The U.S. Open returned to the storied environs of the Olympic Club this year, for the fifth time, and these past champions returned to the Bay Area to revisit the scene of their long-ago triumphs, and to be fêted by appreciative golf enthusiasts. On the evening of Wednesday, June 13th, the night before the opening rounds of the 112th U.S. Open were to begin, one of these great champions from the past shared his recollections of those events with a roomful of golf fans – Billy Casper joined a group of the members of Lake Merced Golf Club for an evening of conversation and recollection, not only about those five eventful days in 1966 at the Olympic Club, but his entire career. I was privileged to be among Mr Casper’s audience that evening, as a guest of Lake Merced’s general manager, Donna Lowe. It was a wonderful evening with a great past champion of our game, and a fitting prelude to the competition that was to begin the following morning, less than a mile away, at the Olympic Club.
|The Big Three and Me, the new autobiography of Billy Casper.|
With a nearly stroke-by-stroke recollection of their play over the last nine holes of Olympic’s Lake Course, Mr Casper related to the audience Palmer’s fall, and his own rise, over the closing holes of regulation play: Palmer’s duckhook into the rough at 10 for a bogey to Casper’s par, paring his lead to six; their matching pars and birdies at the 11th and 12th holes, respectively; another pull to the left by Palmer at the par-3 13th to Casper’s par – cutting Palmer’s lead to five with five holes to play. After matching pars at 14, the 15th hole changed things up – Casper was safely on in one, facing a breaking 20-foot putt for birdie, but Palmer’s over-confident try for the flag bounced off the firm, fast putting surface into the back rough. Casper rolled in his birdie putt and Palmer made bogey – a two-shot swing, and Palmer’s lead was now three, with three holes to play.
Now they came to the 16th hole, a big sweeping left-hander of a par-5 which was playing at 604 yards that day. The sixteenth hole had been a subject of conversation leading up to the beginning of play at the 2012 Open, due to a new tee box which stretched the length of the hole to a record-setting 670 yards. Though no one could have known it on that Wednesday evening before the tournament, the 16th hole was to play a part in the final result of the 2012 tournament that was similar to the part it had played in 1966.
Just as Jim Furyk was to do the Sunday following this evening’s talk, Palmer’s tee shot in 1966 went hard left off the tee. While Furyk’s tee shot ended up in the left-hand trees from a shortened tee – only 562 yards that day – Palmer’s drive from 604 ended up in the thick rough left of the fairway. He had tried for a long drawing tee shot that would get him close enough for a chance to get on in two, but he had tried too hard, and pulled it left. After two slashes at the ball with an iron, Palmer was out. His spoon (3-wood) from the fairway ended up in a greenside bunker, but he salvaged a bogey six with a blast out of the bunker and a 4-foot putt – “…the greatest six I ever made,” he called it later.
|Stories of his life and career came easily to mind for Mr Casper – with only a little prompting from his long-time friend, and co-producer of his book, James Parkinson (seated). Photo credit: Sarah Reid/LMGC|
Mr Casper recounted these events as if they had happened last week instead of nearly a half-century ago, and his audience of Lake Merced club members and guests hung on every word. He recalled how Palmer missed a seven-foot putt for par on the 17th hole, tying the tournament, and how, after matching pars at the amphitheater-like finishing hole, they finished in a dead-heat 278 after 72 holes of regulation play. The seven-stroke slide over the last nine holes seemed to have taken the wind out of Palmer’s sails, though, and Casper rolled up the victory in the 18-hole playoff the following day, carding a 1-under 69 to Palmer’s 3-over score of 73.