He didn't look it, but George Thomas was 40 years old, and he had been making a living as a golf professional for 13 years. A pro at a small country club in Indiana where it used to be a fellow took his golf clubs out on the course and somebody would run yelling to one of the members, "Hey, hey, some guy's out there playing on your golf course!" A living. He hustled golf balls and Arnold Palmer shirts and rented out electric carts and, as the membership became aware of his genius for teaching, he gave 200 lessons a year, at $4.50 per, and with all that he could net seven, eight thousand dollars tops. That was it.
So in the winter and in the evenings during the summer George Thomas filled little brown bottles with little blue capsules and made chocolate sodas for the clientele at the Central Drug on Franklin Street in Michigan City. He said the secret was to emulsify the ice cream. Stick that spoon in there real good and grind the ice cream down. He said four years of pharmaceutical school at Purdue University and you, too, could learn to count pills to 100 and make a good chocolate soda. Being a druggist was worth $5,000 a year. George Thomas did it with his left hand. It kept his wife and four growing boys in middle-class clover.
Clover was a tidy red ranch-style house bordering, backyard-to-apron, the 5th green of the Long Beach Country Club, where Club Pro Thomas had earned the friendship of a lot of rich people with his modest esprit and his faculty for taking the bends out of their tee shots. Long Beach is a commuter town for successful Chicago businessmen. Hard by Lake Michigan, it does not get much relief from the winter in March and April. The wind still rips in from the lake, and if it is not snowing it is probably June. Nevertheless, every morning at dawn in this his 40th year, George Thomas was out there behind his house striking golf balls. An hour, an hour and a half. Click. Click. Click. Click. Sweet, unwrinkled, instruction-booklet, any-pro-would-be-proud-of-it swing. And then he would go up to the club and, if the weather was bad enough, he would round up his one-legged buddy, Bill Stanley, who had a fancy house right on the lake, and they would con two more fools into a match. (If the weather was good, George had to stick around the tiny pro shop, signing out carts and collecting greens fees and telling the women members how nice their golf swings looked and how nice they looked, too, come to think of it.)
George and Bill would put on their rubberized golf suits and grab their hand warmers and go out and play 18 holes, or 27 or 36. Sometimes Bill Stanley's shots strayed too close to a water hazard and his wooden leg would slip into the freezing water, but this would not stop them. On the other hand, if his good leg got wet and started to freeze up, this would not stop them either. Nothing short of double pneumonia would stop them. To play, that was the thing, and to play with George Thomas in particular, because George could shoot a 64, and he knew why he could shoot a 64. "It's the rhythm that counts," he would say. "I know it sounds wild, but think of The Blue Danube Waltz. Hum the tune to yourself as you swing. 'One, two, three, hit...so clear, and blue....' "
June 12, 1966
Then in the evenings George would drive into Michigan City, where he grew up and was a very good athlete and where early rivals called him "hunky" and "guinea" because they did not know how else to slander a Lebanese boy. From 6 to closing time he whipped up prescriptions and sold eye shadow to sallow-faced teen-age girls, helping old Morrie Mitnick through another long day at the Central Drug. George and Morrie used to be partners. The neighborhood was not Beverly Hills. They fought shoplifters and addicts together.
And late at night when the four boys were scrubbed and kissed and Barbara, his wife, had put them to bed, George Thomas would take out his flat-blade putter with the center spot carefully marked with a groove and dump a big box of balls onto the floor. He would line up beside the credenza in the dining room and aim 25 feet across the beige rug to the third leg of the piano in the living room. He banged 100 balls a night into that piano leg. He hunched over his putter for 45 minutes at a time, until his back ached. He varied his shots. No table leg was safe. "Someday I'd like to tee it up in the U.S. Open," he told Barbara. He told her that over and over.
But there was a streak of pessimism in George Thomas. He believed his fate to be the sand traps of life, not the fairways. He had been a hotshot athlete in high school, but then he had to go off in a B-17 to drop bombs on Germany. When he came back three years later he got a scholarship to Purdue as a 159-pound quarterback, and he found he was not a hotshot anymore. He played on the meatball squad. He sat on the bench. A sympathetic Purdue coach told him he ought to pull out for a school that would appreciate him. His friend John McKay did. McKay quit and went to Oregon and got an All-America mention and became head coach at USC. But George stuck it out on the meatball squad four years and disliked every minute of it. When he was older he would call it a matter of guts.
