JACKSONVILLE, Fla. - Jack Nicklaus was a 22-year-old rookie, golf's next big star still without a win as a pro. Arnold Palmer, the Masters champion and first golfer to transcend his sport, was at the peak of his popularity and playing before a home crowd at Oakmont for the U.S. Open.
“You can't write that script,” award-winning producer Ross Greenburg said.
That epic 1962 U.S. Open, a pivotal moment in one of golf's most celebrated rivalries, is what the USGA delivered Greenburg to create a one-hour documentary. This is the 50-year anniversary of Nicklaus' playoff win over Palmer for the first of his record 18 major championships.
“Jack's First Major” will be the first USGA film shown on network television, broadcast by NBC Sports on June 17 before its final-round coverage of the U.S. Open.
The film will make its international debut a week earlier on British-based Sky Sports.
“I was a 22-year-old kid with blinders on,” Nicklaus said. “People ask me about Arnold's backyard, Arnold's gallery. I never heard it. All I was doing was playing golf and trying to win a golf tournament. I looked back and said, ‘Wow! Look what happened.’ It's amazing that was my first win. Arnold treated me great. He couldn't have been nicer. He's always been that way with me.”
Greenburg, who won 51 Sports Emmy awards during his tenure at HBO Sports, already has spent two hours with Palmer and Nicklaus. The real treat comes next month when the King and the Golden Bear return to Oakmont.
The hole locations will be where they were that Sunday afternoon for the 18-hole playoff, when Nicklaus built an early lead, withstood a charge by Palmer in the middle of the round and wound up with a 71 for a three-shot victory.
“It literally was a creation of what went on to be the best rivalry in golf we've ever seen, or one of the best,” USGA executive director Mike Davis said. “We went to NBC and said, ‘What do you think of our concept?' NBC loved the idea. That got us to thinking. Why wouldn't we promote some of this wonderful history? People love the game. And this is a great way to educate people.”
Nicklaus at first struggled with details of the 90 holes he played that week — the opening two rounds with Palmer — but the more he talked, the more questions he fielded, the more it came back to him.
There was that 4-foot putt on the 17th hole in regulation that he hit firm to eliminate the break, knowing that if he had missed the ball likely would have rolled off the green. On some of the toughest greens in golf, Nicklaus only had one three-putt all week. The olive pants — his wife called them his “Army pants” — that he liked so much he wore them again in the playoff. And the 18th hole in the playoff, when Palmer picked up Nicklaus' ball, only for USGA executive director Joe Dey to run onto the green and remind them it was stroke play and Nicklaus had to finish the hole.
Mostly, though, there was the cigarette.
Nicklaus used to smoke during golf tournaments, as many golfers did in that era, and a turning point in his behaviour on the golf course came after that U.S. Open. It became such an important change that Nicklaus still remembers the day — Dec. 8, 1962 — when the USGA shipped him a film of his big win at Oakmont. He watched the key putts and booming drives, his straight left leg and upright posture. What unsettled him was a scene of him setting down a cigarette to tap in a putt during the playoff.
“It was the worst example for youth I can imagine,” Nicklaus said. “It was the last time I ever smoked a cigarette on the golf course.”
Greenburg wasn't about to leave that out of his documentary, but he uses it to share Nicklaus' story on what caused him to give up smoking on the golf course, and years later, to give smoking for good.
“We have Jack telling the story,” Greenburg said. “It was a time period where people are just smoking and not thinking about the ramifications. It's interesting that at 22, Jack figured out at that point that it's not the way to act as a role model. When he saw that film, he was taken aback.”
Greenburg had much more to work with for the project. In collaboration with the USGA Museum, he shows early footage of Nicklaus as the prodigy who won the 1959 U.S. Amateur and nearly won the U.S. Open a year later at Cherry Hills until he shot 39 on the back and Palmer charged home with a 65 to beat him and Ben Hogan.
There are interviews with Dow Finsterwald, Gary Player and Billy Maxwell, who played the final two rounds of regulation on Saturday with Nicklaus, along with journalists Dave Anderson and Marino Parascenzo, who covered the 1962 U.S. Open.
He also spoke with Nicklaus and Palmer. It was supposed to be a one-hour interview. Both gave him two hours of their time.
“The rich tradition of these championships really speaks to building the brand that is the USGA,” Greenburg said. “At the end of the day, this championship is measured through its past. Every year is a building block to what the U.S. Open stands for, and there's no better way to celebrate the U.S. Open.”