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O’Brien on 50th anniversary of U.S. Open at Oakmont

June 7, 2012
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O’Brien on 50th anniversary of U.S. Open at Oakmont

TV documentary recalls 1962 U.S. Open

Pittsburgh sports author and Valley Mirror columnist Jim O’Brien

The 1962 U.S. Open at Oakmont is still considered one of the greatest upsets in pro golf history. A first-year pro from Columbus, Ohio named Jack Nicklaus came here and knocked off Arnold Palmer in a playoff. Palmer was called “The King” at the time. Palmer was in the prime of his career, and he was playing on a familiar course just 40 miles from his home in Latrobe.

The crowd was for him all the way, and Palmer and Nicklaus went head-to-head as a pairing in the first two rounds and then again in the fourth round and the playoff round. Arnie’s Army was marching strong each day and taunting the young blond branded “The Bear” as he made his way around the famed and respected course.

This year marks the 50th anniversary of that great event and the USGA has produced an hour-long TV documentary that will precede this year’s final round of the U.S. Open on NBC-TV. It will be aired at 2 p.m. on Father’s Day on WPXI-TV.

This year’s U.S. Open is being played at another storied venue, Oakland Hills Country Club outside San Francisco, but the documentary will make it a must double header for all serious golf enthusiasts.

I had forgotten I had worked the U.S. Open at Oakmont, and clearly enjoyed one of the best viewpoints of the action all week long. I was sitting on the edge of the greens at most of the holes, writing caption information for photographs taken by a staff photographer for The Pittsburgh Press.

I never included this event in the Top Ten of the most important sports events I have personally witnessed and written about until I took a telephone call in February from George Roy of Flagstaff Films in New York City.

“When you were in high school,” he began, “did you by chance get out to the U.S. Open at Oakmont in 1962?”

I said that was the summer after my sophomore year at the University of Pittsburgh and that I had a position as a summer intern on the city-side news staff at The Press. I explained exactly what my assignment was that day and how rowdy the crowd had been while cheering for Palmer, the hometown favorite, against the young brash upstart from Ohio, a first-year pro named Jack Nicklaus.

I said the crowd cheered for Arnie and insulted Jack regularly, calling him “Ohio Fats” and “Fat Boy,” and actually stomping on the ground when Nicklaus was attempting a putt. Even Steelers’ fans didn’t behave that badly back in those days.

Palmer apologized to Nicklaus at one point for the way his fans were behaving. Woody Hayes, the feisty football coach at The Ohio State University, where Nicklaus had first gained attention on the golf course, was following Nicklaus in the company of Charlie Nicklaus, the father of the young blond golfer. Charlie Nicklaus owned and operated a drug store in Columbus that Hayes had frequented on a regular basis.

Woody and Charlie got into a few verbal confrontations with the crowd over the way they were trying to distract Jack Nicklaus. Hayes was known for having a fiery temper and eventually lost his job at Ohio State for assaulting an opposing player in a sideline skirmish. You wouldn’t want to mess with Woody Hayes, or Charlie Nicklaus.

Some reports on that event, particularly one by an old friend on the sports beat, Jerry Izenberg of The Newark Star-Ledger, indicated that one could actually feel the ground around the green quake when the members of Arnie’s Army started marching in step, stomping on the ground when Nicklaus was putting.
I don’t know about that, but Nicklaus insisted afterward that he was not aware that the crowd was a bit unruly. He was too focused on his golf game to notice.

Once George Roy realized I had been a witness to what went on that week at Oakmont, he scheduled a visit to our home in Upper St. Clair. That’s why there were two television trucks in our driveway the morning of February 28, 2012.

Roy had told me I was a good story-teller. His company Flagstaff Films produced sports documentaries for network and cable television stations. He was working on such a documentary about the 1962 U.S. Open that will be shown on NBC befpre the final round on June 17, at 2 or 3 p.m.

Roy used to run a similar TV documentary filming company called Black Canyon and I was interviewed and appeared in a documentary called “Pistol Pete” The Life and Times of Pete Maravich,” and another one about Roberto Clemente. The Maravich piece won an Emmy Award. Roy’s company has won six Emmy Awards and several other distinctions through the years. I got ample air time on both of the documentaries about Maravich and Clemente, I am proud to report.

I recalled how author Shelby Foote was featured so often in a documentary about the Civil War that was done by award-winning Ken Burns. “I want to be your Shelby Foote,” I told Roy and did my homework on the 1962 U.S. Open prior to his visit to my home in Upper St. Clair.

