US Open: Jack Nicklaus recalls his first major win 50 years on
As sporting quotes go it was a pretty good one – “now that the big guy’s out of the cage everybody better run for cover”.
It sounds like something said when Mike Tyson first arrived on the heavyweight boxing scene but it was 1962 and Arnold Palmer was talking about Jack Nicklaus after losing to him in a play-off for the US Open.
This week marks the golden anniversary of golf’s “Golden Bear” winning the first of his 18 majors, achieved during a 25-year period that made him one of sport’s most recognisable figures.
That haul remains the benchmark for everyone who has followed and the 1962 season is still unlike any other. It was the only year that the trio who became known as the “Big Three” – Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player – won all four majors.
And, just like Tiger Woods took centre stage by winning the very first major he played in as a professional, so Nicklaus arrived with the force of a hurricane.
And, even if his maiden victory was not the runaway triumph that Woods had in the 1997 Masters, the impact on his contemporaries was just as big.
Palmer was “The King”. He was also Masters champion and the 1962 US Open was in his home state of Pennsylvania, at the famed Oakmont Country Club.
Everybody knew the danger Nicklaus posed – as an amateur he had finished runner-up to Palmer two years earlier and was fourth in 1961. Some members of “Arnie’s Army” had taunted the 22-year-old with cries of “Fatso” during the tournament.
But Nicklaus was up for the fight. He had not yet won as a professional but it did not daunt him that the first might be his national Open, one of the treasured four majors.
Now turned into a one-hour United States Golf Association documentary to be aired on network television before the final round coverage this Sunday, Nicklaus has recalled how he felt at the time of his life-changing moment.
“I was a 22-year-old kid with blinders on,” he said. “People ask me about Arnold’s backyard, Arnold’s gallery. I never heard it – all I was doing was playing golf and trying to win a golf tournament.
“I looked back and said ‘Wow! Look what happened’. It’s amazing that was my first win. Arnold treated me great. He couldn’t have been nicer. He’s always been that way with me.”
The pair return to the scene of what turned into a five-day duel since it was only after an 18-hole play-off that Nicklaus prevailed.
“It was the creation of what went on to be the best rivalry in golf we’ve ever seen – or one of the best,” the USGA’s executive director Mike Davis said.
On some of golf’s slickest greens Palmer three-putted 13 times, whereas Nicklaus did it just once in the 90 holes. But as well as impacting on others his victory also had an effect on the way he lived his life.
Seeing a replay months later he hated the image of him putting down a cigarette to tap in a putt during the play-off.
“It was the worst example for youth I can imagine,” Nicklaus said. “It was the last time I ever smoked a cigarette on the golf course.”
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