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June 21, 2013

50 Years Ago This Week: When the Cleveland Open rivaled the U.S. Open

Posted at 1:24 AM by Joe Passov |

Arnold-palmerCredit to Justin Rose for keeping his commitment and showing up to play in the Travelers this week. It can't be easy cranking up the focus the week after the year's most grueling major, the U.S. Open, let alone after you've won it.

Historically, most of the game's top stars have skipped the event that followed the U.S. Open, no matter what event that was. However, that wasn't the case 50 years ago.

One week after an exhausting National Open, complete with an 18-hole playoff, everybody came to play in a brand new tournament, the Cleveland Open. Why? As Randy Newman once sang, "It's money that matters. Hear what I say."

Fifty years ago this week, the U.S. Open didn't finish on Father's Day, so I'm not sure what Bob Costas and Dan Hicks would have had to talk about. Instead, it closed on June 23 -- a Sunday -- and that's only because Arnold Palmer, Julius Boros and Jacky Cupit had to play an extra round, following the traditional 36-hole U.S. Open windup on Saturday, in which they deadlocked at 293. You think Merion was tough this year? How about The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., where nine-over-par made the playoff.

Palmer and Boros figure most prominently in our story, as both had been center stage for the previous month. On June 9, Boros captured the Buick Open -- already his second win and ninth top 10 for the year. On June 16, Palmer triumphed at Westchester, his fourth win of 1963, and his ninth top 10, as well.

Westchester was a big deal. The Thunderbird Classic Invitational, as it was called, paid off the biggest first prize of the year to that point, $25,000, so every top player was there, even though it was held the week before the U.S. Open. By comparison, the Boros' Buick Open win netted him $9,000. Palmer's earlier win at the Phoenix Open paid a paltry $5,300. By further comparison, the Masters paid out $20,000 to the winner, the U.S. Open $17,500, the PGA Championship $13,000 and the British Open, $4,200 -- barely enough to cover expenses. So, yes, Palmer's Westchester win was huge.

Palmer and Boros met head-on in Boston at The Country Club, on a course scarred by brutal weather in winter and spring, then further plagued by high, swirling winds during the 36-hole final day that sent scores soaring. Eventually Boros defeated Palmer in the 18-hole playoff, with Cupit the third man out. Time to relax at last, do a little fishing, watch the tube, right?

No, sir. Hello, Cleveland!

Indeed, every great player on the PGA Tour made the trek to Ohio for the inaugural Cleveland Open. It wasn't the venue that was the primary attraction, though the course itself was a good one -- Beechmont Country Club. I should know -- I grew up there. The Golden Age Stanley Thompson design wasn't the scenic equal of his Canadian masterpieces, such as Banff, Jasper and Highlands Links, but it was a handsome parkland test of 6,643 yards, par 71.

Rather, the prime draw was the $110,000 purse, with $22,000 to the winner. If the Tour stars were tired, they would wake up for that kind of dough. Not only did they wake up, but they showed up, with A-games in tow.

Gary Player dominated the first round with a 66 and his second-round 69 had him tied with Tommy Aaron, who would win the Masters 10 years later. Palmer made his move in round 3 with a 66. That tied him for the lead at 205 with none other than chief nemesis Jack Nicklaus. They were joined by Lema, who would win the British Open at St. Andrews the very next year. Rounding out the top 10 were Boros, Player, Sam Snead, Jack Burke Jr., Art Wall, Jay Hebert and Don January, each a once or future major winner. How about that leaderboard?!

On day 4, Boros engineered the biggest charge, a course record-tying 65, but he, like Snead and Burke, fell one back of the playoff, between Palmer, Lema and Aaron. Having dueled in playoffs the previous two weeks, Palmer had to be drained.

He was inspired, however.

Not only had there been loud whispers that he was no longer the King, which he sought to disprove, but there was cash on his mind, as well. Palmer pal Bob Drum, the golf reporter for the Pittsburgh Press, wrote that Arnie was determined to win so that he could break his own single-season money-winning record of a year ago ($81,448.33).

A bound and determined Palmer in 1963 wasn't going to be denied. The King reigned supreme, outdriving Lema and Aaron all day, birdieing the par-4 2nd from 30 feet, the par-5 5th from 6 feet, the par-5 6th by two-putting from 20 feet, barely missing his eagle and closed the door with two final birdies at the par-4 11th from 6 feet and then at the toughest hole on the course, the watery par-4 13th from 8 feet. A meaningless three-putt at 18 gave him 67, and a three-shot win over Lema and Aaron. Palmer rejoiced.

"I'm starting to putt like I did two years ago," said Palmer. "When I hit the putts, I think they are going in the hole and confidence is everything on the greens."

Then, as now, 18-hole playoffs are completely anti-climatic. Beechmont Country Club didn't exactly embrace the Monday playoff, closing all the club facilities except the locker room. The club maƮtre d' told one reporter, "I got to get this place ready for a wedding tonight."

The Pittsburgh Press reported that "attendance was announced as around 4,000 but fewer than 1,500 people made the scene and most of them were marshals."

None of this mattered to Arnold Palmer. With the first prize of 22 grand, he broke his own money mark, with $85,545 -- and it was only July 1. The King was back on top-back when money mattered.

(Photo: Neil Leifer/Sports Illustrated)

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