Arnold Palmer and the one that got away
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Bob Ross had been expecting the call, and he knew the reason for it, and his first words said it all, really. “Not many people care about who wins the Pennsylvania Open, but, boy, I like being the exception.”
Well, right. Who outside of friends and family would care about the results of a state championship that happened decades ago? Not even Arnold Palmer ever won his state open, so why should Bob Ross, a lifelong club professional, including a 20-year stint at famed Baltusrol Golf Club in Springfield, N.J., merit special recognition?
Here’s why: Ross is the man who kept Palmer off the roll of champions.
The titanic upset occurred 50 years ago today when Ross defeated Palmer by a stroke at Laurel Valley Golf Club in Ligonier, Pa. The victory on Palmer’s home course, a par-71 layout of 7,078 yards, was worth $800, a nice check for the then 35-year-old head professional at Philadelphia Cricket Club, but priceless to a golfer who, like millions of others, was an unabashed member of Arnie’s Army.
“Of course I loved Arnold, just like everyone else. He was larger than life. He was bigger than the game,” Ross said via telephone from his summer home in Washington, N.J. “A part of me actually felt bad for winning. I mean, who was I to beat Arnold Palmer? But the bigger feeling was, ‘Geez, what did I just do?’ It was a thrill, no doubt about it.”
A man can dine out endlessly on such a feat, but while Ross thinks back on those magical two days wistfully, he hasn’t often had the opportunity to talk about it. That year’s tournament, contested Aug. 21 and 22, is an obscure footnote in golf’s modern era, but on Aug. 23 newspapers across the country carried the wire service story of Ross’s improbable win—or, more accurately, Palmer’s improbable defeat.
When Winnie told him that he had lost, Arnold was incredulous. “Who in the hell beat me?”
And as much as this is Bob Ross’s story, the most intriguing aspect of it is this: What in blazes was Arnold Palmer doing competing in his state open? By 1967, Palmer had won four Masters, two British Opens and the U.S. Open. He was a global star and sports icon, the first golfer since Bobby Jones whose popularity resonated outside the cloistered confines of a country-club sport. He had fame, good looks and nearly $1 million in prize money to supplement his millions in endorsement and business income.
What he didn’t have, besides the PGA Championship that would complete the career grand slam, was a victory in the Pennsylvania Open.
A month shy of 38 at the time, Palmer hadn’t played in the tournament since 1952, when he was low amateur but lost the title in a playoff to George Griffin. For years after turning professional in 1954, he promised to return to the event, begun in 1912 and featuring a list of winners that includes the likes of Tommy Armour, Cyril Walker, Johnny Farrell, Lloyd Mangrum and Jock Hutchison. In 1967, the dates and location—his home course at Laurel Valley, about 10 miles from Latrobe—worked in his schedule.
“He did it to show his appreciation to the state golf association and the people around his hometown who supported him,” said Doc Giffin, who in 1966 had agreed to work for Palmer as his personal assistant. Giffin doesn’t remember the details of the tournament, but he does recall Palmer’s commitment to playing. “It was something he felt very strongly about.”
Courtesy of Baltusrol Golf Club
Palmer was coming off his third PGA Tour win of the year—and the 50th of his career—eight days earlier at the American Golf Classic at Firestone C.C. in Akron, Ohio, and he stood as the tour’s leading money winner with $138,189. Later that year he would add a fourth win plus the individual title in the World Cup, while joining with Jack Nicklaus in capturing the team competition. His 70.18 stroke average edged Nicklaus’ 70.24 for the Vardon Trophy, but Nicklaus would win the money title and Player of the Year.
No surprise that a record 192 players entered the Keystone State event, all getting to say they teed it up in the same tournament with Palmer. But writers were predicting the field would suffer from “Arniephobia.” One pre-tournament story proclaimed, “The sun’s failure to rise is about the only thing that can keep Arnold Palmer from claiming the Pennsylvania Open.” The fact that it was being played at Laurel Valley, site of the 1965 PGA in which a disappointed Palmer finished T-33, only further stacked the deck in The King’s favor.
“Good gosh, AP was in his heyday then,” said Bob Ford, the renowned longtime head professional at Oakmont, who recently received the USGA’s Bob Jones Award. Ford, by the way, was a three-time winner of the Penn Open. “Bob beat him in Arnold’s domain, but by then every domain was Arnold’s. That was something.”