Roy called me a few weeks later, after his camera crew has recorded a return to Oakmont by Palmer and Nicklaus to reminisce about their meeting 50 years earlier. “I think you will be pleased with what we’ve turned out,” he said. “You made the cut. You’re in it for sure.”

I will explain how I was able to have one of the most up-close views possible at the 1962 U.S. Open. I was working that summer as an intern at The Pittsburgh Press. I had been awarded a Wall Street Journal Scholarship of $500 in addition to the pay I drew working on the city-side or news side of Pittsburgh’s leading daily at the time.

It was a wonderful internship and that summer proved to be very important in shaping my career. Each week I would shadow a different established reporter on his or her beat. One week I’d be at City Hall, the next week in the local judicial courts or police station, the labor beat, the real estate beat, you name it. At the city morgue, I even witnessed an autopsy of a woman who’d been found murdered in the streets. Her body was badly bruised with purple splotches everywhere. I was given an opportunity to write columns and they appeared above and below some nationally syndicated columnists such as Robert Ruark, Bishop Fulton J. Sheehan and Jim Bishop and local writers such as Gilbert Love and Barbara Cloud. I wrote a front-page story about a riot at Western Penitentiary for a full week.

I hit it off well with the editor, John Troan, and the managing editor, Leo Koeberlein, and they invited me to return the following summer. I chose to go to Philadelphia instead to have a summer internship at The Philadelphia Bulletin. I wanted to be with the sportswriters in Philadelphia, among the best in the country. It turned out to be a big mistake. I worked the overnight shift and I seldom got to write any stories. I came home early that summer. I was wasting my time in Philly.

That summer I worked at The Press was also when I started frequenting Dante’s, a saloon/restaurant on the border of Brentwood and Whitehall where all the top sports writers and broadcasters as well as some of the outstanding Steelers, future Hall of Fame players such as Bobby Layne and Ernie Stautner, were among the regulars. I wanted to be around the writers. I wanted to hear their stories, learn from them, show them my stuff, and seek their advice and approval.

The media cast at Dante’s regularly included Myron Cope, Pat Livingston, Bob Drum, Doc Giffin, Tom Bender, Ed Conway, Dave Kelly, Tom Hritz and a supporting cast of characters from the South Hills, namely Jim “Buff” Boston, who became the traveling secretary for the Steelers in the ‘70s, and a fellow named “Funny Sam” that I never thought was that funny and a dentist with bad teeth.

That 1962 summer was a great summer. I knew, for sure, I wanted to be a sportswriter. I was just 19, soon to be 20, but still too young to be in any bars, but I was eager to make my mark.

One day at The Press, I overheard some of the bosses discussing plans for coverage of the upcoming U.S. Open. They were talking about who was going to do what, and they were going to send some reporters from city-side as well as the usual sportswriters to cover the event. When they stated talking about the photographers, I stepped forward and volunteered to go out to Oakmont and write photo captions.

I was assigned to tag along with Al Hermann Jr. When I came back to The Press in 1979, after working a year in Miami and nine years in New York, I teamed up with that same Al Hermann Jr. in covering the Pittsburgh Steelers. John Troan and Leo Koeberlein were still in charge of the paper and they were the ones who brought me back to town. They forgave me for not returning for a second summer as an intern in 1963.

They told me that I was going to be the next sports editor of The Press, and succeed Pat Livingston in that post. They didn’t tell me they were going to retire before that would happen.
But that’s water over the damn. I still enjoyed my days at The Pittsburgh Press.

Nicklaus had just joined the pro tour after many successes as an amateur at The Ohio State University. I have watched Nicklaus on TV when he has hosted his annual golf tour outing at Muirfield in Dublin, Ohio. It turns out he liked the layout at Oakmont so much that he has included some of its features in his own course, including those famous furrowed sand traps when he designed and later reconfigured some of the holes on his own course.

He used the same rakes with the four-inch tines widely separated that he’d seen in the maintenance shacks at Oakmont. Only now they were called “Jack’s Rakes.”

I thought about the first time I saw him at Oakmont. All the top golf writers and some of the leading sports columnists in the country were at Oakmont that summer of 1962 and they hung out in a media room in the basement of the club house. Several of them told stories. One of the ones who held court the most often was Oscar Fraley. He had authored the book The Untouchables, which was turned into a popular TV series that I watched religiously (from 1959 to 1963). So I introduced myself to Oscar Fraley and shadowed him in the clubhouse that week. Bob Drum, the golf writer of The Press who lived in Bethel Park, was a close friend of Palmer and a favorite among the golf writers because he was quite the character.

