After a quarter century on the golf beat, my first U.S. Open (and Arnie’s last) endures

arnold palmer surrounded by press

Everyone wanted a piece of Palmer at his last U.S. Open.

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Ed. note: The 2020 U.S. Open, now set for Sept. 17-20 at Winged Foot Golf Club, was originally slated for June 18-21. In a cap tip to the week that would have been, GOLF.com will be highlighting our national championship over the coming days, from its history, courses and legacy to its special ties to Father’s Day.

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Arnold Palmer played in his last U.S. Open the same year I covered my first, in 1994. I’m not suggesting I belong in the same sentence as the King but this confluence of events made my maiden national championship that much more memorable. As soon as Palmer signed for his second-round 81, he made his way to the press room to bid farewell to the mythmakers. I followed the herd into a sweltering white tent tucked behind Oakmont’s clubhouse.

Even as a callow 21-year-old intern I knew of Palmer’s monumental importance to golf, but I had never connected with the man. Now, at the age of 64, Arnie was at his most human, with a face reddened by the sun and the moment. He gasped for words and cried into a towel. The great man was unable to complete a sentence. This was not totally unexpected; plenty of athletes cry when it’s time to say goodbye. What I was wholly unprepared for were all the reporters around me sniffling and wiping away tears of their own. Where were the grizzled, cynical wretches I had read about in You Gotta Play Hurt? That was the power of Palmer, and the national championship, too.

Oakmont was the perfect backdrop for Palmer to say goodbye, and not just because of his Pennsylvania roots. The place exudes a regal aura that makes it the quintessential U.S. Open venue. My assignment that week was to write a story about the famed Church Pews bunker. Day after day I stood in the shade of the grand old trees (most of which have now been removed) lining the third and fourth holes, watching train wrecks unfold while trying to escape a blazing sun that sent temperatures into triple-digits. The photographer attached to the story was a portly Brit named Bob (Bubbles) Martin, who as the days wore on turned increasingly crimson. (Bob later dropped a couple of stones from his waistline.) “If I die,” Bob said at one point, “please bury me in the Church Pews.”

When I wasn’t monitoring the action at the Pews, I spent much time around the old-school clubhouse, soaking in the scene. I’ll never forget Payne Stewart strolling out in jeans, walking unbothered past a mob of autograph seekers who didn’t recognize him without the plus-fours.

Oakmont was the perfect backdrop for Palmer to say goodbye, and not just because of his Pennsylvania roots. The place exudes a regal aura.

I also had an interaction with Nick Price that still sticks with me. At that moment Price was the world No. 1 and just weeks away from taking the British Open and PGA Championship. On Friday, I had been instructed by my editors to try to get some quotes about a young upstart named Ernie Els who been tied for second after the first round. Because Price was a fellow African I thought he might have some insight.

I happened upon him in the locker room, following a dodgy second round that left him outside the cut line. He was sitting in front of his locker, head in hands, worn out by the heat and disappointment. I had interviewed Price months earlier, but I doubted he would remember me. I stood motionless at the end of the row of lockers, trying to work up the courage to reintroduce myself. Finally, he sensed my presence and I blurted out my name and purpose.

“Have a seat,” Price said. “Where did I see you last…Honda? Ask me anything you want.” His grace made me feel, for the first time, like I belonged on the beat.

Els, then 24, continued to charge; during the third round he toured the front nine in 30 strokes, and his 66 staked him to a two-stroke lead. Curtis Strange offered a quote that would pass into legend: “I think I just played with the next god.”

Days before Ernie Els claimed his breakthrough U.S. Open win in ’94, Curtis Strange anointed him “the next god.”

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But the carnage was still to come. With greens torched by the relentless sun, and old-school U.S. Open rough that grew ever tanglier, Oakmont by Sunday was “the hardest course I’ve ever seen,” said Nick Faldo. It turned into a war of attrition. On the 72nd hole Loren Roberts, one of the game’s greatest putters, missed a four-footer that could have won the tournament outright.

That bogey gave Els a one-shot lead arriving on the tee but, purposefully avoiding all leaderboards, he thought he was still tied. He tried to “knock the stuffing out of it” with a driver on the par-4 18th but hooked his ball miles left, leading to a brutal bogey. “I thought I needed a birdie to win,” Els said. “If I’d known [that I was leading], I’d have hit a 2-iron or 3-wood. I’m kicking my backside over that one.”

Joining the Monday playoff was one Colin Montgomerie. He showed up in an all-black outfit and “more and more resembled Mrs. Doubtfire as the sultry day wore on,” Rick Reilly wrote in Sports Illustrated. (I fact-checked that story and can confirm.) Monty wilted to a 78 during the playoff, leaving Els and Roberts to decide things. They wound up tied after 18 holes so sudden death was required before Els finally won.

Very suddenly, a new god had arrived. It wasn’t Els’s first U.S. Open but close — it was his second. Something Price told me days earlier was quite prophetic: “This kid is going to be around for a long, long time.”

I’m still out here typing, too. Arnold Palmer is gone but will never be forgotten. If you stick around this game long enough, the U.S. Open will always be the connective tissue.

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Alan Shipnuck

Golf.com

GOLF senior writer Alan Shipnuck writes longform features and a monthly column for GOLF Magazine and has his own vertical on GOLF.com entitled “The Knockdown,” which is home to podcasts, video vignettes, event coverage and his popular weekly mailbag #AskAlan. He is the author of five books on golf, including na­tional best-sellers Bud, Sweat & Tees and The Swinger (with Michael Bamberger). Shipnuck is very active on Twitter, with a following of 50,000.