Sunday, June 18, 2017
The United States Open is older than the Masters, with a Jack Nicklaus or two for every Jack Fleck who's won the title and enough final-round drama for a "Masterpiece Theatre" episode.
But because of its calendar slot and permanent location, the Masters tugs at the heart of anyone's who played golf or enjoys watching it at home.
It's said that a major golf tournament doesn't begin until the last nine holes on Sunday. But when they make the turn today at Erin Hills, playing host to its first U.S. Open, how will the viewer know?
No such problem exists at Augusta National, where in April the Masters unofficially launches a golf season that for touring pros began the previous October. Legends of the game take first swings at the Masters, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player lugging nine titles at the National between them to the first tee this year.
Augusta is where Arnold Palmer, thanks to television and his scrambling style, became The King, winning four Masters titles in even-numbered years from 1958-64. The 2017 renewal was the first Masters in 60-something years without Palmer, who died last fall, and eyes moistened in April when Augusta National chairman Billy Payne honored his memory before Nicklaus and Player swung away.
Palmer was responsible for so many moments that made himself and his sport a natural for television. None better than his final 18 holes of the 1960 U.S. Open, when he drove the first green, birdied six of the first seven holes and shot a 65 that held off a youthful Nicklaus and an aging Ben Hogan. Or worse than his 1966 U.S. Open collapse, Billy Casper making up seven shots in the last nine holes and winning a Monday playoff after Palmer, with a big lead, became obsessed with breaking Hogan's tournament scoring record.
It is a testament to Palmer's greatness that he became a worldwide ambassador for the sport despite not winning a major championship past 1964. No one else could be Arnold Palmer.
Golf's balance of power changed in the 1962 U.S. Open, Palmer playing in his home state of Pennsylvania as the reigning British Open and Masters champion. That was the weekend a 22-year-old Jack Nicklaus officially arrived. Tied with Palmer after 72 holes, the fat kid from Ohio won his first pro title in a next-day playoff and would soon have the complete game with which Masters founder Bobby Jones would say he was "not familiar."
Nicklaus matched the record of four Open victories shared by Jones and Hogan, a fifth title snatched from his grasp when Tom Watson holed one off the green on the 71st hole at Pebble Beach in 1982.
Hogan was working on a fifth Open title at Olympic in 1955 when a club pro from Davenport, Iowa, intruded upon the storyline. Jack Fleck, using clubs manufactured by his opponent, caught Hogan late in the final round and beat him in a playoff. History might have served Fleck better if Hogan had won, saving the Open champion from explaining for years an apparent fluke triumph.
Two final rounds nine years apart, one played on a Saturday and the other on a Sunday, both involving Jack Nicklaus, still leave golf historians breathless.
Nicklaus and Watson, the reigning Masters champion and British Open winner two years prior, turned the 1977 Open, as the Brits call the oldest major golf tournament, into virtual match play. On that weekend in Turnberry, Scotland, Watson finished 65-65 to Nicklaus' 65-66, denying Jack by a stroke a third Open title that would come the following year at historic St. Andrews.
Nicklaus' fourth U.S. Open title and fifth in the PGA Championship followed in 1980, although it would be six years until Jack produced arguably the highest drama in televised sports since Johnny Unitas pulled one out for the Baltimore Colts against the New York Giants in overtime of the 1958 NFL championship game.
At 46, considered past his prime, six years since his last major title, Nicklaus entered the 1986 Masters with little fanfare. That all changed in the final round when Nicklaus turned the time machine way back with a back-nine 30 for the ages, or in this case by the aged.
On what remains the greatest sports Sunday of my life, Jack went birdie-birdie-bogey-birdie-par-eagle-birdie-birdie-par for a 65 and his sixth Masters title. Grown men shouted in their living rooms when Nicklaus holed a downhill putt at the 17th and Verne Lundquist, on CBS, made the call of his life: "YesSir!"
Knees will be knocking at Erin Hills on this Open Sunday before the last nine holes where -- all together now, class -- a major tournament truly begins.Sports on 06/18/2017
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