All The King's Courses

TIMES STAFF WRITER

So what does a U.S. Open course look like?

Ever seen a rattlesnake sunning itself on a rock?

Things we know: A U.S. Open course is an IRS agent on your front step, 18 miles of bad road, a trap door, Magic Mountain without a seat belt, Dennis Rodman's face when he runs out of hair dye, No. 37 for takeoff, downsizing at the office and somebody you don't know is measuring your pod.

Exaggeration? Yeah, right. And Godzilla was a lizard with a poor attitude.

Come to think of it, there actually are some people who really do enjoy the courses where they play the U.S. Open. They are called the winners.

Golfers have manners that don't involve replacing divots or walking in somebody's line. It is considered

poor form to win and then start complaining, the same way it's not very polite to be invited over for dinner and then start spitting the entree into your napkin.

To be fair, not every U.S. Open course was set up by the Marquis de Sade. There have been plenty of great venues and great champions. Of course, some of the courses and some of the champions have been greater than others, but that's golf.

In any event, just to show the flip side of the U.S. Open courses, how about checking out somebody's favorite ones?

So let's ask Arnold Palmer.

Now, this is sort of like asking Picasso what he thinks about his Blue Period, but it's historic, so go with it.

Palmer, 68, played in the U.S. Open 32 times. He won it once, in 1960 at Cherry Hills, but he finished second four times, three times losing in a playoff. He played his first U.S. Open in 1953 when he was an amateur. His first U.S. Open as a pro was in 1955 at the Olympic Club when he was 25. He played his last one at Oakmont Country Club in 1994 when he was 64.

Here are Palmer's top 10 Open courses and his comments about each:

1. Cherry Hills Country Club, Denver: "I guess this would have to be my favorite Open course, for obvious reasons beyond it being a very good one. Certainly the Open victory there was a major landmark in my career."

In 1960, Palmer already had won his second Masters title and was the clear favorite at the Open, but he was seven shots behind Mike Souchak when the fourth round began.

Palmer finished with a 65, unquestionably the round of his career, beginning when he drove the first green--346 yards--and made a birdie. Palmer's seven-shot comeback after 54 holes is a U.S. Open record, which might have been caused by a conversation Palmer had with writers Bob Drum and Dan Jenkins.

Palmer asked what would happen if he drove the first green and made an eagle or a birdie. He asked what would happen if he shot 65.

"Nothing," Drum said. "You're too far back."

Palmer said he would wind up with 280, and isn't that always good enough to win the Open?

"Yeah, when Hogan shoots it," Jenkins said.

Well, Palmer shot it and got his first and only U.S. Open title.

2. Oakmont Country Club, Oakmont, Pa.: "Oakmont is home for me. I've played it so many times over the years and I came close to winning the Open there on two occasions. I'm proud to be a member of the club."

In 1962, the Open is remembered for the head-to-head battle between 22-year-old Jack Nicklaus and Palmer, the 32-year-old star of the game. Nicklaus shot a closing 69 to equal Palmer, who shot a 71, and force an 18-hole playoff the next day.

Palmer, who played all week with three stitches in the fourth finger of his right hand after cutting it when he took some bags out of his trunk, was four shots down after six holes of the playoff. He got within one shot of Nicklaus, but three-putted the 13th--his 10th three-putt in the Open--and Nicklaus won his first major title.

In 1973 at Oakmont, Palmer was tied for the lead with John Schlee, Julius Boros and Jerry Heard after the third round of the Open, which was the cue for Johnny Miller to fire his 63 and win. Palmer, who closed with a 72, fell to fourth place.

Few saw Miller coming. After Palmer hit what he thought was a perfect drive on No. 12 on Sunday, he was stunned when he checked out the scoreboard.

"What the hell is Miller shooting?" Palmer said. He later admitted that until then, he thought he had the Open going completely his way.

3. Oakland Hills, Birmingham, Mich.: "I've had success there . . . the Senior Open in 1981 . . . and I played well there a couple of other times too."

Palmer won the U.S. Senior Open in 1981 when he defeated Bob Stone and Billy Casper in a three-way, 18-hole playoff.

As the defending Open champion at Oakland Hills in 1961, Palmer barely made the cut with rounds of 74-75, but he he finished 70-70 and wound up tied for 14th, eight shots behind Gene Littler.

4. The Country Club, Brookline, Mass.: "I had what you would have to call a 'near-success' there in 1963. Another one. That was a really tough Open, the course and the weather."

In the 1963 Open, high winds drove the scores even higher. It got so bad that on the final day, not one player could shoot par. Boros finished birdie-birdie to get into a three-way playoff with Palmer and Jackie Cupit.

Palmer didn't sleep well the night before because of an upset stomach and he trailed Boros by three shots after nine. On the 11th hole, he hooked his drive into a rotting tree stump and wound up with a triple-bogey seven. Palmer finished the playoff with a 76. At 43, he was one month younger than Ted Ray when Ray won the 1920 U.S. Open.

