First U.S. Open At Pebble Beach Didn't Disappoint

In 1972, Jack Nicklaus held off a hard-charging Arnold Palmer to win his third Open

 

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Jack Nicklaus won his second USGA title at Pebble Beach at the 1972 U.S. Open. He also won the 1961 U.S. Amateur at Pebble. (USGA Museum)

By Dave Shedloski

“What, no snake?”

If Jack Nicklaus felt any pressure before the final round of the 1972 U.S. Open at Pebble Beach Golf Links, he certainly wasn’t exhibiting it when he stepped onto the first tee and greeted his playing partner that afternoon of June 18. Turning to Lee Trevino, Nicklaus coolly offered those few playful words.

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Trevino could only laugh and shake his head. He had defeated Nicklaus one year earlier at Merion Golf Club in an epic U.S. Open playoff marked by Trevino pulling out a rubber snake on the first tee and playfully tossing it at Nicklaus’ feet before dispatching the Golden Bear, 69-71.

But what the defending champion – not to mention the rest of the field – really needed in June 1972 was to pull a rabbit out of his hat.

In his prime, Nicklaus was always the man to beat, and that was especially true in the major championships, but he loomed as an especially formidable figure when Pebble Beach hosted its first National Open.

Consider that Nicklaus started his ’72 season by winning the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am at Pebble Beach in a playoff over Johnny Miller, then added a victory at Doral before winning his fourth Masters title by three shots over Bruce Crampton. The win at Augusta gave him 12 major championships, one shy of Bob Jones’ record.

What’s more, Nicklaus had an abiding and unabashed affection for Pebble Beach dating to his first visit to the Monterey Peninsula in 1961 for the U.S. Amateur, an event he captured with an 8-and-6 thumping of Dudley Wysong in the 36-hole final.

“It was a pretty good time when I was playing some pretty good golf,” Nicklaus recalled recently of the ’72 Open, which was part of one of his two best seasons as a professional. He won seven times on the PGA Tour in both 1972 and 1973. “I think Pebble Beach is a golf course I've always loved to play. And it always allowed me to … or responded to my golf game when I played well. Or I responded to Pebble Beach, one of the two.

“I’ve developed quite a love affair with Pebble Beach over the years,” he added. “It’s as dramatic as any course in the country, but mostly it was the complete test of golf that intrigued me.”

Pebble certainly was a complete test for the ’72 Open, properly prepared according to USGA standards, but further complicated by

buffeting winds that only increased as the championship progressed.

 

Come the final round on Sunday, Nicklaus, who had spent eight days prior to the championship practicing at Pebble Beach, found himself in the position he desired, leading Trevino, Crampton and Kermit Zarley by a stroke at even-par 216. But the winds were really whipping off Carmel Bay, and it took its toll on the field.

Trevino fell three behind after three holes, and Crampton and Zarley were faring even worse – and that was on what are regarded as Pebble’s more benign inland holes. At the turn, Nicklaus was leading by three strokes over Homero Blancas and four over Crampton, Zarley and his old nemesis, Arnold Palmer, who was playing in the group directly ahead with Miller.

But things became dicey for the Golden Bear as he reached the meat of the course. At the long par-4 10th hole, he sprayed his tee shot right, onto the beach, and then struck his third shot over the cliff as well on the way to a double bogey – his first one of the championship. Then at the 205-yard, par-3 12th, Nicklaus found himself in more trouble when his 3-iron bounded onto the green, then over it and down a steep embankment. He needed two chip shots to reach the putting surface, and he still had eight feet left for his bogey.

“I remember thinking I had just made one double bogey, and I sure as heck wasn’t going to make another one,” Nicklaus said.

At the very same time he was sizing up that uphill right-to-left breaker, Palmer was eyeing a birdie chance of about 10 feet at the 14th. If Nicklaus missed and Palmer, the 1960 champion, converted, they would have been tied. The two struck their putts within seconds of each other. (ABC Sports, covering the event, showed both on a split screen.) Palmer missed. Nicklaus, who had battled a cold putter most of the championship, made his. 

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Jack Nicklaus opened the 1972 season by winning the first two majors, including the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach. (USGA Museum)

A routine birdie at the 14th, set up by a 9-iron to 12 feet, extended the Bear’s lead to three shots, and he still led by three when he arrived at the arduous par-3 17th, which was playing dead into the wind. Nicklaus chose 1-iron, and struck what would become one of the most famous shots in U.S. Open history. The approach landed on the front of the green, took one hop, and struck the flagstick flush. The ball came to rest 2 inches from the flagstick . Nicklaus said it was one of the three best shots he’s ever hit under pressure (along with 1-iron shots in the 1967 U.S. Open and 1975 Masters).

What no one knew until later was that the swing that produced the shot was unconventional by Nicklaus’ standards while still retaining a touch of brilliance. “When I took the club back I could feel the clubface closing slightly, and I thought to myself, Uh, oh. That’s not good,” said Nicklaus. “But my rhythm and my timing had been so good all week, and I was actually able to hold off closing the clubface too soon.”

One more hole, and he was able to close out the competition, with a three-putt bogey accounting for a final-round 74 and 2-over 290 total, three better than Crampton and four ahead of Palmer. It was the highest winning score in the Open since Julius Boros shot 293 and won the ’63 championship in a playoff at The Country Club in Brookline, Mass. But what should also be noted is that amid winds that gusted to more than 30 miles per hour, Nicklaus carded the lowest final-round score among the top 20 finishers, who together averaged 76.6 strokes.

“It was a pretty satisfying victory, winning on one of my favorite golf courses under some extremely trying conditions,” Nicklaus said. “I think there are probably better golf courses than Pebble Beach. But because of where it sits and what it's been in my life and so forth, I really don’t care whether there are better golf courses.”

The victory, his third of four in the national championship, made Nicklaus the first player to win the U.S. Amateur and U.S. Open on the same course, a feat yet to be duplicated. The win also gave him the second leg of the Grand Slam following his three-stroke win in the Masters. But just a month later, at Muirfield, Scotland, the Bear came up one stroke short, thwarted by none other than Trevino.

Subsequent U.S. Open championships at Pebble Beach bear the imprimatur of the Bear. Start with 1982. Highlighted by a final-round 69, Nicklaus shot 284 (six shots better than his winning total 10 years earlier) and was poised to win a record fifth Open only to watch Tom Watson hole a miracle chip at the 17th and turn him away by two strokes. Nicklaus oversaw a renovation of Pebble Beach prior to the ’92 Open won by Tom Kite, though he only worked in the television booth the final two rounds after missing the cut at 77-74-151.

Then there was 2000, when Tiger Woods won by a record 15 shots. Nicklaus designed a new par-3 fifth hole in preparation for the centennial U.S. Open. He then went out and competed in his 44th and final U.S. Open. He missed the cut but went out with a bang, reaching the signature par-5 18th hole in two shots.

As the Golden Bear doffed his cap, one of the players in the group behind Nicklaus separated himself from his playing partners and joined in the rousing applause offered by the thousands of fans pressing in around the home hole.

Standing alone in the fairway, Watson clapped his hands and wept.

Dave Shedloski is a freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on www.usga.org and USGA championship sites.

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