Watching runaway leader Brooks Koepka wobble then recover to win the US PGA Championship for the second successive year, I started doing some research. Shock! Horror! Surely not?
First of all, I thought I heard someone say that no one ever had lost a 7-shot lead in the last round of a major championship, so I scurried upstairs and rooted out ‘A Golfer’s Life’ by Arnold Palmer with James Dodson. Hadn’t Arnold once been seven shots ahead with nine holes to play in the US Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco and, to the horror of his adoring Army, ended up losing in the 18-hole play-off to Billy Casper?
He had indeed.
Playing with Casper, who’d been US Open champion in 1959, Palmer admitted that he was more worried about Jack Nicklaus, who was a couple of strokes further behind but in reality he was so unworried by either of his pursuers that he started thinking about beating Ben Hogan’s Open record, set in 1948. “In retrospect, it was the biggest mental error of my career.”
Palmer reflected: “In daring to think about breaking Hogan’s record, I violated the very rule Pap [his father Deacon] had spent all those years drilling into my head – never quit, never look up, and, most of all, never lose focus until you’ve completely taken care of business.”
Palmer describes in gruesome detail how his lead started dwindling, recalling the last nine holes “like some ghostly newsreel playing in my head”. Playing the 18th, Casper and Palmer were level, tied, on the same score, whatever the correct terminology is these days. Casper splits the fairway with his drive, Palmer, taking a 1-iron for accuracy, hoicks it left into thick rough. “Walking down the fairway, shaken to the core, I doubt if I have ever felt as alone or as devastated on a golf course. I know what a train wreck the world is witnessing, but I tell myself that I am still in the thick of it. I can glance at faces in the gallery and see their shock and grief, too.”
Palmer has to hole a slippery, sidehill 6-footer for his par. “As Bill and I shake hands, all I really feel is a sense of deep relief and perhaps a bit of disbelief at what has just happened…….I sign my card and walk slowly to the press tent, where a hundred unanswerable questions await…..”
Casper won the play-off with a 69 to Palmer’s 73. “In the high drama of my collapse, it’s sometimes forgotten that Bill Casper played almost flawless golf down the stretch……..I didn’t just lose the 1966 US Open – Bill Casper’s brilliant play won it.”
Arnold Palmer was an icon, a superstar who transcended golf and was adored by millions. He had a long and distinguished career but his seven major titles were condensed into the years between 1958 and 1964. “The same go-for-broke kind of play that won me seven majors perhaps cost me at least that many more,” he said. “But that’s life and that’s golf.”
Fortunately for Koepka, Dustin Johnson couldn’t quite manage flawless at the end but it was a damned close-run thing. With the confidence (deserved) of someone who has won four of the last eight major championships that he’s played in, Koepka didn’t see why he couldn’t reach double figures in major titles. The odds, however, are against him.
Jack has 18, Tiger has 15 and Walter has 11. Walter? Walter Hagen, a showman supreme, never knowingly undersold, who won two US Opens, four Opens and five US PGA Championships between 1914 and 1929 and didn’t know what a major was. The PGAs were all matchplay and the Masters, started in 1934, came a little too late for the Hagen heyday. Next come Ben Hogan and Gary Player with nine and Tom Watson with eight. Palmer, Bob Jones (legendary amateur), Gene Sarazen, Sam Snead and Harry Vardon are credited with seven and Nick Faldo and Lee Trevino have six…..You get my point.
In these days of mega money, when a couple of wins – or even none at all – can make a careful player with no expensive addictions more than comfortable for life, majors have become the measure of a golfer, almost to the point of obsession with some. They are, when all’s said and done, a bit of an artificial, modern construct but there’s no denying that they are exciting and in most years the biggest events of the season.Meanwhile, further south, in North Carolina, in the more sedate surroundings (Bethpage Black during a tournament is about as sedate as bedlam) of Pine Needles Lodge and Country Club, Helen Alfredsson was winning the second US Senior Women’s Open. The Swede kept her nerve to win by two shots from long-time friends and adversaries Trish Johnson and Juli Inkster. Go to usga.org and look at the pictures; the old dolls are as competitive as ever; winning still feels wonderful; losing not so wonderful. They’re trying their spikes off and having a ball; catching up with old friends; trying to beat the heck out of them; salving the aches and pains with gels or whatever; cranking the swings into serious action. JoAnne Carner, aged 80, missed the cut but walked all 36 holes…….Far be it from me to insert the words PGA, John Daly, arthritic knee and buggy at this point.
Finally, across the Atlantic, at Rosses Point, God’s own country as Dad invariably called it, James Newton from Macclesfield won the Flogas Irish Amateur Open Championship by five shots from Conor Purcell, of Portmarnock. Newton started the final round five shots ahead of the field and was still five ahead at the end despite starting with three bogeys and having a triple bogey at the 16th. It was that sort of day, with lots of wind and rain (sorry Dad!) but the inimitable Pat Cashman, photographer extraordinaire, set up a wonderful trophy pic as the cloud enveloped Ben Bulben yet again.