He studied pharmacy when he felt he should have been in medical school. He studied golf harder. "If I had applied myself to pharmacy like I did to golf, I would be another Louie Pasteur," he said. But he barely made the Purdue golf team, and when the team went to the NCAA tournament George was not asked to go along. He stayed behind and won the amateur division of the Fort Wayne Open.
Now he was rolling balls into a table leg in his living room in the early spring and examining what he considered to be his uninterrupted unsuccess. He examined it with clinical detachment, as one explores under the hood of a deficient automobile.
"I have never arrived at anything," he said. "I reach a certain level, a certain plateau, and then I can't crack the barrier. I keep trying, because that's the way I am. You can't stop trying. Hell, I applied for medical school when I was 33 years old. Maybe I have too much confidence in my ability without having that little bit of superability that makes the difference. You suppose?
"I think I am a good teacher. People say I am. Let me teach you golf and I will be your friend for life. But I have never proved on a golf course the things I know as a teacher."
He sat down on the sofa, the putter between his knees. "I have always been the kid who grew up in the job. I have always had the feeling: Who would want me? Who would want a guy named George Thomas? I tried a course at Gary awhile, and for one horrible summer I was at the Bonnie Dundee club near Chicago. I always come back. One time I applied for a really good job and was accepted, and then after all that I didn't have the guts to take it. You get so comfortable in your own little world, your own group of people. Safe is the word for it.
"I would love to have made the tour. I think I might have done something. But I never had that angel, you know? That guy who comes up to you and says, 'George, I'd like to sponsor you on the tour.' With just a little incentive I would have tried it. I really would have tried it. It's only been the last 10 years or so young pros have been getting that kind of help. Maybe I was born 10 years before my time."
Unable to practice regularly, George Thomas seldom played in a tournament. Once he was runner-up in the Indiana PGA. He played in the Phoenix Open while on a vacation with Barbara. He was even par after nine in the second round when he figured he was on the verge of something his nerves might not handle, so he broke off half a Miltown tablet and took it. "I had never taken any kind of drug before. My pharmacology instructor at Purdue had said never take that first dose, of anything. On the 15th hole I suddenly began to lose my coordination. I couldn't hit the ball. Not at all. What was worse, I didn't seem to care."
Nine times before his 40th year George Thomas had tried to qualify for the U.S. Open. Four years in a row he succeeded in getting past the local qualifying round into the sectional qualifying, but then he would fail by a stroke, or by two or by three. People told him he was wasting his money on entry fees and caddie fees and hotel rooms and time away from his commissions. He explained that you could not measure the magnitude of teeing it up in the U.S. Open in dollars and commissions. "It's the greatest tournament in the world, because everybody has a chance. A nobody—a nobody—could win it if he could just last through the qualifying. Next to the U.S. Open all the other big tournaments are ridiculous. You have to be in the top 10% of this or that to qualify. It's absurd. You have no chance. But any hacker can get into the U.S. Open if he is hitting his shots."
So now, in May of 1965, George Thomas, a flat-bellied, 5-foot 10-inch, 175-pound alumnus of the Purdue meatball squad, played the South Bend Country Club course twice in a total of 142 strokes and was low qualifier for the Open in the northern Indiana district. At night the balls clicked against the furniture legs in the Thomas living room on Oriole Trail. In the morning, when Andy McKenna went out to get the paper, he could see in the gathering light his neighbor George out in the backyard hitting golf balls.
In early June, Bill Stanley accompanied George to the sectional qualifying at the Medinah Country Club 25 miles west of Chicago. It was the toughest course Thomas had ever played. Stanley followed on foot the entire 36 holes, the stump of his left leg bleeding through his pants, as George shot a beeline of 37s—37, 37, 37, 37—for 148. On his 10th attempt, George Thomas had qualified for the U.S. Open.
