Jack Knows How Rocco Feels

When Tiger Woods and Rocco Mediate tee it up at 9 a.m. today West Coast time at Torrey Pines near San Diego, it will mark the 33rd playoff in U.S. Open history and the first since 2001 when Retief Goosen beat Mark Brooks at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla.

It will be the classic David and Goliath story, of course. Woods is the No. 1 ranked player in the world chasing his 14th major PGA championship, while Mediate is ranked 157th in the world and is looking for the first major of his career. If he wins, he would also become the oldest winner in the 108-year history of the U.S. Open.

Mediate’s underdog status hearkens back to another U.S. Open playoff, this one nearly a half-century ago when another long-shot prepared to do battle against golf’s current king of the hill. It is perhaps coincidence that the long shot that day was Jack Nicklaus, the man whose major championship total of 18 is the record Tiger is chasing.

In the 1962 Open, played at the famed Oakmont Country Club near Pittsburgh, it was a foregone conclusion that Arnold Palmer – who had grown up less than 40 miles from Oakmont – would be the sentimental favorite. At the time, Palmer was 32 years old (same age as Tiger is now), the reigning PGA king, and in his prime. He already had won six tournaments that year, including the Masters, and one of his victories was by 12 shots over runner-up Nicklaus at the Phoenix Open Invitational.

Nicklaus, who was then 22, has his first brush with U.S. Open destiny (and Palmer) two years earlier at Cherry Hills in Denver. He shot a 72-hole score of 282, still the lowest score ever by an amateur in the Open. But it wasn’t quite good enough as Palmer shot a final-round 65 to take the title by two strokes over Nicklaus.

Two years later, Nicklaus had turned pro and was looking for his first major championship. Heading into the final round, Palmer had the upper hand again and held a three-shot advantage with just 10 holes to play. However, Palmer fought a balky putter down the stretch and Nicklaus overcame the three-shot deficit – and well as a hostile pro-Palmer crowd – to force an 18-hole playoff. There was at least one friendly face in the gallery for Nicklaus. Ohio State football coach Woody Hayes reportedly walked all 18 holes with the youngster on Sunday.

The always-focused Nicklaus has always maintained that he never heard the crowd’s jeers. Years later, though, he admitted, “Woody would get very upset with people in the gallery. People would say something, and Woody wasn’t going to exactly back off.”

On Monday, Palmer fought his putter again and fell as many as four strokes behind Nicklaus on the front nine. But he righted himself and cut the deficit to just one as the two headed to the 13th hole, a 183-yard par-3 with a narrow hourglass-shaped green. Palmer three-putted for a bogey while Nicklaus made a par. Palmer never got any closer and Nicklaus closed him out with an even-par score of 71. Palmer shot a 74.

It not only was Nicklaus’ first major victory but his first professional title on the PGA Tour. It also signaled the beginning of a new era in golf. The victory signaled the changing of the guard – the moment the kid from Ohio State replaced Palmer as the dominating figure in golf.

An era that has not been challenged – until now.

MORE OPEN MAGIC FROM JACK

Nicklaus was truly remarkable when it came to the U.S. Open. During the six-year period between 1967 and 1972, he won the tournament twice and finished second twice – both times to Lee Trevino, including a playoff in ’72.

Here are some of Jack’s Open records:

Starts: 44

Wins: 4

Top 3 Finishes: 9

Top 5 Finishes: 11

Top 10 Finishes: 18

Top 25 Finishes: 22

Average Score: 72.59

Nicklaus is one of only three professional golfers ever to win the championship four times. The others are Willie Anderson (1901, 1903-05) and Ben Hogan (1948, 1950-51, 1953). Bobby Jones also won the title four times as an amateur (1923, 1926, 1929-30).

HAPPY! HAPPY!

