Between them, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus took 13 shots on the par-four 16th hole in the U.S. Open golf tournament today.
It was great.
Palmer lost a ball, he hit it so far off line.
Nicklaus chopped a ball practically in half, he hit it so poorly.
I can't tell you the last time I felt so good.
It is reprehensible, I know, to take giddy joy from the suffering of others. So send me to bed without any supper. I loved it today when word came of the exhilarating events at the 16th. As the self-appointed representative of America's golfing hackers, I rushed to the 16th fairway to find an eyewitness to Palmer's inspirational work.
In these cases, it does no good to talk to the demigod himself. He doesn't see the humor of it. So accustomed is he to immortality, the great man doesn't know he can make lighter the burdens of the world's oppressed by confessing kinship with all of us who know the pain of quadruple bogeys. Instead, he will talk in technical terms, of swing planes gone awry, of clubhead speed delayed.
So, on behalf of hackers everywhere, this 14-handicapper sprinted to the 16th fairway and talked to a marshal there, George (Bud) Walston, a slight, graying fellow.
"What happened with Palmer?" I asked.
"Arnie took a 7 here," old Bud said, loving it.
Let me interrupt here. You need an idea of what Merion Golf Club's 16th, 17th and 18th holes are like. They are hell with the grass cut short. Whatever you're doing Saturday afternoon, make sure you're within reach of a television set when they play those last three holes of the Open's third round. Those holes are so difficult that none of the first eight leaders have played them under par. J.C. Snead made an 8 at the 16th, Terry Dill a 9 at the 18th.
The 16th is 430 yards long, with a second shot across a gully 40 feet deep and filled with sand traps. The grass and weeds down there haven't been mowed since the Pleistocene Age. Something called "Scotch broom," which has spear-like leaves, is six feet tall down there. Looking over the edge of the gully, a 14-handicapper decides: me not Tarzan; me not going down there without a bodyguard.
The 17th is a par-3 224 yards long, with the shot required over that same gully. The gully is an old quarry, in fact, with stone taken out to build the baronial estates of the Main line around here. Six sand traps protect the 17th, which has a green of such severe undulation that the hole may be three feet higher than the putter's shoes.
The 18th is a par-4 of 458 yards. To reach the fairway, you need a 220-yard carry. Out of bounds is to the left, and that gully is to the right. In 312 tries the first two rounds, the world's best players made only 11 birdies at the 18th. Fourteen glorious times, they also made 7, 8 and 9 there.
Now, back to the 16th fairway where the marshal, old Bud Walston, was fairly beaming at the memory of dear Arnold thrashing about in the stone quarry.
"Arnie hit his second shot in the quarry, over there by that big boulder," Walston said. "And he couldn't find it. He looked around for four or five minutes before he gave up. So he had to go back up the fairway, to where he had hit the shot, and hit another one.
"His caddy asked him what club he wanted and Arnold said, 'Gimme any club, or we'll be here all day.'"
Ol' Bud laughed and laughed.
"Then Arnie hit that one in the quarry, too. Finally got it up on the green and two-putted for his 7."
As hackers do given half a chance, Ol' Bud then twisted the knife in Arnie's aching back.
"Me, I made 6 on this hole," he said.
Back at the press tent, I was passing around the delicious tidbits of Arnold's documented mortality, when in came Tom Watson to say, "Those are three real tough finishing holes. You get in that quarry, you're in trouble. That's why it takes so long to play those holes.Somebody's always lost or out of bounds."
And Watson, around 2:30 this afternoon, said, "Somebody's bound to get in trouble at 16. I just hope it's not me."
At 6 o'clock, Jack Nicklaus was in trouble at 16.
It was a moment to treasure.
Nicklaus hit his drive into the rough. From there, he had 185 yards to the hole. With the ball sitting atop the grass in the rough, Nicklaus thought to send a four-iron shot homeward. Instead of using his customary swing, with which he would strike the ball a descending blow, Nicklaus wanted to "pick" the ball off the grass with a sweeping arc designed to go no lower than the bottom of the ball.
This is tricky work, and Jack botched it in a way painfully familiar to millions who have cursed the dimpled pellet's thin skin.
"I flat hit in the middle of the ball, " the great man said, " and practically cut the ball in two."
Come on, Jack, the winner of 19 major championships doesn't slice up a golf ball so its little rubber bands are showing.
"It was, " Nicklaus confessed, "smiling happily when I took it out of play."
Anyway, Jack's four-iron shot flew wonderfully wide of its mark, flying over the quarry that Nicklaus calls "no-man's land." It landed in a duffer's spot, beneath a tree, and from there Nicklaus had to chip out sideways, going away from the green, before leaving a wedge pitch short in the deep grass next to the green. His fifth shot, a delicate little pitch, rolled six feet past the cup.
He then made the put for a double bogey, and in the press room this winner of nearly $4 million gave a detailed technical explanation of his mis-hit four-iron. What the explanation came to was this: he didn't keep his head down. We could have told him that.
And then Jack won the hearts of America's duffers by saying of his 16th-hole adventure, "Actually, it was a pretty good 6."
Some of us live to make pretty good 6s.