Long Beach Country Club was enthused. There were congratulations for George Thomas, and friends gave him a big poster-sized good-luck card with a cartoon and all their names on it, and they slipped him an envelope with $300 in it to help with expenses and bought him well-wishers' drinks. But George was worried. (When he is not being a very bon ban vivant he is being a very doubting Thomas.) He said he just had to make a good showing for their sake, that he would do anything to make the cut, just to be in that last 50, to join the elite that would play beyond the first 36 holes of the Open.
On Sunday he went to church with his family. He visited Morrie Mitnick at the pharmacy and made himself a chocolate soda, and then he went around to his mother's house in Michigan City and ate raw kibbe and malfoof and Syrian bread. He sat in front of the television set and poked fun at a taped interview of a local fellow named George Thomas who was "going to carry Indiana's hopes" in the U.S. Open. "Oh, yes, yes. Oh, is that right? Well, what do you know?" he said, as if by making light of his television image he could minimize the gathering insurrection in his stomach.
Andy McKenna had a cocktail party for his pro just before George left, and presented him with a scarred-up old ball to use in the tournament. A small crowd gathered in the Thomas driveway as suitcases and golf clubs were loaded into the car. One of the wives in the neighborhood hugged George and kissed him firmly on the cheek. "I'm going to quit treating you like a pharmacist," she said.
"For a big girl," said George, "you're very light on your feet."
The last thing he put in the car was a long, narrow box, carefully tied. He said it might be the best reason he had for going to St. Louis. Inside the box was a putter, but no ordinary putter. It was the material result of an idea that came to him with the pain during those long hours on the living-room rug. He called it a "shuffle-putter." It was made of laminated wood and brass, with a cobra-shaped head and a shaft running perpendicular to and at about a 20° angle up from the club head, like a vacuum cleaner. To putt, you place the cleaner head on the ground just behind the ball, line up facing the hole and give the ball a sliding jab, shuffleboard fashion. He said it would make a good putter out of anybody, if only the USGA would approve it when he showed it to them at St. Louis.
It is eight hours by car from Michigan City, Ind. to St. Louis. For the first hour and a half George Thomas talked about the "unbelievable" send-off and the "fantastic" people who were pulling for him, and he said he did not really think it was so farfetched to believe a nobody from a little country club like Long Beach could win this thing.
"Remember Sam Parks?" he said. "He won it, and he was an unknown. And Tony Manero. Parks couldn't beat his mother-in-law, and Manero was just an average player. And remember when Jack Fleck beat Hogan? I figure it runs in a cycle; every once in a while something like this will happen. I keep thinking this will be the year of the offbeat, of the oddball, you know?"
Bellerive Country Club, the site of the '65 Open, is a beautiful 250-acre piece of Colonial extravagance that sprawls on the western rim of St. Louis. It has 500 members and snob appeal, and the pro shop at Long Beach could pretty nearly fit behind the counter of the pro shop at Bellerive. George Thomas got his first look at the club on the Monday of the tournament. He passed through the gates and down the long double drive to the contestants' parking lot, and the thing he noticed immediately was a big Red Cross tent to the left of the entrance. "Good," he said. "I just might faint on the first tee."
Everywhere there were signs, a labyrinth of signs directing people this way and that, and thousands of people going this way and that. "This is the worst part," he said as he waited in line on the carpeted floor of the clubhouse to pick up his credentials. "This getting yourself oriented. The percentage is against you if you feel lost, you know? That's the big thing, to get familiar with the place now."
When it came his turn, he said to one of the girls at the table, "Where does an alien check in?"
She gave him badges and passes and a handful of other paraphernalia and gestured to a fishbowl from which he was to pick his caddie. "Ben Johnson," he read from the little slip of paper. The girl rolled her eyes. "Oh, lucky you," she cooed. "Ben's just about the very best caddie we've got."
George smiled and thanked her, but outside he was sober again. "Gee, I hope Ben Johnson isn't disappointed he didn't get Jack Nicklaus or somebody. I was a caddie once. I know what would go through my mind if I got some guy named George Thomas." He grinned. "You know, it's a damn good thing I'm 40 years old and stuff like this doesn't bother me."
He checked the pairings. He would play the first two rounds with Bob Duden of Portland, Ore. and Dean Refram of Medinah, the club where George had qualified. Both were touring pros. He said he remembered Duden from a tournament in Fort Wayne, Ind. It was not a pleasant memory. "I had shot a 69 in the first round, and Duden said to me right out of the blue, 'How long do you think you can get away with those deep grooves in your putter?' I think what was bothering him was that 69.