Among those celebrating birthdays this June 16th include authors Erich Segal (“Love Story”) and Joyce Carol Oates (“A Garden Of Earthly Delights”); actresses Joan Van Ark (“Knots Landing”) and Laurie Metcalf (“Roseanne”); former NHL star Derek “Turk” Sanderson; Columbus Blue Jackets left wing Rick Nash; former lightweight, welterweight, junior middleweight and middleweight boxing world champion Roberto Durán; American Idol season three runner-up Diana DeGarmo; former pro wrestler turned motivational speaker The Ultimate Warrior (born Brian James Hellwig); former major league baseball players Ron LeFlore and Wally Joyner; current Chicago Cubs closer Kerry Wood; and PGA golfer Phil Mickelson.

It is also the 67th birthday of record company executive Lamont Dozier. You may not know the name but you definitely know the man’s music. With his partners Brian and Edward Holland Jr., Dozier wrote or co-wrote dozens of hits including “Where Did Our Love Go,” “Baby Love,” “”Stop! In The Name of Love,” “Baby Love,” “Come See About Me,” and “Reflections” by Diana Ross and the Supremes, “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” by James Taylor, “I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie, Honey Bunch)” and “It’s The Same Old Song” by the Four Tops.

THIRTY-EIGHT YEARS AGO TODAY

Today also marks the 38th anniversary of the death of Chicago Bears running back Brian Piccolo.

Born in Pittsfield, Mass., on Oct. 31, 1943, Piccolo was a speedy but undersized that always had to prove himself on the football field. After a stellar prep career at Central Catholic High School (now St. Thomas Aquinas) in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., he received scholarship offers from only two schools but went on to lead the country in rushing and scoring for Wake Forest.

He signed with the Chicago Bears as an undrafted free agent and went from a taxi squad member in 1965 to starting fullback alongside tailback Gale Sayers in 1969. During the ninth game of that season, Piccolo took himself out of the lineup and was later diagnosed with an aggressive form of cancer. He died seven months later on June 16, 1970.

Sayers later wrote a book about his friend called “I Am Third.” The book was later made into the television movie “Brian’s Song” starring James Caan as Piccolo and Billy Dee Williams as Sayers.

Beginning in 1970, the Bears began giving out the Brian Piccolo Award to the team’s top rookie who best exemplified Piccolo’s combination of courage, loyalty, teamwork, dedication and sense of humor. In 1992, the award was expanded to include a veteran player with those qualities. Four former Ohio State players have won the award: Fred Pagac (1974), Brian Baschnagel (1976), Shaun Gayle (1984 and 1994) and Raymont Harris (1994).

AND FINALLY

** Sorry, Tiger, but as long as you’re chasing Jack’s record of 18 major championships, I’ll have to root for Rocco today.

** NBC did its obligatory Tiger genuflecting over the weekend. It’s easy to understand why, of course. Woods is the best golfer in the world right now and his sheer determination and will to win set him completely apart from the rest of the field. But I thought the coverage went a little over the top on Tiger’s recovery from knee surgery. After all, it’s been 10 weeks and he does play a rather pedestrian game. I seem to recall Ohio State defensive back Donte Whitner having arthroscopic knee surgery one week and playing against Michigan the following Saturday.

** Former Marshall defensive standout Johnathan Goddard died early Sunday morning after a motorcycle accident Saturday night in Florida. He was 27. Ohio State fans might remember Goddard as the guy who ran back a fumble recovery 27 yards during his team’s 24-21 loss to the Buckeyes in 2004. That was the game in which Mike Nugent drilled a 55-yard field goal on the final play to win it for the Buckeyes.

** The latest NBA draft projection from The Sporting News has former Ohio State center Kosta Koufos going to the Houston Rockets with the 25th pick of the upcoming draft. TSN college basketball writer Mike DeCourcy wrote that Koufos “has more and better perimeter skills than perhaps any 7-footer produced by an American high school, but he’s not quick enough to be an NBA forward and thus will need to defend big men. Koufos does not care for contact. He is too easily bumped off inside scoring moves.”

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