has not been dominated since that other American, Ben Hogan, won in 1953," he added.

To combat Birkdale's mighty winds, Palmer used a 1-iron off several tees and played the ball well back in his stance, hitting the low, piercing shot better than anyone. Longhurst remarked that Palmer scorned any temptation to steer the ball safely down the narrow fairways and on occasion hit the ball so aggressively he could be heard grunting at impact.

His win was an extremely popular one and well received by a quickly adoring public. Even the British press, whose distrust of American golfers (borne of 11 defeats in 14 Ryder Cups and a perceived disrespect for the Open Championship) wasn't always well-hidden, was uncharacteristically approving. "As fond as the galleries are of Dai Rees, it is doubtful that there was a man present at Birkdale who really wanted Palmer to lose," wrote Longhurst. "It is impossible to over-praise the tact and charm with which this American has conducted himself on his two visits to Britain. He has no fancy airs and graces; he wears no fancy clothes; he makes no fancy speeches. He simply says and does exactly the right thing at the right time, and that is enough."

By the time he returned to Britain a year later, Palmer had won his fifth major title, beating Player and Dow Finsterwald in a playoff at Augusta National after the trio had tied on 280, 8-under-par. Back in Scotland, the Open at last enjoyed some good weather, the fairways becoming bone-hard under cloudless skies and a hot sun. The breeze was still apparent, however, so Palmer relied on the penetrating 1-iron he had used to such great effect a year previously. He opened up a two-shot gap over the persistent Nagle after two rounds, and increased the lead to five with a third-round 67 that he described afterwards as the best round of his life. Clearly, losing the previous month's U.S. Open in a playoff to a young Jack Nicklaus at Oakmont Country Club, just 35 miles from his hometown of Latrobe, wasn't weighing too heavily on Palmer's mind.

In round four, he extended his lead to 10 shots at one point, eventually winning by six over Nagle and creating a new Open Championship scoring record of 276. Third-place finishers Brian Huggett and Phil Rodgers were 13 shots distant.

Following the dramatic surge in interest Palmer's play had caused, galleries at the Open clearly began to swell. Troon was unprepared for it in '62, failing to stop hundreds of members of Arnie's British-based "Army" from gaining access to the course via the beach, and appearing unable to control the galleries due to a woeful lack of marshals.

The British Bobbies probably weren't too enamored with Palmer for making their job of policing the usually sedate Open galleries that much more difficult. The press, however, continued to sing his praises. Pat Ward-Thomas of the Guardian was especially enthusiastic. "If one adds to his technical ability an active enquiring mind, that rare blend of immense self-confidence and true modesty, the ability to acquire concentration through a relaxed approach, and a truly formidable desire to win that is never outwardly aggressive, here is a remarkable man," he gushed. "For all the sum of his achievements in titles and money, Palmer remains a delightful, friendly human being who commands respect and affection."

Forty-seven years later, British golfers and, indeed, its golf writers still have that same respect and affection for the man who became "King." The last time he competed in Britain was in 1995 when he famously crossed the Swilcan Bridge and waved goodbye to the championship he single-handedly revived.

At 80, who knows how many more times Palmer will grace Britain's shores? Hopefully he'll be able to fly his jet across next year to participate in celebrations for the Open's 150th anniversary. If he can't make it, he will be sadly missed. But you can be sure that when glasses are raised at functions commemorating a century and a half of golf's oldest tournament, the name Arnold Palmer will be remembered. In Britain, as in every other country where golf is played, Arnold Palmer will always be remembered.

Happy birthday Arnold!

Tony Dear is an Englishman living in Bellingham, Wash. In the early 1990s he was a member of the Liverpool University golf team which played its home matches at Royal Liverpool GC. Easy access to Hoylake made it increasingly difficult for him to focus on Politics (his chosen major) and, after dropping out, he ended up teaching golf at a club just south of London where he also made a futile attempt at becoming a "player." He moved into writing when it became abundantly clear he had no business playing the game for a living. A one-time golf correspondent of the New York Sun, Tony is a member of the Golf Writers Association of America, the Pacific Northwest Golf Media Association and the Golf Travel Writers Association. In 2009, Tony won first place for Editorial/Opinion in the ING Media Awards for Cybergolf. The article (http://www.cybergolf.com/golf_newsa_euros_take_on_the_2008_ryder_cup_matches) that impressed the judges was the one about Europe's Ryder Cup team and Captain Nick Faldo's decision to pick Paul Casey and Ian Poulter rather than Darren Clarke.

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