"He's been on the tour a long time. I remember he uses a funny putter. Like croquet. I think Dean Refram does, too. It's a good idea, because you can see the hole face-on, but you can't get enough power for the long putts. What a wild deal. If they let me use my shuffle-putter we will be the funniest threesome on the course."
He found his locker around a corner on the mezzanine of the lavish double-decker men's lounge. He deposited his clubs and shoes, and soon had a sample of the kind of buffet manufacturers and public-relations men spread for the touring pros. He got nine dozen Acushnet balls, six dozen Wilson balls and a Wilson bag, a pair of Etonic golf shoes, three dozen high-compression MacGregor balls and a pair of Jaymar-Ruby slacks. He piled them in his locker, picked up a scorecard and went out to mark off the course.
"Gee, what a beautiful place," he said. "I would be excited even if I weren't going to play." He was walking down the 9th fairway, from the green back to the tee. "The big thing is to get the feel, to know where you're going, to know what club to pull out of the bag. See how sticky this grass is? Bermuda. Real tough. And it doesn't seem to be as well kept as it should be." He made extensive notes on a pad, figuring the zones he might hit to, noting trees and bushes, traps and mounds, all the time pacing off the yards.
He met his caddie, Ben Johnson, and was encouraged. Ben was lean and burnt from the sun, had white hair and wore glasses and tennis shoes, and was altogether amiable. He said he had caddied regularly at Bellerive but was now a tool-maker for an aircraft company and was just working the Open on his vacation. George apologized for not being Jack Nicklaus. Ben said that was fine with him, because who needed all those crazy fans breathing down your neck. He got George's clubs and they went out to the practice tee.
Nicklaus was already there hitting balls, and Sam Snead and Ken Venturi, the defending champion. George Thomas hesitated at the fence that separated golfers from gapers. He said he felt as though he had put his hands in a bucket of ice water. He went out anyway and set up between Nicklaus and Bob Charles. He introduced himself to Charles as the pro at Long Beach, where Charles was to play an exhibition in July. Charles gave him a perfunctory hand and went back to his work.
On his left, George could feel the whoomf of Nicklaus' practice shots. He watched out of the corner of his eye to see what club Nicklaus was using, took the same number out of his bag and began comparing distance and accuracy. He noticed with some relief that Nicklaus seemed to be hooking everything, and despite the awesome power of the man the difference in length of shots was not discouraging. "You are a swinger, not a hitter," he said to himself. "You must not get excited, because then you swing too fast and you will be hooking, too." Right off he found the groove. He began to follow one perfect shot with another.
Ben Johnson nodded approval. "He's got a beautiful swing. He has all the shots, and he marks off a course as good as anybody I've seen. I feel very good about George Thomas."
George got in two practice rounds before the tournament. Both he and Ben Johnson had notebooks and frequently compared them. Ben had caddied for Nicklaus two days before, and George kept asking, "Where was Nicklaus on this hole? What club did he use here?" By George's tabulation, Bellerive was 1,000 yards longer than the Long Beach course. "The thing I must not do," he said to his caddie, "is magnify the toughness of this course in my mind." He said he was not nervous, but he was not relaxed, either. Then, on his second day of practice, he went out in a threesome with Chi Chi Rodriguez, the little Puerto Rican who has the muscles of a sparrow but hits with incredible power.
Rodriguez is a birthday party on a golf course. He hits balls off the tops of paper cups, and does fandangos on the green after a birdie. Some of his fellow pros think he is too much, but he wins money on the tour and the fans love him. He was an elixir for George Thomas. A big crowd followed them around, and no one could be unrelaxed very long. Chi Chi made book on his shots with the gallery; he flipped balls out of sand traps with his left hand. He chatted endlessly, and he found a friend in George Thomas. He told George he liked his grip. "You are one of the few country-club pros who has a nice grip," he said. When they had played 18, Chi Chi asked George to go another nine. George was delighted. He was also delighted that he had been able to match Chi Chi almost shot for shot.
