We’re rolling into fall, often a time, especially when I was a Tour player, when I’d look back on the year and plot ways to better my performance during the next.
These days, I tend to focus on defining moments. Golf rarely disappoints, and 2021 was no exception. We had the Olympics, what’s sure to be a stirring Ryder Cup and, in my opinion, an absolutely stellar quartet of majors. Golf ’s biggest tournaments have always grabbed my attention more than other events, so my sincere congratulations to Hideki Matsuyama, the 2021 Masters champ and the first Japanese-born player to win a major. Fantastic. Kudos to Phil Mickelson who, at age 50, became the oldest player from any nation to bag a big one at the PGA Championship. And what’s better than the U.S. Open trophy and the Claret Jug in the hands of two young players with incredibly bright futures, Jon Rahm and Collin Morikawa? As I said, golf rarely disappoints.
I won my first major more than 59 years ago, in 1962. Oakmont CC, outside Pittsburgh. Like the other three U.S. Opens I had the fortune of winning, and the 40 others I competed in, I spent at least a week prior prepping for the event. You don’t just walk into a U.S. Open win. It’s the most difficult tournament to plan for — you face rough you haven’t seen all year and greens that’ll make your head spin if you’re not ready. Plus, you’re gunning for our nation’s championship, which levies its own kind of pressure.
Back to Oakmont. Truth be told, I didn’t know I’d be playing in Arnold Palmer’s backyard until I got on-site. Two things still stick in my mind: 1) Everybody in the crowd wanted Arnold to win, and 2) Arnold was the most gracious and helpful competitor I ever played against in a major setting. We were tied after Sunday. I remember my mother-in-law taking our infant son, Jackie, out to breakfast the next morning, so I could sleep in. It must have helped, as I edged Arnie 71–74 in the Monday playoff.
I played in 27 events in 1962, including all four majors. Life on Tour was a bit different for me then. With ’62 being my rookie year, I wasn’t exempt — I had to play and make the cut each week so that I could try to earn a paycheck the next.
Thankfully, I made my first 17 cuts to start the season and played in every official PGA Tour event, less one (the Tucson Open Invitational), leading up to Oakmont. So, I wasn’t rusty.
The week before the Open, I played in the Thunderbird Classic at Montclair CC in New Jersey. I finished second to Gene Littler, who won the U.S. Open the previous year. (I came in three strokes behind Gene in what was my fifth Open as an amateur.) My wife, Barbara, and I packed up the car and headed west for the six-hour drive to Oakmont. (I can’t tell you how many long and even cross-country trips Barbara and I made back then by car.) We had a port-a-crib for Jackie in the back seat. He couldn’t have been more than nine months. Also in the back were two pails: one for clean diapers and another for dirty ones. You can imagine how many miles we logged that trip with the windows down.
I hit the ground running following my usual prep routines, and by the time the tournament started I knew I had a chance to win.
It was quite a year, one I’ll never forget. Sort of like 2021 and the joy and hope it gave all of us. Golf rarely disappoints.