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The Biggest Show in Golf

Jeff Williams
From the Print Edition:
Laurence Fishburne, May/June 2013

(continued from page 1)

Certainly in the age of television there has been as much talk about the difficulty of an Open course as there has been about the skill of the Open champion. Millions of high handicappers have come to expect the Open courses to humble the world’s best players, to make the game as difficult for them as it is for everyone else. And when you put a course on the edge, you are courting disaster, and the U.S. Open has had a few of them.

In 1974 Hale Irwin won the Open at Winged Foot in what was labeled as the “Massacre at Winged Foot.” The rough at Winged Foot was long and gnarly, and the sloping greens were brass-knuckle hard and ice-rink fast. Irwin won the first of his three U.S. Open titles there with a seven over par score.  Irwin was a consummate Open player who kept the ball in play off the tee, hit the middle of greens and putted sensibly.

“When I got to Winged Foot more than half the field was grumbling and whining about the course,” says Irwin. “I thought that maybe 75 percent of those guys were taking themselves right out of contention before the first shot. The Open is a mental giant. I was pretty good about wrestling with that giant.”

In 1983 the rough around the greens at Oakmont was so thick that players were reduced to scything the ball into play. “In ’83 they had rough so high right next to the greens that if you missed by one yard you were just chopping the ball out,” says Floyd. “It took away your short game skills. It was a wedge and a whack. I’m all for difficult conditions, all top players are.

But not to the point that they become unfair. You don’t want your skills to be taken away.”

In 1998 there was a particularly perplexing situation on the 18th green of the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Tom Meeks, who had succeeded P.J. Boatwright as the Open’s setup man, had put the pin for the second round just past the midpoint of the green on the left-hand side, where Boatwright had set it. Meeks knew that it was an edgy pin, but he had his philosophy and was sticking to it. “I don’t want to purposefully set a golf hole up to where it’s unfair,” said Meeks then. “But if I’m going to err, I want to err on the side of too tough rather than not tough enough.”

Payne Stewart came to the 18th on Friday as the leader of the tournament when he hit his approach shot eight feet above the hole. He knew that if he did not make that putt for birdie, he would be in trouble. His putt got just past the pin, picked up the slope and rolled 25 feet past, leading to a three-putt green. Tom Lehman struck a wedge that hit near the pin but had just enough backspin to send it meandering back to the front of the green, 50 feet from the pin.  He four-putted from there. Kirk Triplett three-putted when his first putt from 30 feet below the hole came right back to where he struck it. Meeks later admitted his regret that he had embarrassed both the players and the USGA for that mistake.

In 2001 at Southern Hills the severely sloping ninth and 18th greens had to be mowed differently than the others and watered frequently because well-struck approach shots and deftly putted balls would not stay close to the hole.

But the defining moment of disaster came at the 2004 Open at the Shinnecock. The course had been playing as expected for the first three days, hard and fast. It was at the edge of playability but still manageable through 54 holes. Then the prevailing southwest wind, which had a bit of humidity to it, gave way to a more northerly, drier wind overnight Saturday into Sunday.

Calamity ensued, exemplified by the death of the green at the par-3 seventh hole. Players couldn’t make their tee shots come to rest on the green’s mortified surface. It became so bad so early in the round that Davis, who would become the head setup man for the USGA two years later, suspended play at the seventh so that the green could be watered. As he stood holding the flagstick at the back of the green, the New York crowd let him know what they thought about the situation, pelting him with cups and calling out unprintable oaths.


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