Oakmont Lookback: Jack Wins His First Major
By Dave Shedloski
This story recounting the 1962 U.S. Open Championship, when Jack Nicklaus won the first of his record 18 major championships and ignited his friendly rivalry with Arnold Palmer, is the 12th in a 16-part series detailing every USGA championship contested at Oakmont Country Club in suburban Pittsburgh, which is hosting its ninth U.S. Open in June.
Seven months before the start of the 1962 U.S. Open Championship at Oakmont Country Club, a perceived favorite began to emerge, and it wasn’t reigning champion Gene Littler, or Western Pennsylvania icon Arnold Palmer, the 1960 winner and Latrobe, Pa., resident who knew Oakmont intimately.
A national wire story dated Dec. 12, 1961 reported that “veteran golf pros … are picking 21-year-old Jack Nicklaus to win the Open in 1962, his first year as a pro.”
After a sterling amateur career that included the 1959 and 1961 U.S. Amateur titles, Nicklaus had turned pro in November 1961, but he had not yet made a start as a professional when the story was published. That wouldn’t come until January in the Los Angeles Open. And yet “the Ohio strong boy,” as news reports referred to him (he had yet to pick up his familiar nickname, the Golden Bear), already was expected to win the national championship by the men he had to beat to accomplish the feat.
Call it an educated guess. They already had run the numbers.
Nicklaus, who became the first to win the NCAA individual title and U.S. Amateur in the same year (1961), had earned low-amateur honors in the previous two U.S. Opens, finishing runner-up to Palmer by two strokes in 1960 at Cherry Hills Country Club and tying for fourth at Oakland Hills Country Club in 1961, three behind Littler. His 282 total at Cherry Hills was a championship record for an amateur and his combined aggregate score of 566 in those championships was the lowest of any player, amateur or pro.
But a rookie golfer as the U.S. Open favorite? The idea seemed farfetched as championship week arrived. Though trending in the right direction in the weeks leading up to the championship, including a runner-up finish in the Thunderbird Classic in New Jersey the week prior, Nicklaus still had not won a pro title in 16 starts. Meanwhile, Palmer, 32 and in his prime, had won six times in the first half of the year, including his third Masters, giving him 33 PGA Tour victories. He also was the reigning winner of The Open Championship. No wonder oddsmakers installed him as the 5-1 favorite.
Even Palmer seemed to be casting a wary eye at his 22-year-old Ohio neighbor. “Everybody says there is only one favorite, and that’s me. But you better watch out for that big, strong dude,” he warned.
For his part, Nicklaus remembers thinking that he was due.
“I felt like after finishing second at Cherry Hills in 1960 and fourth at Oakland Hills Country Club the following year that it was my turn the next time, and I was ready for it,” Nicklaus recalled. “And I was just naïve enough to believe that.”
As a foreshadowing of what was to unfold that week, the USGA paired the two for the first two rounds. The atmosphere was electric as Nicklaus birdied the first three holes, but eventually he settled for a 1-over-par 72, while Palmer, after an early double bogey, was one stroke better, two behind Littler’s pace. In the second round, Nicklaus shot 70 to Palmer’s 68, which gave the hometown hero a share of the lead with Bob Rosburg at 3-under 139.
Though tied atop the leader board, Palmer was far from comfortable or confident. He had suffered a cut on his right index finger that required three stitches on the Sunday before the championship, but he insists to this day that it didn’t affect his golf swing. Putting might have been another matter. He suffered 11 three-putts for the week, including on the last hole of the third round. Missing a 2-footer nullified the 25-footer he had converted for eagle on the drivable par-4 17th and left him with a 73 and 212 total, still tied at the top, but this time with Bobby Nichols.
Nicklaus scrambled to a 72 and was tied for fifth with Gary Player, two behind Palmer and Nichols. Playing one group apart, Nicklaus and Palmer started drifting in opposite directions over the final 18 holes as Palmer finally found the range on Oakmont’s slick greens. His birdies on Nos. 2 and 4, combined with Nicklaus’ only three-putt, on the opening hole, allowed Palmer to open a five-stroke lead in front of a highly approving record crowd of 23,522.
Nicklaus quickly made up three strokes when he sank a 20-footer on No. 7 and two-putted for birdie on the par-5 ninth, while Palmer shockingly gave a stroke back on the ninth after flubbing a routine chip shot that led to four shots from 40 feet. “That’s really where I lost the championship. Right there,” Palmer said, remembering the mishap.
When Nicklaus holed a 14-footer for another birdie on No. 11 and Palmer bogeyed the 13th from a greenside bunker, they were tied. Palmer could have changed that if he had converted for birdie from 12 feet on 17 or from 10 feet on 18, but instead he settled for pars and a 71, while Nicklaus, after a 69, joined him at 1-under 283. Nichols and Phil Rodgers tied for third at 285.
“Is there anybody here who can give me a putting lesson?” Palmer asked the assembled media on Saturday night. He was kidding, but only slightly.
Nicklaus wasted little time in the 18-hole playoff on Sunday in his bid to knock out the King. Seizing on some early Palmer miscues while playing steadily himself, Nicklaus stood at 2 under par after six holes and led by four strokes. Arnie was far from finished, however. Just as everyone figured, including Nicklaus, a patented Palmer charge was coming. Sure enough, he sprang back with three birdies in a four-hole span, starting with a 5-footer on the par-5 ninth to get within a stroke.
Then the putter betrayed him one last time. He mis-clubbed on the par-4 13th hole, leaving himself a 45-footer. He needed three to get down while Nicklaus two-putted from half that distance to restore a two-stroke lead. It was all the breathing room he would need.
“You know, when I made a charge, I felt like I could almost will the player I was trying to catch out of the way,” Palmer noted. “But I found out that Jack was a different animal.”
Nicklaus closed with four pars and a cautious bogey on 18 to post 71 to Palmer’s 74. Arnold was so disappointed that he picked up Nicklaus’ marker after putting out, conceding the match. But because the competition was contested at stroke play, Nicklaus had to replace the marker and putt out.
Nicklaus became the youngest U.S. Open champion since Bob Jones won the first of four titles in 1923 at the age of 21. He also was the first player since Jones to hold the U.S. Open and U.S. Amateur trophies at the same time.
When it was all over, the combatants could not have been more complimentary to each other.
“He’s still the greatest,” Nicklaus said of Palmer. “Arnie was very unlucky.”
Meanwhile, the King was giving his royal assessment of the new champion and figured more crowning moments were on the horizon.
“He’s a helluva player, Palmer said of the man who would eventually register 18 major championships, including a record-tying four U.S. Opens. “He’s got all the shots, everything it takes to be a great player. Time will tell, but this young man is going to win a lot more championships.”
Another prediction about Nicklaus that would come to fruition.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer who frequently contributes to USGA websites.