U.S. Open: Billy Casper recalls his Arnie-like charge in '66
SAN FRANCISCO — The Olympic Club, site of this year's U.S. Open golf tournament, has provided special significance for three local golfers.
For Billy Casper, it was the site of one of the most famous comebacks in golf history, and it came against a golf icon.
For Johnny Miller, it was the beginning of what became an illustrious career.
For Keith Clearwater, it provided one of the most thrilling rounds of his career as well as a feeling of what might have been.
Casper's and Miller's stories happened in 1966, the second time the U.S.. Open came to the Olympic Club, while Clearwater's came 21 years later, the next time the Open came to the Olympic Club, in 1987.
Casper has an amazing memory for golf and can recall tournaments from 40 to 50 years ago, shot for shot.
At a recent media function for the upcoming U.S. Public Links Championship at Soldier Hollow, Casper talked about the most minute details of the tournament played 46 years ago in San Francisco.
Casper recalled in detail how he made up seven shots on the popular Palmer and how the outcome was a turning point of sorts in both of the players' careers.
Casper had joined the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints earlier in the year and was just in the beginning stages of his affiliation with the state of Utah, which he made his permanent home a few years later.
He and Palmer were tied at the halfway point after 36 holes and Palmer took a three-shot lead going into Sunday's final round after shooting a third-round 70.
When Palmer went out in 32 on Sunday to Casper's 36, the lead had ballooned to seven shots and, at the turn, Casper said he told Palmer, "I'd like to finish second."
It wasn't gamesmanship by Casper, who genuinely was hoping to hold off Jack Nicklaus for second place.
But it may have given Palmer a false sense of security. Casper also felt that Palmer was "caught up in thinking about Ben Hogan's record," which was 276 and had stood for 18 years at the time, and forgot about winning. All Palmer had to do was par out to get the record. But he didn't and meanwhile, as Casper put it, "I put on an Arnold Palmer charge."
Both players parred No. 10 and Casper made up four shots over the next four holes, including two at No. 15.
A big turning point came at the par-5 No. 16 hole. While Casper made birdie with a 13-foot putt, Palmer had to scramble to make bogey out of a greenside bunker after finding trouble in the trees with his drive.
"That was the first time I felt I could win the tournament," Casper said. "And I think it was the first time he felt he could lose it."
Casper picked up another stroke at the 17th hole when he got up and down, while Palmer made yet another bogey, missing a 10-foot par putt.
So when the two approached the 18th hole with its large amphitheater-type seating around the green, it was all tied up. Casper had picked up seven strokes in eight holes and five in the previous three holes. Both players two-putted for pars at No. 18.
"I had to play an exceptional nine holes and he struggled," Casper said..
In the playoff the following day, Casper again found himself trailing, this time by two shots after nine holes. However, he again came from behind and won the playoff with a 69 to Palmer's 73.
"It's interesting what happened after that," Casper said of those decisive nine holes on Sunday. "Arnie went downhlll from there and I went uphill."
Perhaps that's a bit of an exaggeration, as Palmer was able to win 13 more times on the PGA Tour up until 1973. However, he never did win another major.
Meanwhile, Casper won 21 more times on the PGA Tour up until 1975, including the 1970 Masters, his third major title.
Casper has been getting a lot of attention this spring since the release of his autobiography "The Big Three and Me," co-authored by Deseret News columnist Lee Benson. He is spending part of his week at the Olympic Club, autographing copies of his book.
In 1966, Miller was a 19-year-old freshman at BYU who had grown up playing the Olympic Club. He first played it when he was 12 and was a junior member throughout his teenage years. So he knew the Olympic Club, with its narrow and sloping tree-lined fairways as well as anyone.
"I must have played a thousand rounds at Olympic over the years, sometimes a hundred a year," Miller told the San Francisco Examiner.
With his slender build and blond hair, Miller finished as the low amateur and tied for eighth place overall in 1966, 12 strokes behind Casper and Palmer, after rounds of 70, 72, 74 and 74.
Miller credited his experience playing the Olympic Club as a teenager for his later success on the PGA Tour.
"When I went on tour, I thought everything was flat ground after playing the super-tough course Olympic Club was," Miller said.
One of his few regrets in golf was that he couldn't play a U.S. Open at the Olympic while he was in his prime, as the Open didn't come back to the Olympic until 1987.
"My one regret was that the Open didn't come to Olympic when I was playing well," he said.
Clearwater was just a rookie on the PGA Tour when he shot a third-round 64, passing 53 players in just one round. He had six birdies and saved par four times in tying the course record. He was paired with legendary Tom Watson in the final group for the final round. However, Clearwater struggled all day and finished with a 9-over-par 79 and ended up in a tie for 31st place.
Clearwater had won his first PGA event a month earlier in Fort Worth at the Colonial and he would win later in the year at the Centel Classic.
But who knows how his life might have changed had he been able to play better in the final round with Watson and perhaps win a U.S. Open title? Clearwater never won another PGA tournament after 1987.
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