Saturday, August 28, 2010

August 28, 1954: Palmer's big step

GROSSE POINTE FARMS, Mich. - It was, as one sports writer put it, a dream matchup. On one side was Bob Sweeny, a 43-year-old British millionaire famous around the world for his high living lifestyle. On the other was Arnold Palmer, a 24-year-old paint salesman who grew up the son of a golf pro in suburban Pittsburgh. The two would be battling for the U.S. Amateur championship at the Country Club of Detroit.

Along with the disparate backgrounds, the two were contrasts in their playing style, as well. Sweeny was known as one of the best putters in the world, mastering the finesse part of golf, while Palmer was a grip-it-and-rip-it type of player, hitting towering drives on every hole.

As they teed off for the championship match on August 28, 1954, they were in different stages in their golf career. Sweeny had won the British Amateur championship in 1937 and was already a well-accomplished amateur player. A win in this year's tournament would simply be icing on the cake. Palmer, living in Cleveland after finishing his stint in the Coast Guard, was at a career crossroads. He had just won his first important tournament, and a win in the U.S. Amateur would help build his confidence in a future career in professional golf.

Sweeny played like the player with nothing to lose, jumping out to a quick 3-hole lead after 4 holes. Included in his run was a 40-foot birdie putt that seemed to deflate Palmer. After the 4th hole, though, Sweeny said to Palmer, "Look on the bright side. You know there's no way I can keep this up."

Sweeny proved prophetic, as Palmer won the 8th, 9th, and 10th holes to tie the match. From then, it was a back-and-forth battle, with Palmer's booming drives, often 40 yards farther than Sweeny's, going against the Englishman's pinpoint accuracy.

By the time the two teed off on the 36th and final hole of the day, Palmer was one hole ahead. He hit his final drive right down the middle, while Sweeny pulled his behind two trees. As they walked up the fairway, Sweeny said "Congratulations, you've won," conceding the match. The match official who was with them told the players to finish the hole anyway, saying it would be called a 1-up victory for Palmer. Because of this, nobody knew that Sweeny had actually conceded until 50 years later, when Palmer told the story.

Palmer's win elevated him to among golf's most popular players. Here was a guy from a decidedly middle-class background who had a chance to dominate the game. The fans took to his background, personality, and style of play instantly, and he remains as popular today as he was after his U.S. Amateur win in 1954.

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