• • •
In front of a predictably large and partisan gallery, Palmer teed off at 1 p.m. in Monday’s opening round with Longue Vue head professional Roland Stafford, a former U.S. Open competitor, and John Birmingham, a standout amateur from Oakmont who had won the Penn Amateur in 1965, defeating future U.S. Amateur champion Jay Sigel in the final.
“There had to be 5,000 people there, all to see Arnie, of course,” said Birmingham, 77, who had played with Palmer in a charity event the year before but didn’t find his comfort zone until dropping a 50-foot birdie putt at the third hole, drawing a cheer from the Army. “Roland and I struggled early. Yeah, we were nervous. Then we settled down and played pretty well. A huge crowd and no ropes, people going everywhere. It wasn’t wild, but there wasn’t a fan anywhere else on the course. We were just trying to stay out of the way.”
The weather was unseasonably cool, but Palmer seemed in good spirits, according to newspaper reports, joking with the gallery and fellow contestants. “I hope there is somebody around to help me. I don’t know this course,” he quipped at one point early in the round.
The mood, however, changed on the 11th hole. Palmer said he felt a twinge at the top of his backswing on his tee shot, and his right shoulder began to spasm. He battled the rest of the way, but he could do no better than a 75. “I might have caught a cold in it, I’m not sure,” he said, while insisting that the condition wasn’t an alibi for a round that featured seven bogeys.
He sat four off the lead as only one player, “diminutive” Barry Masick, from Berwick, Pa., equaled par. Stafford came in with a 72. The good news for Palmer was that only six players were ahead of him, while five others tied his 75, including Ross, Birmingham and 72-year-old Bobby Cruickshank, who had won the last of his 17 tour titles in 1936.
A second-round 78 would drop Masick to fourth, while Stafford and Birmingham, amid a quieter setting, posted 81 and 79, respectively. Stafford made up for it the following year by winning the title.
“I will never forget seeing that name on the board, the old Scotsman,” Ross said of Cruickshank, who ended up T-10 after a 78. “He was a pro in Pittsburgh at the time [at Chartiers C.C.], and had to be twice my age. That impressed the heck out of me.”
In his second year as head pro at Philadelphia Cricket Club, Ross had experience beyond state events when he teed it up at Laurel Valley. He competed on the Caribbean Tour against the likes of Raymond Floyd, Mike Souchak, George Knudson and Al Geiberger. He also navigated several Monday qualifiers on the PGA Tour at stops such as Doral and Greensboro.
“I wanted to be a good player, and to do that, I knew I had to find the best competition I could,” said Ross, a Connecticut native who also was a fine basketball player. “After a couple of years, my confidence was growing and I knew my game fairly well.”
During his tenure at Baltusrol, Ross appeared in his third and final U.S. Open, in 1980, and snuck in a practice round with Nicklaus, who went on to win his fourth national title. When Baltusrol hosted its last U.S. Open, in 1993, Nicklaus was asked about the organizational challenges of hosting the championship. The Golden Bear said, “Bob’s presence here insures that we will have a successful tournament.”
Two years later, when Baltusrol celebrated its centennial, Nicklaus and Ross played an exhibition, and, yes, Ross won by a stroke, according to club historian Stuart Wolffe. At a dinner that evening, Wolffe recalled, the ever-gracious Nicklaus thanked Ross for remaining a club pro, because if he had not, Nicklaus believed Ross would have been a formidable opponent, “and might have won some of the tournaments I won.”
• • •
Wearing a pair of sweaters to keep his shoulder loose, Palmer went out in the first group on Tuesday morning and put up a two-under 69, but bogeys on two of his last three holes ultimately proved costly. He immediately flew to New York to attend, along with crooner Dean Martin and other celebrities, the third annual All-American Collegiate Golf Dinner. Then he was to compete in the inaugural Westchester Classic, which was offering the tour’s richest purse, $250,000, and a first prize of $50,000.
Before leaving, Palmer reported no issues with his shoulder. Then he hopped in his Jet Commander and made several passes over Laurel Valley.
“Arnold’s thing when he finished a tournament was to take his plane and buzz the course,” Ross said. “And he circled a couple of times and took off. That was interesting. Like he was sending us all a message.”
In at two-over 144, The King would be tough to catch.
“A huge crowd and no ropes, people going everywhere. It wasn’t wild, but there wasn’t a fan anywhere else on the course. We were just trying to stay out of the way.”