5. The Olympic Club, San Francisco: "Another near success . . . 1966. Certainly it was one of the biggest disappointments of my career. At one point it looks like I'm going to set an Open scoring record for 72 holes and break Hogan's mark, and I wind up losing the tournament."

Palmer's loss of a seven-shot lead with nine holes to go was consistent with his heroic performances, even in defeat. He had to salvage par on the 18th hole to get into a playoff with Billy Casper, which he managed to do in spectacular fashion--hooking his tee shot into heavy rough, but recovering and making his par. Casper beat Palmer by four shots in the 18-hole playoff.

As luck would have it, Palmer's collapse on the back nine Sunday was seen by viewers across the nation. ABC used 17 cameras on the last five holes. It was quite a spectacle.

6. Oak Hill Country Club, Rochester, N.Y.: "Yes, still another near success. I had a good shot at a second U.S. Senior Open championship there in 1984, but I finished second to Miller Barber. That doesn't mean I can't appreciate a great U.S. Open layout, though."

It was so great in the 1968 U.S. Open that Palmer finished 59th, the third-worst finish of any Open in which he made the cut. The 1968 Open is where Lee Trevino burst upon the scene with his first major victory.

7. Champions Golf Club, Houston: "This is sounding like a broken record: same thing. Miller Barber and I and a couple of others had great chances to win the Open there in 1969, but Orville Moody beat us all."

Palmer's third-round 69 got him within six shots of Barber, who faltered on Sunday. That left the door open and Moody promptly walked through. Palmer's best chance was when Moody bogeyed the 10th hole to fall back to level par, which left Palmer, Bob Rosburg, Bruce Crampton, Al Geiberger, Bob Murphy, Deane Beman and Barber only two shots behind.

Palmer wound up bogeying the 15th and 16th to fall out of it. That didn't mean he was forgotten. When it was over, Moody got a phone call from President Nixon. But so did Palmer. Nixon told Palmer that Moody was a nice guy, but that the president had been rooting for Palmer. It didn't help much.

8. Merion Golf Club, Ardmore, Pa.: "A more distant near-success, I guess. My, what a wonderful U.S. Open course, though. An excellent course that has become almost too short for the modern-day players and doesn't seem to be considered for an Open any more."

In 1971, Palmer was tied for fourth at 141 with Nicklaus and three others, only three shots off the lead. But Palmer played the last two rounds at the 6,544-yard course in seven over and wound up tied for 24th. Trevino won again, defeating Nicklaus by three shots in a playoff. Merion has not hosted a U.S. Open since 1981, when David Graham won.

9. Winged Foot Golf Club, Mamaroneck, N.Y.: "If the putting had worked, it would have been a success. A great golf course. I was very pleased when Winged Foot made me an honorary member last year. I'm trying to get to its 75th anniversary celebration later this year."

In 1959, Palmer was one shot behind Casper after two rounds and trailed Casper by four shots after the third round--and he got no closer. The Open was played with a 36-hole finale, but bad weather forced a Saturday-Sunday finish. It was the first time in 59 U.S. Opens that the final round was on Sunday.

For Palmer, his tie for fifth was an indication of what would come in 1960.

10. Canterbury Golf Club, Cleveland: "It was one of my favorite courses from my amateur days in Cleveland. I played it quite a lot when I was working there before I won the U.S. Amateur [in 1954] and turned pro. I won the Senior Players Championship [then the Senior TPC] back-to-back in 1984-85, the second time by 11 shots. That was one of the best tournaments I played. A great golf course. And I'm a member there too."

Palmer never played a U.S. Open at Canterbury, which hosted its second and last U.S. Open in 1946, when Lloyd Mangrum won.

That's Palmer's list, which is understandably subjective. Others may have different favorites. For instance, there's always Pebble Beach, (where Nicklaus won in 1972 and Tom Watson in '82), Medinah (Hale Irwin won his third Open title there in 1990), or Congressional (Ken Venturi was a winner there in 1964 and Ernie Els last year).

But whatever courses belong on such a list, there are certain features that link them all. They're harder than a cart path and meaner than the USGA official who laughs when you ask him when they're going to cut the rough . . . or water the greens. For a U.S. Open venue, that's always par for the course.

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Arnie's Favorites

1. Cherry Hills Country Club, Denver

2. Oakmont Country Club, Oakmont, Pa.

3. Oakland Hills, Birmingham, Mich.

4. The Country Club, Brookline, Mass.

5. The Olympic Club, San Francisco

6. Oak Hill Country Club, Rochester, N.Y.

7. Champions Golf Club, Houston

8. Merion Golf Club, Ardmore, Pa.

9. Winged Foot Golf Club, Mamaroneck, N.Y.

10. Canterbury Golf Club, Cleveland

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