It was 1962, and while the real battle was being waged inside the ropes -- especially during the 18-hole Monday playoff -- another contentious battle was being waged outside the ropes.
Golf had no greater hero than Arnold Palmer. He was John Wayne and Jim Thorpe, Joe DiMaggio and Amelia Earhart, a player with presidential appeal and the swashbuckling flair of a matador. Better yet, he was a Western Pennsylvania treasure -- Latrobe-born and the son of a groundskeeper -- and, at age 32, he was trying to win the U.S. Open.
And he was trying to win the tournament at Oakmont Country Club, not 40 miles from where he grew up.
For that week, anyway, it might as well have been his back yard.
Palmer already had blown one opportunity a day earlier. Leading by three with 10 holes to play, he squandered his lead because of a balky putter, negating the one big edge he felt he possessed on Oakmont's slippery, tilting greens.
"Going into the Open, I thought that would be my advantage rather than my disadvantage," Palmer said. "Fact is, the putting killed me."
Indeed, two years after he won the U.S. Open for the first time at Cherry Hills, Palmer found himself in an 18-hole playoff with a young, pudgy professional from Columbus, Ohio, named Jack Nicklaus, a former two-time U.S. Amateur champion whom Palmer had met several years earlier in an exhibition match in Athens, Ohio.
The pro-Palmer crowd -- Arnie's Army -- was out in full force for the playoff, just as it had been throughout the 72 holes of regulation when the two players finished tied at 1-under 283. This time, though, there was only one player standing in the way of their hero, and Nicklaus was the target.
They called him names -- "Fat Jack," among them -- and chided him to "miss it." A sign, held by a man under a tree, said "Hit it Here Jack." Nicklaus, though, was oblivious.
"I had no idea what the gallery was doing," Nicklaus said. "A 22-year-old kid wouldn't even have a clue. I didn't know the gallery was cheering for Arnold and all that stuff. It's hard for people to believe that, but it's true.
"When you're that age and you got something on your mind you want to do, you don't pay much attention to what's going on on the outside."
Maybe for Nicklaus. But not for his few supporters who were walking among the Palmer faithful in the gallery.
One of them was Woody Hayes, the former Ohio State football coach.
Hayes and Nicklaus' father, Charlie, were friends because Hayes always shopped in his drug store, which was located a few blocks from the Ohio State campus. Hayes was in the gallery following the young Golden Bear in the 1960 U.S. Open in Denver and the 1961 Open at Oakland Hills in suburban Detroit.
And he was there that day at Oakmont when the pro-Palmer sentiment became too much for him.
"Woody was Woody," Nicklaus recalled a couple weeks ago, smiling at the memory. "They said the two of them had to hold off the Oakmont crowd by themselves.
"Woody would get very upset with people in the gallery. People would say something, Woody wasn't going to exactly back off. It wasn't an issue at the other places."
It was at Oakmont, and it was because Nicklaus beat Palmer in the playoff, 71 to 74, to win his first professional title and the first of his 18 major championships. It was more than the beginning of the Nicklaus era. The victory signaled the changing of the guard, the moment the blond-haired kid from Ohio State replaced Palmer as the dominating figure in golf.
"Jack became Jack," Palmer said. "That triggered it."
"It sort of started a rivalry, you might say, in our competition," Nicklaus said.
Palmer had many other chances to win the U.S. Open, most notably the next year when he lost a playoff to Julius Boros at the Country Club in Brookline, Mass., and in 1966 when he lost a playoff to Billy Casper. But he never won another. His duel with Nicklaus remains the grandest of any staged at Oakmont, even though the disappointment can still be felt 45 years later.
"I don't think those thoughts enter your mind, that it could be your last [chance]," Palmer said. "I thought I would win another Open, by virtue of my age and competitiveness, and should have. I think the thing that may have cost me winning three or four Opens was winning at Cherry Hills, just the satisfaction and consolation that I had won the Open. That may have had a little effect.
"It took some of [the disappointment] away, knowing that I had won the Open," he added, referring to 1962. "Sam Snead never won the Open and had every right in the world to win. Those things you never know for sure."
Palmer came to the 1962 U.S. Open a big favorite, and not just because of his hometown advantage. He already had won six tournaments that year, including the Masters, and one of his victories was by 12 shots over a runner-up Nicklaus at the Phoenix Open Invitational.
But, during 90 holes at Oakmont, Palmer said he three-putted 13 times, the most damaging coming at the par-3 13th during the playoff, right after he had birdied three of the previous four holes to pull within a shot of Nicklaus. ("Oakmont 100 Years," a historical book published by Oakmont Country Club, said Palmer three-putted 11 times, the number most commonly associated with the tournament.)
By contrast, Nicklaus had just one three-putt in five days, and that came on the first hole of the final round.
"It's my first win, that's pretty special," Nicklaus said. "How special is your first win? And how special is it if it's a U.S. Open? It obviously set my career up."
Nicklaus was a PGA Tour rookie in 1962, though he had finished second and fourth in the previous two U.S. Opens as an amateur, an early flare of his greatness. He had three second-place finishes leading up to Oakmont, boosting his confidence.
If he needed any more, he got another surge in the first round when he was paired with Palmer, making birdie on the first three holes to start the U.S. Open.
"I knew he was special before that," Palmer said. "I knew he would be good. He won the [U.S.] Amateur a couple times and I watched him play in some other tournaments. There was no question about how good he was going to be. It was just how good is he really going to be."
Palmer, unfortunately, did his part to expedite the greatness.
Holding a three-shot lead in the final round, Palmer hit a 3-wood into the green at the par-5 ninth, hoping to make eagle -- birdie, at the very least -- and further pad his lead. Palmer's ball, though, faded just a hair, and it landed in the rough on the right side of the green, pin high, 15 feet from the flag.
"I should have made birdie without any problem," Palmer said.
But Palmer stubbed his first pitch, leaving it in the rough. Then he pitched again, leaving it 8 feet short of the hole. Palmer took two putts and made bogey 6, reducing his lead to two. When Nicklaus, playing in the group ahead, birdied the 11th, Palmer's lead was down to one. They were tied after Palmer bogeyed No. 13 from the greenside bunker.
It was the last time he led the tournament. Palmer trailed Nicklaus by four shots after just six holes of the playoff, and never recovered.
After the playoff, Palmer told some members of the media, "Now that the big guy is out of the cage, everybody better run for cover."
He was talking about Jack Nicklaus.
Not Woody Hayes.