America was changing. The status quo, so firmly stamped in place by the suburban success of the 1950s, was by 1967 officially an open question. Race riots in Detroit. The Summer of Love in San Francisco. The Graduate and Bonnie & Clyde titillated moviegoers. Aretha Franklin released “Respect” and The Beatles were on a magical mystery tour. The golf world, clearly staid by comparison, nevertheless experienced seismic revelations: Gay Brewer upended the favorites at Augusta while Charlie Sifford became the PGA Tour’s first African-American champion.
Yet the establishment remained. The Rolling Stones were forced to change the controversial lyrics of “Let’s Spend the Night Together” to “Let’s spend some time together” when they played “The Ed Sullivan Show.” And in June, while hippies wore flowers in their hair and traded tabs of LSD in Haight-Ashbury, a decidedly drug-free Jack Nicklaus won the U.S. Open.
On it went throughout a tumultuous year on the course. Some of golf’s biggest names—Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Julius Boros, Billy Casper—won multiple times, while others, like Gary Player, were shut out. Don January outlasted a slew of stars to win the PGA Championship in a playoff and 44-year-old Roberto De Vicenzo held off a Nicklaus charge to capture the Open Championship. Like Brewer, it would be his only major championship.
The ladies of the LPGA experienced similar cultural whiplash. To the surprise of no one, future World Golf Hall of Fame members Kathy Whitworth, Mickey Wright and Carol Mann combined to win 15 of the 28 scheduled events. But the Tour also saw the beginning of an international shift that would eventually come to define it: France’s Catherine Lacoste and Australia’s Margie Masters became the LPGA’s first winners from their respective continents.
Big Bad Jack
Marty Fleckman was on the verge of history. As the final round of the 1967 U.S. Open kicked off at Baltusrol Golf Club, he had a one-stroke lead and was gunning to become the first amateur to capture the U.S. Open since Johnny Goodman in 1933.
But the thousands packed into the sweaty galleries on a stiflingly muggy New Jersey afternoon knew better.
There was never any question that Sunday would belong to golf’s giants. Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer teed off in the penultimate group in the final round with more than another major title on the line. Arnie, who at 37 years old had finished runner-up in three of the last five Opens—including a heartbreaking playoff loss to Jack at Oakmont in 1962—was once again trying to stand up to this golf supernova. Jack was 27, entering the prime of his career and looking, once and for all, to dethrone the King.
The gallery was ready for fireworks. It was over before they made the turn.
With five birdies between Nos. 3 and 8, Nicklaus locked in his seventh major championship and effectively dropped the curtain on one of golf’s greatest rivalries. Palmer bravely shot 69, but he finished second again, eclipsed by Nicklaus’ blazing 65. Palmer, never one to hide his emotions, looked a beaten man on the final hole. Perhaps he knew what was coming. Remarkably, with Nicklaus’ victory, he and Palmer had won at least one major in each of the last six years and captured 10 of the previous 22 overall. But going forward, Palmer would record 12 more victories until his last in 1973, none of them majors. Nicklaus, on the other hand, would add 11 more majors to his résumé.
Palmer wasn’t the only legend to pass the torch that day. Nicklaus’ birdie on 18 gave him the new U.S. Open scoring record, his 275 surpassing the 276 Ben Hogan set in 1948. Hogan, then 54, was there to see it; the 1967 U.S. Open was the Hawk’s last.
A Rare Smile
At the 1952 Phoenix Open, Charlie Sifford and his all-black foursome, which included Hall of Fame boxer Joe Louis, looked down into the cup on the first hole to find it filled with excrement. In November 2014, President Barack Obama presented the Presidential Medal of Freedom to Sifford in the East Room of the White House. In between, Sifford’s life was filled with the satisfying highs of breaking barriers on and off the course along with the terrifying lows of institutional and individual racism.
Golf may have been the whitest of all major American sports when Sifford, then 39 and already past his best years, became the first African-American to earn a PGA Player card in 1960. (It still took pressure from the legal system for the PGA of America to drop its “Caucasians Only” clause a full year later.) Jackie Robinson told Sifford one thing when they discussed his goal to play on the best tour in the world: Don’t be a quitter. Sifford quickly learned what he meant, suffering racist taunts at nearly every event, service refused at restaurants and hotels, and death threats.
And yet there he was in 1967, winning the Greater Hartford Open at 45 years old, becoming the first African-American to win on the PGA Tour. Remarkably, Sifford wasn’t done, winning the Los Angeles Open two years later. But even those accomplishments didn’t open every door. It wasn’t until 1975, well after Sifford was on the Senior PGA Tour, that the Masters invited its first African-American player.
The years of indignities that Charlie Sifford suffered on and off the course forced him to develop thick skin and an instinct to fight for what he thought was his. “The things he went through did not go down well with him,” Sifford’s friend and fellow pro Larry Mowry told Golf Digest. “Let’s be honest: Charlie could be difficult.” Photo by Laura Ptaszkiewicz
So when he did smile, as in this photo the week after his first PGA Tour victory at the Greater Hartford Open, it was a genuine event. Photo by Old Golf Images/SBM