As well they should. For all its stark beauty, Oakmont is one hell of a golf course: 7,255 yards, nearly 200 penal bunkers and greens so lightning fast the busybody U.S.G.A. crews preparing the course for the 2007 U.S. Open will be tasked to slow . . . them . . . down.
The rich Palmer legacy resonates at Augusta where he won four times, at Cherry Hills where the charge was born, and at St. Andrews, Royal Birkdale and Troon where Palmer is credited with inventing the fabled British Open as we know it.
But no major tournament venue is more closely associated with Palmer than Oakmont, and no course dished out more pain and poignancy than the course he grew up dreaming of conquering. When towheaded boys fantasize about winning the World Series with a final swing of the bat, it’s always Yankee Stadium. When those boys are western Pennsylvania golfers, the dreams are of snaking in the winning putt on the 18th green in the shadows of Oakmont’s gabled clubhouse.
For Palmer, the dream came true at a very young age.
“I was just a kid when I beat Jack Benson there to win the 1949 Western Pennsylvania Amateur,” he recalls. “Oakmont is so full of tradition from the locker room to men standing and laughing in the wooden floored barroom. The course is always in excellent condition. It just really resonates with all that’s great about golf. At 18, it was such an unbelievable thrill to win there.”
That win, however, is an asterisk in Palmer’s career at the course that is just one hour on the Pennsylvania Turnpike west of his Latrobe home. It was at Oakmont where the symbolic changing of the guard took place in 1962 when Jack Nicklaus beat Palmer and an often belligerent crowd of Palmer stalwarts to win the U.S. Open. And in 1973, Palmer stood on the 12th green as the final leader of that year’s U.S. Open when he was stunned to see Johnny Miller had posted a record-setting 63 to vault to victory. And it was at Oakmont in 1994 that Palmer closed the door on his U.S. Open career before a crowd so adoring that tears spilled down the old golfer’s face as their 18th green ovation washed over him.
In fact, tears are Oakmont’s only water hazard. It is a heartbreaker. Forty-four years after the watershed tournament, Palmer still sounds mournful when talking about the ‘62 Open and how he let it get away.
“I used to putt those greens pretty well when I was younger, but in ‘62 Nicklaus beat me on the greens by 17 shots . . . 17!” he says, sounding as if he could snap a stout-shafted putter in half at the mere recollection. “I’ve never played the greens when they weren’t like lightning. Never played it once in my life when the stimpmeter reading was under 11.”
Had it not been for Oakmont, the word “stimpmeter” might never have even been introduced into golf’s vernacular. It was here at the 1935 U.S. Open, that renowned amateur Edward Stimpson noted the diabolical greens were so fast that only one man, eventual winner and western Pennsylvania resident Sam Parks Jr., was having success putting. Stimpson left determined to create a device that would measure the consistency of green speed so golfers everywhere could prepare. Thus, the birth of the stimpmeter.
Golfers at the 2006 U.S. Open at Winged Foot skated across greens that stimped at 12.5. Oakmont members breathe sighs of relief when they stimp in the neighborhood of 13. The course will be unrecognizable to golfers who last played it in 1994. A massive tree removal program uprooted more than 3,000 magnificent hardwoods to restore the once leafy landmark to its barren, foreboding look of its 1903 introduction.
Bob Ford is Oakmont’s head professional and has golfed there with Palmer many times. Not once, he says, has Palmer stepped out of character and looked backward. Not once did he stop to dwell on the past.
Until last summer. Ford says Palmer had stopped by on July 11, 2006, to play a round prior to the Major League Baseball All-Star festivities occuring that day at Pittsburgh’s PNC Park.
“That’s the only time I’ve ever played with him that he even got the slightest bit reflective,” Ford says. “Never once did he look back or mention past tournaments until that recent summer day.”
Ford says Palmer stood at the side of the par 5 ninth green and recalled how he’d been at that spot in 1962 in two. He told Ford how he’d been just off the green, right next to the flag with idealistic thoughts of birdie, maybe -- cross your fingers -- a pivotal eagle. But Palmer, chagrined, recalled how the greens took a bite out of his ambitions and he stalked off with a discouraging bogie.
“Then on 12th green, he said how he stood there in 1973 and had been head-to-head in the lead with Julius Boros when both looked up at the leader board and saw Johnny Miller had posted his record-setting 63 on the rain-damped greens,” Ford says. “He couldn’t believe it.”
As the round continued, Ford says he was struck by how nostalgic Palmer was going through the years and rounds that are indelibly etched into the history of one of America’s most legendary courses.
“I got the feeling that maybe he thought it was one of the last times he’d ever play there, and it saddened me to think Arnold Palmer was having those thoughts,” Ford says.
But in the end, it won’t be those wistful moments Ford says he’ll recall from an otherwise ordinary round with an extraordinary gentleman. It won’t be Palmer talking about tournaments and titles that got away four decades ago. It won’t be the echoes of the cheers and the reciprocal love between a hometown boy who’d gone global and the fans who loved him so fiercely for both his successes and failures.
No, Ford says the recollection he’ll most cherish happened before the round even started. And the unlikely instigators were some scrawny youths clinging to a fence separating the Oakmont pool from the nearby first tee.
“We were getting ready to tee off and we heard these kids applauding,” Ford says. “We turned around and a bunch of the boys had climbed out of the water and were hanging on the fence to watch Arnold Palmer tee off,” he says. “They hadn’t even been born when he won his last tournament, but they were cheering him like he was Tiger Woods.
“He smiled, waved, turned to me and said, ‘Bob, that’s what keeps bringing me out after all these years.’ It made me tingle all over. That’s what I’ll always remember most about that day. That’s the memory I’ll cherish forever.”