North Carolina came agonizingly close to winning a national championship in basketball this season, only to see its hopes ripped away by Villanova’s Kris Jenkins at the buzzer.
As gut-wrenching a moment as it was for the Tar Heels’ faithful, the finish calls to mind another heartbreaking Heels finish, but one that comes from the world of golf.
And it includes none other than Arnold Palmer.
Perhaps no player has had a greater impact on golf than Arnold Palmer. But his lone win at Pinehurst is a difficult one to find. It’s not the North & South Amateur, which he laments, and where he lost twice in the semifinals. Palmer turned professional in 1954, so he missed the North & South Open, and he was past his prime for the PGA Tour events at Pinehurst in the 1970s and the U.S. Senior Open in 1994.
“It was a great shot that scared me to death, let’s just say that.” -Arnold Palmer
But there is a win at Pinehurst in the Palmer ledger, and he recalls it fondly. But it was a crushing near-miss for the Tar Heels and their star, Harvie Ward.
In 1948, Palmer was a freshman sensation at Wake Forest, competing in the Southern Conference, a precursor to the Atlantic Coast Conference. Near the close of the second round on Pinehurst No. 2, Palmer found himself ahead of his friend and rival Ward. But Ward still had the famed 18th to play, and was comfortably in the fairway.
Palmer should’ve been confident. Ward would need to hole his approach shot just to tie.
But with the ball in the air, Palmer’s heart sank.
“Harvie needed to hole his second shot to tie me,” Palmer said in 2014 before the U.S. Open. “He left it about 3 inches from the hole. I didn’t think it had a chance, but he damn near made it.”
Palmer won the conference championship by a stroke. It’s his only documented Pinehurst win.
“It would’ve dismayed me quite a bit,” Palmer says now of Ward’s shot. “It was a great shot that scared me to death, let’s just say that.”
Neither Wake Forest nor North Carolina won the Southern Conference team championship, though.