Golf / US Open: Palmer drives off down memory lane: Old rivals revive great moments in golfing history as Arnie's Army prepares for last campaign before demobbing

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ARNOLD PALMER wondered whether to hit a four-iron or a five- wood on the sixth, a par three of 195 yards. 'Can I hit it Jack?' Palmer asked, referring to the five- wood. 'You can hit it,' Nicklaus replied. 'You won't get there but you can hit it.' Palmer elected to hit a four-iron and his ball veered left towards a greenside bunker. 'Get in the hole,' a spectator yelled. 'It's in the hole . . . the big hole,' Palmer said.

This, of course, was a practice round and the last time Palmer and Nicklaus were paired together at Oakmont circumstances were somewhat different. It was in a play-off for the 1962 US Open, the two were bitter rivals and Nicklaus, then 22, defied the crowd by defeating the local hero.

Oakmont revisited saw Nicklaus three-putting on seven occasions. In 1962 he did so only once - on the first hole of the fourth round. Palmer had a solution. He would drive the ball, Jack could knock it on to the green and they would get somebody else to do the putting. Jack did not find this particularly amusing. For even now Nicklaus, who has won four US Opens to Palmer's one, considers himself to be a contender. Almost Jack the lad.

Palmer, aged 64, is here for the memories. 'It's a little icing on the cake,' Arnie said. You can hardly see the icing for the number of candles. He received a special exemption to compete in what will be his last US Open. Arnie's Army will be demobbed. Palmer, who comes from Latrobe, which is just down the road from here, first played at Oakmont when he was 12. He shot 82. He might be grateful for a similar score in the first round today.

'The Pennsylvania Turnpike wasn't there then,' Palmer recalled. Nicklaus leant over and whispered something into Palmer's good ear. 'Jack wanted to know if they had cars back then,' Palmer said. It was the heavyweight bouts between Nicklaus and Palmer in the Sixties and Seventies that gave golf a much sharper profile. In contrast, there have been 14 different winners of the last 14 major championships.

Should Jose-Maria Olazabal win here, following his triumph in the Masters at Augusta in April, he would be the first player to achieve that double since Nicklaus in 1972; he would be only the fourth non- American to win the US Open since the war. When Nicklaus complained about the number of putts he was taking here he was in good company. The greens are faster than those at Augusta, which means they must be setting a land- speed record, and one of Olazabal's strengths is that he is a great putter.

Another is his age and at 28 he can withstand what threatens to be the most demanding test under the most demanding conditions (a temperature of more than 100 and high humidity) over what is possibly the most demanding course ever to stage a US Open. It is not just the Mach-2 greens. The rough is five inches deep, the fairways are not wide enough to take a Tiger Moth and then there are the bunkers, more than 200 of them.

Olazabal, who added the Volvo PGA to his Masters victory, missed the half-way cut at Westchester last week and what is troubling him is his driving. Over dinner the other night Seve Ballesteros, who finished fourth here in 1983, the year Larry Nelson won, gave Olazabal his opinion of Oakmont. It was, he said, rubbish. Olazabal shrugged his shoulders. Later, the younger Spaniard confided to his manager that in fact he thought the course was excellent.

What Olazabal particularly likes about it is that on most holes he does not have to use his unreliable driver. There is run on the fairways and he can use a one or a three-iron off the tee. Whether he can then hit the right spot on the greens is another matter. Augusta National is almost home from home for the Europeans, but they have never seen anything quite like Oakmont.

The leading 60, plus ties and anyone within 10 strokes of the lead, will survive beyond the second round and come tomorrow evening most of our boys will be heading for the Pennsylvania Turnpike. Nick Faldo is not expected to be on the airport shuttle. Faldo, who lost a play-off to Curtis Strange for the US Open at Brookline in 1988, said that Oakmont was the hardest course he had ever played on. That, however, is how he likes it.

'You've got to accept the challenge and be able to accept what happens and what you get,' Faldo said. 'Nobody is going to go through 72 holes and have everything go smoothly. You're going to make mistakes. Somehow you have to keep the momentum.' Faldo is in considerably brighter spirits following his victory two weeks ago in the Alfred Dunhill Open in Belgium, his first of the season. His main problem prior to that was his putting and he is going to have to find the stroke of an angel to win here.

Others with a sound chance are Nick Price, Larry Mize and Ernie Els. Greg Norman lost patience with Augusta National this year and Oakmont could drive him to distraction. The same goes for John Daly, who was not overjoyed when he saw the draw. For the first two rounds he will follow the three-ball of Faldo, Bernhard Langer and Jeff Sluman. Faldo and Langer are notorious slowcoaches and Daly, who likes to get on with it, said he might bring a football along to keep himself entertained in between shots.

----------------------------------------------------------------- CARD OF THE COURSE ----------------------------------------------------------------- Hole Yards Par Hole Yards Par 1st 463 4 10th 458 4 2nd 342 4 11th 378 4 3rd 421 4 12th 598 5 4th 560 5 13th 181 3 5th 378 4 14th 356 4 6th 195 3 15th 467 4 7th 431 4 16th 228 3 8th 249 3 17th 315 4 9th 474 4 18th 452 4 Out: 3,513 36 In: 3,433 35 Total: 6,946 71 -----------------------------------------------------------------

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