The 33-year-old Palmer had won seven major championships. Though he was 10 years younger, Nicklaus had already won five majors, including the Masters three months before and the PGA just a week before the Western.
Nicklaus was poised to surpass Palmer as the best player in the world, but not yet as the most popular. At every tournament Palmer was trailed by huge and demonstrative galleries, known collectively as “Arnie’s Army.” The crowds at Beverly were no exception; they politely applauded such luminaries as Nicklaus, Sam Snead, and Julius Boros, but they reserved their most effusive responses for Palmer. When Palmer four-putted the 15th green in the first round, it seemed to knock the wind out of every member of his army.
They were breathing easier within the ranks when Palmer shot 67 in the third round to surge into a tie for the lead. Arnie capped his sensational back nine of 31 by sinking a 20-foot putt to birdie the mammoth 596-yard 18th. Nicklaus’s 71 left him seven strokes behind.
Sunday belonged to Nicklaus. “I thought I might have a good chance,” he said, “if I did a 65 today.” He didn’t—but his 66 was the best round of the tournament, punctuated by a six-foot birdie putt on 18 that drew him even with Boros at four-under 280 for the 72 holes. Palmer struggled to a 73 for the day, giving him 280 for the tournament as well.
For the first time in the Western’s 60-year history, three players had tied for the championship. Palmer, Nicklaus, and Boros came back on Monday to settle the issue in an 18-hole playoff.
Much to the delight of his army, Palmer required only 33 strokes to complete the front nine, while Boros and Nicklaus took 36 and 37, respectively. But things tightened up on the back nine. After 15 holes, Palmer and Boros were deadlocked at two-under 57, with Nicklaus at even-par 59. On 16, Nicklaus missed a chance for birdie from six feet out, and the three players went to 17 with the status quo intact.
The 17th hole was a nasty 210-yard par three with a sloping green shielded by an array of bunkers. It had separated the contenders from the pretenders all weekend, and it proved decisive in the playoff as well. Boros’s tee shot landed in the rough behind the green, Palmer’s in a bunker in front. Nicklaus struck a near-perfect shot that plopped onto the green, then rolled to within five feet of the cup.
Boros’s chip from the rough and Palmer’s blast from the sand each ended up 35 to 40 feet from the hole. Both putted to within three feet. Now it was Nicklaus’s turn to putt. If he made it, he would go to 18 no worse than tied for the lead. But he went for it too aggressively, and the ball skittered past the hole.
Palmer made his next putt. Boros missed, and Nicklaus missed again. They went to 18 with Palmer leading Boros by one and Nicklaus by two. Nicklaus banged his third shot over the green and into the crowd; he took a bogey six. Boros missed his birdie try from 10 feet out, and Palmer tapped in for par to claim the championship.
The win placed Palmer’s earnings for the year at $96,955—a new record. It also gave him a bit of revenge for his playoff losses to Nicklaus and Boros, respectively, in the previous two U.S. Opens. Nicklaus, of course, would be heard from again.
Reprinted from Heydays: Great Stories in Chicago Sports
(c) 2009, 2010 by Christopher Tabbert