Pebble Beach (© Patrick Drickey / stonehousegolf.com)
Arnold Palmer has enjoyed success at courses around the globe. But there’s only one major tournament course that Palmer can say he truly “owns,” even though it’s one of the few famous venues where he’s never won.
Too bad, too, because it’s a dandy: Pebble Beach Golf Links, the fabled course Palmer partnered in purchasing in 1999. Palmer owning Pebble is like Bill Gates owning Silicon Valley. It’s a magnificent pairing—one of the only combinations that could confine co-owner Clint Eastwood to second billing.
Palmer, Eastwood and former Major League baseball commissioner Peter Ueberroth were the marquee names from an investment group that included 100 partners that purchased the Pebble Beach Co. for $820 million. Company ownership includes three other renowned golf courses—Spyglass Hill, The Links at Spanish Bay and Del Monte Golf Course—along with The Lodge at Pebble Beach and The Inn at Spanish Bay. The group also owns the spectacular 17-Mile Drive.
Buying the property must have been sweet vindication for Palmer, who for more than 40 years couldn’t buy a win there. He’s been close. In one of many episodes in their epic rivalry, he finished third to Jack Nicklaus in the 1972 U.S. Open—the first major staged at Pebble Beach.
Palmer’s best finish in the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am, for years informally known as crooner Bing Crosby’s Clambake, came when he was a shot shy of Don Massengale in 1966.
But Palmer’s failures at Pebble were so striking that Neal Hotelling devotes several pages to the subject in the course’s official history, Pebble Beach Golf Links (1999). “In golf circles there is often talk about the greatest golfer to have never won a major,” he writes. “The Pebble Beach National Pro-Am list of winners contains most of the top golfers of the last half-century. Sam Snead, Ben Hogan, Lloyd Mangrum, Byron Nelson, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Johnny Miller, Tom Kite and Payne Stewart [and, later, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson] are just a few of the tournament champions. A name glaringly missing from the list, however, is that of Arnold Palmer.
“In over 20 appearances, including an unbroken run from 1958 through 1971, Palmer failed to record a win at Pebble Beach. During that same period, he had four wins at The Masters, one U.S. Open victory, and two wins at the British Open. It’s not that Palmer had no luck at Pebble Beach, but rather that the luck he had was all bad.”
A less gracious man than Palmer might have purchased Pebble Beach and out of vengeance turned the pristine property into a cow pasture, thus preventing the public from ever seeing what all agree is some of golf’s most scenic territory. The course’s reputation is as legendary as that of its most famous golfing owner. In 2001, Golf Digest named it the first public course to be selected as the No.1 course in America. Despite green fees of $495 (plus $35 cart fee for non-resort guests), among the highest in the world, Pebble Beach is still on every golfer’s bucket list of places they must play before they die.
The beautiful short 5th sits on the bluffs overlooking Stillwater Cove (© Patrick Drickey / stonehousegolf.com)
Palmer’s often played it well, though his efforts during the 1972 U.S. Open still haunt him, his challenge scuppered by an opening 77 and closing 76. His second-round 68 tied rookie pro Lanny Wadkins for low round of the tournament and electrified a Palmer-leaning gallery that was primed for a charge. “It was a great round,” Palmer said, “but it could have been better. I missed makeable putts at 5 (15 feet), 6 (12 feet) and 7 (six feet). And I missed a little two-footer on 8.
The final round featured a standoff that remains among televised golf’s most dramatic split-screen moments. It showed Palmer and Nicklaus each facing 8-foot putts (Palmer for birdie on 14; Nicklaus for par on 12). If Palmer made and Nicklaus missed, it would put Palmer ahead. Instead, the reverse happened and the momentum was drained from Palmer. Five holes later, Nicklaus struck one of the signature shots of his career when his 1-iron hit the stick on 17 and finished six inches from the cup. He duly won his second U.S. Open while Palmer fell to third, four strokes adrift, and his fans left crestfallen.
It wasn’t the first time Palmer and his fans had left Pebble disappointed. In the third round of the 1963 Crosby tournament, Palmer hit his tee shot long at the par-3 17th and watched it disappear, apparently into the ocean beyond. He then played a provisional ball from the tee, but upon arriving at the green he saw his first ball on the beach below the bluffs. After declaring it unplayable, he holed out with his provisional when the rules stipulated he should have returned to the tee to put another ball into play. The error came to light a day later and he was disqualified for an incorrect score.
One group that was never disappointed with Palmer’s often ill-fated exploits at Pebble Beach were sportswriters. A generation of great sports wags honed their skills on Palmer adventures at Pebble. In 1964, he again hit long on 17. Rather than risk another DQ, he found and played the ball, opting for a risky shot instead of taking a one-stroke penalty for an unplayable lie. As golfer and commentator Jimmy Demaret explained it to the television audience, Palmer had the option of dropping along a line behind the original position of the ball. “In that case,” Demaret said, “his nearest drop would be Honolulu.” So Palmer gamely played the ball and was joined on the rocks by a wandering dog (See Life in Pictures).
Famed sports writer Jim Murray of the Los Angeles Times was watching from home on his television and later wrote: “Palmer was so far out on the moor in the ocean he looked like Robinson Crusoe. His only companions were a dog and a sand wedge. I thought for a minute or so we had switched channels and Walt Disney was bringing us a heartwarming story of a boy and his dog, but a companion, peering closer, had a better idea. ‘Shouldn’t that dog have a cask around his neck?’”
Even more confounding was what happened on the par-5 14th in 1967 after Palmer had hit a strong drive. Reacting to a telltale roar that Nicklaus had birdied, Palmer sent a 3-wood soaring toward the green. As the ball drifted down, a gust sent it into a greenside tree. The ball barely nicked the lone branch that sent it caroming out of bounds. With the pressure on, Palmer needed to recover with a spectacular shot. Again, he drew the 3-wood, and again he suffered the same result. The same branch on the same tree sent another ball OB. He took a 9 on the hole.
Palmer lost the tournament, but the offending tree got the worst of it. That very night a storm blew the tree out of the ground. That next day, it was sawdust and the world was left to wonder just how high up the fans in Arnie’s Army reached.