Nicklaus' 1980 putt put myth of Palmer to rest Birdie on 17 sealed victory over Aoki

June 16, 1993|By Jeff Williams | Jeff Williams,Newsday

SPRINGFIELD, N.J. -- The great vortex that swirled about them was trying to halt itself. The manic rushing of 10,000 people, some running on alcohol, most on adrenalin, could not easily be contained. The moment was too big for decorum.

At the eye of this storm were Jack Nicklaus, the greatest golfer in history, and Isao Aoki, the greatest golfer ever produced by Japan. They were on the 17th green of the Baltusrol Golf Club, the 71st hole of the 1980 U.S. Open.

The situation was this: Nicklaus held a two-stroke lead over Aoki, and his third shot on the monster par-5 hole stopped 22 feet to the right of the hole and slightly above it. Aoki was no more than eight feet, and his unique style of putting rendered him supremely skillful on the greens. Nicklaus knew Aoki would not miss, as did all the faithful gathered around the green.

The bigger situation was this: Nicklaus had not won in two years. After reigning over golf since he won the 1962 Open by defeating the great Arnold Palmer in a playoff at Baltusrol, Nicklaus was now beginning to hear the same question:

When are you going to retire, Jack?

Golf could not afford the luxury of a Nicklaus retirement, not then. The magnitude of his legend was powerful. It had taken Nicklaus far longer to defeat the myth of Palmer than it had to defeat Palmer the player.

Nicklaus did not know, as he lined up his putt on the 17th, how important it was, how far it could take him beyond the mere winning of another major championship. He was battling Aoki, as he had for the first three rounds, and he could see no farther than the cup on the 17th. He did not know he was about to defeat the myth of Palmer.

After the customary scanning, Nicklaus took his stance over the ball. The crowd did its best to hush as spectators jostled for position, sons hoisted to the shoulders of fathers, heads tucked between legs, eyes peering over the lips of the sand traps. There was no one more deliberate than Nicklaus.

He held his crouch for what seemed an eternity, then gave it the sure and gentle tap that sent it to its destiny. With the crowd raising its voice in encouragement, the ball remained true to its line. When it got two feet from the hole, Nicklaus knew it was in, and he raised his putter over his head in celebration as the ball disappeared into the cup.

The crowd exploded. Wound as tight as a clock spring by the drama of the moment, it loosed its emotions in a fusillade of cheers. Until that moment, only Palmer had received such cheers.

A mad -- ensued. Spectators took up positions on the next hole as Aoki began the ritual to make his putt. Nicklaus held up his hand to ask for quiet, a seemingly impossible condition considering the thrill of the moment. Aoki made his putt, and the pair went to the finishing hole, another par 5.

After Nicklaus played his approach to the 18th, bedlam ensued. The gallery stormed through the ropes. Aoki still had to play his approach, and it took steely determination by USGA marshals to get him a pathway through the crowd to the green. He very nearly holed that pitch, which might have tied Nicklaus. He didn't, both players made birdie, and Nicklaus had his 18th major title.

But he had so much more. After he holed out, the fans rushed the green to touch him, to scream at him their adoration. In 1967, when Nicklaus was trying to defeat Palmer, a fan had held a sign in the rough that said "Jack, hit it here." Now, 13 years later, the frenzied crowd was chanting "Jack is back" at the top of its lungs.

Aoki had been beaten, all right, but so had Palmer. Fans, who for so long acknowledged Nicklaus' accomplishments with loveless respect, now found they had a place in their hearts for Nicklaus as well.

U.S. OPEN

What: 93rd U.S. Open Golf Championship

Site: Baltusrol Golf Club, Springfield, N.J.

Format: 72 holes, stroke play

Schedule: Tomorrow through Sunday

Cut: After 36 holes, the field will be cut to the low 60 scorers and any tying for 60th place, and anyone within 10 strokes of the lead.

Playoff: In the event of a tie after 72 holes, an 18-hole playoff will be held Monday.

Par: 34-36--70

Yardage: 7,084 to 7,152

Starters: 156 players

Prize: $1.6 million, with $290,000 to the winner if he is a professional.

Course record: 63 (Tom Weiskopf and Jack Nicklaus), first round, 1980 U.S. Open

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