Commentary

Palmer's collapse one for the ages

Updated: June 12, 2012, 2:32 PM ET
By Ian O'Connor | ESPN.com

SAN FRANCISCO -- Tiger Woods was working Mike Davis of the USGA on Monday morning, working him for inside information as the U.S. Open favorite and championship's steward spoke on the 18th green. Woods wanted a little insight into the Olympic course setup, and, hey, some things Davis could tell him and some things he could not.

The empire might strike back one year after Rory McIlroy went 16-under at Congressional, meaning Tiger and McIlroy and Phil Mickelson could be starring in their own Greek tragedies by the end of the week. But no matter what the USGA throws at the field, this much is clear:

[+] EnlargeArnold Palmer
AP PhotoArnold Palmer led the 1966 U.S. Open at the Olympic Club by 7 shots with nine holes to play. Somehow, The King performed the choke of all chokes, and he never won another major championship in his illustrious career.

Nobody will hurt half as much as Arnold Palmer hurt here in 1966, when the man who brought golf to the masses suffered through the greatest choke the game has seen.

"It was a very sad day," Rita Douglas, the Olympic member who hosted Palmer that week, said Monday by phone. "I'm 94 now, so old and yet I remember every minute of it."

Go ahead and count down golf's enduring meltdowns. Greg Norman at the '96 Masters. Jean Van de Velde at the '99 British. Ed Sneed at the '79 Masters.

Doug Sanders ('70 British) and Scott Hoch ('89 Masters) blew gimme putts that would've claimed the majors they never won, gimme putts that instead enhanced the Grand Slam careers of Jack Nicklaus and Nick Faldo. Mickelson and Colin Montgomerie gift-wrapped the 2006 U.S. Open for Geoff Ogilvy by making swings and choices on the final hole you'd expect from an 18-handicapper.

But Palmer retired the trophy on an inexplicable endgame failure, staging a collapse that rivals any from any league or season, right there with the usual suspects -- the 2004 Yankees, 1986 Red Sox and 1992 Houston Oilers.

Forget the math: Choke is a four-letter word in the language of sport. An athlete would almost prefer to be called a quitter than a choker, and here's the bad news for those who spend a living chasing the little white ball into the little round hole:

No sport offers its competitors more chances to choke than golf.

It's a lonely game played by men and women waging lonely battles with their demons and doubts. And 46 years ago, when he stepped to the 10th tee here holding a 7-shot lead over Billy Casper, a golfer adored by millions had no idea just how lonely a back nine could get.

"How many shots was Arnold leading by at that Open?" Nicklaus once asked.

"Seven shots with nine holes to go," he was told.

Nicklaus shook his head in disbelief. "How can you ever let that happen?" he said.

It happened because Palmer never believed in playing prevent defense. He was the original go-for-broker, the kind of gambler who would make Mickelson look hopelessly conservative in comparison.

Palmer wanted Ben Hogan's Open scoring record of 276, too. He had no use for Hogan, an automaton who never referred to Palmer by name. Arnie wanted a piece of Hogan and a piece of history, so he started firing at pins in pursuit of both.

Casper was busy playing for his parting gift. At the turn he'd told Palmer he just wanted to hold off Nicklaus for second place, and Arnie, ever the good sport, gave Casper a little pep talk, told him to keep plugging away and everything would work out.

Palmer had a 6-shot lead with six holes to play, a 5-shot lead with four to play. His eighth major championship still zipped safely inside his bag, Palmer decided to play for birdie on the par-3 15th, and his ambitious 7-iron shot landed in the sand. One of the best putters around, Casper nailed a 20-footer for birdie and watched his deficit shrink to three when Palmer failed to get up and down.

"I can win this tournament now," Casper told himself. Palmer came undone in a spectacular way. As colorless as Arnold was charismatic, Casper enjoyed the fact that the gallery had turned in his favor, embracing him as an underdog. Casper long believed the Big Three of Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player should've been a Big Four, including him, of course, and this was his moment in the sun.

Meanwhile, Douglas was walking through the gallery with Palmer's wife, Winnie. "Her poor little face kept getting sadder and sadder," Douglas recalled Monday from her Napa, Calif., home. "Winnie was always smiling on the golf course, but she couldn't smile that day." Palmer snap-hooked his drive at the 604-yard 16th, failed to advance his second shot out of the deep rough and scrambled to make bogey after Casper drained a 13-footer for birdie. Lead down to one. "I'd never, ever seen him feel the pressure like he felt the pressure then," Casper would say years later. "He couldn't make a swing." Palmer had a 7-footer at 17 he desperately needed, and the man who never left a putt short watched his ball stop one inch short of pay dirt, compelling him to throw his head back, his face an unruly brew of shock and disgust. Palmer trudged to the 72nd tee tied for the Open lead.

Palmer was famous for making eye contact with one and all, for making sure the crowds felt they were part of his experience. But as his world spun out of control, Palmer disconnected from the fans. On the 18th green he was a dark, solitary figure lurching over a downhill, left-to-right 4-footer he needed to qualify for a playoff.

Believing his entire identity as a winner was on the line, Palmer somehow found the nerve to get the ball in the hole. "Biggest putt I've ever made," he would say.

Writing in the next morning's edition of The New York Times, Arthur Daley called Palmer's epic failure to protect his lead "the equivalent of galloping toward the wrong end zone." Palmer carried a 2-shot lead into the back nine of the 18-hole playoff, but everyone already knew how this movie would end.

Casper picked up six shots on Palmer down the stretch, just as he had picked up seven the day before. When it was over, Palmer headed back to the home of Rita and Ed Douglas.

"He came into the kitchen, where I was making hors d'oeuvres," Rita recalled, "and he said, 'Oh Rita, I could cry.' I just said, 'So could I, Arn.' He was very bitter about it; he really hated losing that one.

"It was a very difficult day for all of us. We ate and then we drove Arnold and Winnie to the airport, said our goodbyes and they just got in the plane and left."

Palmer never won another major and to this day remains haunted by the one at Olympic that got away. All these years later, the same Open course might take a sizable divot out of the legacy of Tiger or Rory or Phil.

But the experience won't measure up to 1966, when The King was reduced to the king of pain. Nothing in golf has ever hurt so much.

Ian O'Connor

ESPNNewYork.com columnist
Ian O'Connor has won numerous national awards as a sports columnist and is the author of three books, including the bestseller, "The Captain: The Journey of Derek Jeter." ESPN Radio broadcasts "The Ian O'Connor Show" every Sunday from 7 to 9 a.m. ET. Follow Ian on Twitter »