"I just played with a kid who should have won the Open by 10 shots." -- Ben Hogan, 1960
OAKMONT, Pa., June 15--That was shortly after Hogan and the kid walked off the final hole at Cherry Hills; the legend also implied that the prodigy had been terribly dumb those last 36 holes. Well, Jack Nicklaus got smart in a hurry. Two years later here, he shot past the man who had beaten him in Denver and whose grip on golf never again was quite so firm, Arnold Palmer.
The '62 Open was thrilling and ugly. Nicklaus won his first tournament as a pro in a playoff against the man who brought golf to the masses. That also brought out the worst in Arnie's Army, fans reacting to their hero losing, on his home turf, by yelling "Fat Jack" at Nicklaus. To Palmer, when Nicklaus was lining up a putt, one oaf shouted, "Walk around Arnie, baby, that'll shake him up."
Nothing short of the earth parting beneath him would have shaken Nicklaus that day.
"Arnold was king of the world," Nicklaus has said. "There's nothing wrong with that. I was the fat, unathletic-looking kid who had one too many chocolate sundaes."
Later, many in the gallery who had been appalled at such behavior apologized.
"I didn't hear any of that," he insisted today. "I was 22 years old and had one thing on my mind: playing golf. I didn't see anything else. As I was growing up, I didn't pay much attention to other players. Arnie was fine to play with that day. Super. I heard none of what everybody later talked about.
"That's gettin' your mind on what you want to do, I guess."
In a word, concentration.
"Wish I could do that today," he said.
Twenty-one years later, Nicklaus arrives at Oakmont as a corporation. A few weeks ago, he passed $4 million in tournament money. His net worth might be 100 times that. He's lost lots of weight and gained a personality. The one constant over the span of a generation: he still is among the favorites.
In '62, Nicklaus was a siege gun off the tee who had a pool hustler's touch around the greens. On greens regarded as the most fearsome in golf, he three-putted just once in 90 holes. He also missed just one other putt inside eight feet. Palmer three-putted 10 times.
In a reflective mood not too long ago, Palmer thought he could have held Nicklaus off another four or five years had that '62 playoff gone his way. Whatever, Nicklaus has gone on to win 69 tour titles and 87 championships of some sort around the globe.
Remarkably, he has competed as a professional in 85 major championships (the Masters, U. S. and British Opens and PGA) and finished among the top 10 in 66 of them. He has won 19 times, finished second 18 times and third nine times. He will be trying for a record fifth Open.
"When you've had success," he said, "you'd better keep on working. And harder. Because that becomes the hardest time."
So Nicklaus, again, is tinkering with his game. Fine-tuning his swing in ways too complicated for mortals to digest. Not quite taking a blessed putter gone slightly crooked over his knee and bending it straight once more, but close.
And, arriving back at the putting stance that worked here in '62.
His experience at Oakmont reflects Nicklaus' work ethic. He won the Open here in '62 and finished fourth in '73. Having gotten slightly lazy after winning the British Open, he came here unprepared for the '78 PGA and shot 79 the first day.
Salesman Nicklaus is touting the new ball he will use here for the first time, it having just been approved by the gods of golf last week. Says he's 20 yards longer off the tee with it. Craftsman Nicklaus will not be going for distance this week.
"They've taken a large amount of the gamble out of the course," he said. "I might not use a driver at all the back nine. And anyone leading by a stroke who steps onto the 18th tee the final round and pulls a driver out of his bag is out of his tree.
"But when players play safe they shoot better scores; if they're allowed to gamble, the scores will be higher."
The short 17th still is a high-roller's hole, though not so much as before the '73 Open. At 292 yards, it was driven almost routinely by the better pros. Before the Johnny Miller Open, it was lengthened to 322 yards and heavily trapped and roughed.
When Nicklaus hauled out his driver on 17, playing partner Bob Goalby turned to a marshall and whispered, "Well, if that isn't a stupid shot." After Nicklaus hit, Goalby repeated the observation to him.
"That's on the green," Nicklaus shot back.
One putt later, Nicklaus had an eagle.
"Oh, hell," an Oakmont member, Jimmy Marks, said. "We spent about $10,000 building that tee so that nobody could drive the green, and Nicklaus does it the first day."
Nicklaus has admitted that Tom Watson sinking a chip shot on the 71st hole to take the '82 Open from him "had a negative effect for me the rest of the year." He is hoping it will have a positive effect this week.
"It'll remind me," said Nicklaus, 43, "that not long ago I played a very good Open and should have won."
The many sides of Nicklaus were comfortably displayed during his usual state-of-his-game press conference before a major. The competitive Nicklaus relished one final memory of '62.
"They listed me at 9-to-1 odds," he said. "I thought that was awfully high."