Fresh off a victory in the Philadelphia PGA, Ross was wielding a new driver with an aluminum shaft that was providing him 20 to 30 extra yards off the tee. (He still has the driver stored away in his basement in New Jersey.) He one-putted seven times, converted seven birdies, including a chip-in at the fifth hole, and carded a 68 for 143. No one but Palmer was closer than four strokes.
“If you saw my round of golf, you’d know lightning was going to strike,” Ross told reporters. “Having Arnie here makes it that much sweeter. I’ve had an awfully good three weeks. I’ve been really lucky.”
Was he lucky?
“Only in a sense that Arnold probably wasn’t 100 percent,” said Ross, who was in the midst of four wins in a six-week stretch but was described as “an obscure club pro” by the press. “I played well. I learned later Arnie was a little banged up. And he still almost won. When I got in and saw what I shot and what Arnold shot, I thought, ‘Oh my God.’ ”
Lightning did strike later that evening. It occurred when Palmer called his wife, Winnie. Ross doesn’t remember who told him the story. He thinks it might have come from Winnie’s brother, Marty Walser, with whom Ross had become friendly years later. But as Ross remembers it, Arnold called Winnie from New York, and when she picked up the phone, Arnold simply asked, “So, how many strokes did I win by?”
When Winnie told him that he had lost, Arnold was incredulous. “Who in the hell beat me?”
He would soon meet him. After Palmer finished fifth at weather-plagued Westchester, four strokes behind Nicklaus, to pick up $10,750—he donated his second-place $500 check from the Penn Open to the Pennsylvania Golf Association—his next tour event was the Philadelphia Open, played in mid-September at Whitemarsh Valley C.C. At a cocktail party hosted by Brentwood Sportswear, the maker of the alpaca sweaters that became Palmer’s signature fashion statement, Ross bumped into Ray Artz, a former Wilson salesman who had begun to work for Palmer at his new equipment company. He dragged Ross to the bar, where none other than Palmer was holding court.
“Ray goes to Arnold and says, ‘Hey Arnie, there’s Bob Ross.’ ” Ross recalled. “Arnold wheeled around and said, ‘Where is he?’ So I went up to meet him, and he held out his hand, and the first thing he says is, ‘How the hell did you beat me?’ I just laughed and told him I got lucky. He smiled and congratulated me. He was very gracious.”
Ross returned to Philadelphia Cricket Club a celebrity.
“You could tell he was puffed up, but he never said much about it. He never gloated. But the membership was so excited for him,” said Larry Dornisch, the head pro at Muirfield Village Golf Club in Dublin, Ohio, who landed his first assistant job at 17 years old working for Ross at the Cricket Club. “He’s such an amazing guy, a great club pro. I don’t know if he could have had a career on tour, but he would have been competitive. He was a solid player.”
• • •
It almost seemed like fate that Ross and Palmer became friends. Ross left Philadelphia in 1972 for Ponte Vedra Beach, Fla., to become head professional at Sawgrass Country Club, which was under construction. Palmer and his associate Ed Seay were the designers. Four years later Ross left for Baltusrol, thanks in part from recommendations from then PGA Tour commissioner Deane Beman, former commissioner Joe Dey and Palmer.
Ross and his late first wife, Delores, were invited to Winnie’s 50th birthday party in 1984, and when he competed in the 1992 U.S. Senior Open at Saucon Valley C.C. in Bethlehem, Pa., Palmer invited Ross to join him at his table at a pre-championship dinner.
“He always treated me like a friend, but I suppose that was his way, that he treated everyone like they were his friend,” said Ross, who was crushed when he learned of Palmer’s passing last September. “I’m no different than anyone else. The loss just hits you. You can’t replace Arnold Palmer.”
Ross retired from Baltusrol in 1996, and moved to Ocala, Fla., where two sisters reside. The club made him an honorary member, and he returns to New Jersey every summer, where he still plays a little golf. Every now and then, when he ventures into his basement, he spies that aluminum-shafted driver, which long ago lost its utility. Not a year after his resounding upset, the aluminum became compromised and the club “went dead.”
But its sentimental value remains. “I guess I could have gotten rid of it, but it reminds me of a pretty special time,” Ross said. “I’ve had a good run at golf and life, and I never regret a moment of it. I’ve been so fortunate, known so many great people and great players. And I can say I knew Arnold Palmer, the best.”
And on one magical day, Bob Ross beat him.