Oakmont was regarded as a monster of a course, a true test for veterans and downright unfair and unforgiving for rookies. It still has the same status today among the world’s greatest and most challenging golf courses. That’s why they play so many U.S. Opens there.

Its greens were glossy, and it had those infamous furrowed sand bunkers – “the church pews” – that made it different from every other golf course in the country. They have since been eliminated from the course, along with many of its signature trees.

“Go get ‘em, Arnie!” fans were yelling from the outset. There was no question as to who was the hometown favorite. The gathering loved Palmer’s bold, attacking style, his humble low-key manner of responding to questions in the press tent. The way he waved to the gallery, grinning back at them when they shouted his name. Plus, he was from nearby Latrobe. He was a hometown hero, one of their own.
Arnie’s Army marched across the course like troops in field movements during the Civil War.

They played 36 holes on the last day of the tournament in those days. Palmer had 73 in the morning and 71 in the afternoon, and finished in a tie with Nicklaus. I got to see this by taking a position around the fringe of the greens, writing down the names of whomever Al Hermann Jr. captured with his camera. A reporter named Frank Christopher accompanied us on our tour of the course.

Palmer and Nicklaus had an 18-hole playoff on Sunday and Nicklaus carded a 71 and Palmer a 74, and the outcome never seemed to be in question.

Palmer should have won. He was the better golfer at the time, but he did not. He had 11 3-putt greens and Nicklaus carded just one 3-putt green. That was the difference. I still have color photos I took that weekend of some of the top pros, including Palmer, Nickaus, Billy Casper, Gene Littler and Gary Player.
Palmer lost a playoff the following year to Julius Boros in the U.S. Open, and never won an Open again.

Palmer won often enough, however, to retain his position as the premier player in golf. He became a multi-millionaire, the first to fly an airplane of his own, and he showed the way for others to follow.
He won seven Grand Slam titles and the U.S. Amateur title when that was something special. I had an opportunity to visit with him at his workshop at the Latrobe Country Club, to dine with him in the men’s grill at that same club, to interview him at Oakmont a few times. I wasn’t one of the golf writers, but Palmer was always pleasant and generous with his time and thoughts. It helped that I knew Doc Giffin, who came out of Crafton and succeeded Bob Drum as the golf writer at The Press, and then became Palmer’s press agent and right-hand man in 1962.

I always thought that every time I talked to Palmer it was a special occasion, a real treat. I always thought of how much my golfer friends would have liked to have been in our company on those occasions.

In his terrific book, A Good Walk Spoiled, John Feinstein wrote, “No one has ever been loved and revered and worshipped like Arnie. Palmer has been the single most important player in the history of golf.”
Palmer also played during a safer period than Tiger Woods when the players weren’t under the same scrutiny as they are today.

Arnie has always been one of the guys, but he’s never stopped wanting to win.

Palmer hopes he’s gained the respect of the players, young and old, and that his feelings merit their attention.

“I don’t want to be some old man going on about the old days,” he said, “but I still have some strong opinions about the tour and what goes on around the players in the game today.”

But he could tell them about the times he played a round with President Dwight D. Eisenhower, and how he and Ike popularized the game of golf in America as well as around the world.

Pittsburgh sports author Jim O’Brien has many good books in his “Pittsburgh Proud” series that would make great gifts on Father’s Day. He can be contacted by e-mail at jimmyo64@gmail.com or at his website http://www.jimobriensportsauthor.com

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One Comment leave one →
  1. August 16, 2012 1:19 pm

    Jim,
    Just came across the story about the Open and first it’s good to see your name again.
    Al Herrmann is my father and we were introduced years ago. I always enjoyed your books and it’s good to see you are still writing.
    I called Dad and told him about the story and he mentioned the time the two of you covered the circus as Forbes Field. After the circus you both went to the trailers and brought some six-packs, My dad said they went through that and headed out for more. He had to relieve himself and went outside and could not find the restroom so in the dark he started to take care of business and the next thing you know he was standing by an elephant who had the same idea, Dad could not move fast enough.
    I saw John Troan at my Uncle’s funeral by the way and he still looks great. He was telling me stories about working in Washington and covering the White House. He was one of the great ones.
    Good luck and health yo you.
    Dan Herrmann

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