"You know, George," Chi Chi said as they walked down the fairway, "Ben Hogan told me I am great to play with. He say to me, 'Chi Chi, you make me very loose.' "
"You know, Chi Chi," said George, "Hogan's got something there."
That afternoon George Thomas tucked the long, narrow box under his arm and went to keep an appointment with Joseph Dey, the executive director of the United States Golf Association and the man who runs the Open. In Dey's private office, George took out his club and demonstrated how it worked. Dey looked at it and shook his head. "Shuffleboard," he said. He got out a rule book and read a few passages. George sat there as if hearing an accounting of his sins on Judgment Day.
"No way, Mr. Dey?"
"I'm sorry, George. I must protest the game. I am very sorry."
George looked down at the polished wood and brass, unable to hide his disappointment. "Well, I appreciate your seeing me."
That night he and Barbara ate spaghetti with friends at Parente's restaurant and were there until after midnight, and gradually George got over his hurt. "Mr. Dey was very nice," he said, "but I should have known. I should have known it would happen, but I kept hoping. Well, I can't let this affect me. A human being is like a barometer. To be at his best he must be at the right barometric pressure."
"What is all this talk of pressure?" said the waiter, a skinny man with slicked-back hair and an expressive Adam's apple. He said he was a true son of Italy. He had given the table special attention when he learned George was a golf pro playing in the Open, and by midnight he had cleared the air with his demonstrations on how George was to hit the ball.
"You must keel it, George. You must hit the ball right in the knee." The waiter threw an imaginary cigarette onto an imaginary fairway and made a pantomime swing that looked like clubs falling out of a bag. "If it is dry, you will achieve great distance. But, George, tomorrow is the tournament. You must go home and get sleep and be very fit," he said.
"Walter Hagen was told that once," George said. "He was told he better get home because all his rivals were already in bed, sleeping. 'They may be in bed,' Hagen said, 'but they sure as hell ain't sleeping.' "
What George did not say in this effort to be casual was that he was not scheduled to tee off until 1:33 in the afternoon. He had slept seven hours when he came down to breakfast with Barbara at the motel the next morning. He had slept well and he ate big—juice, eggs, bacon—and when they drove to Bellerive it was still two hours before he was to tee off. "I must be nervous," he said. "I'm never at a tournament this early."
George went into the clubhouse to change his clothes. In the busy locker room, Sam Snead was telling jokes to a circle of ears, and Jack Nicklaus was sitting alone in a yellow lounge chair tying his shoes.
"You suppose I should introduce myself to Nicklaus?" George said at his locker. "I think it would be a nice gesture, don't you?" His courage was congealing. "Hell, when you think about it, when I started playing he wasn't wearing long pants. I'm the one that should be King Farouk, and here I am just Phillies Cheroot." He stepped up to Nicklaus and put out his hand. "Jack, I'm George Thomas of Michigan City, Ind. I just wanted you to know I think you're a wonderful credit to golf, and I wish you a lot of luck."
Nicklaus shook his hand warmly. "Thanks very much, George," he said.
At his locker, George said, "A real nice guy, that Nicklaus. It figures. His dad's a pharmacist. Now I ought to go see Palmer. I sell his products all the time. I give him a lot of business. Hell, he should want to talk to me." He laughed.
It was now 30 minutes to tee-off time. George Thomas was on the putting green. Ben Johnson was just arriving. Ben said he had had a fiat tire. He seemed to be unnerved about it. Ben's nervousness acted as a catalyst for George, who began to calm down. He putted crisply. Then the announcer called his name.
He and Refram and Duden followed a threesome of Venturi, Bill Campbell and Gene Littler, and preceded one of Dow Finsterwald, Doug Sanders and Ray Floyd. The crush at the first tee was terrific.
"I was very conscious of the crowd," George would recall later. "I kept thinking, 'This is it, the U.S. Open, you're teeing it up in the U.S. Open.' I kept thinking, 'You've got to get that first shot down the middle, got to generate something.' I tried to be very deliberate. I was so damned nervous, everything was reflex. I didn't try to think of any one thing, like keeping my head steady, or anything like that. I just wanted to hit it and get out of there. I don't even remember if I took a practice swing."
George Thomas' first shot in the 1965 U.S. Open was a low-liner that flew down the middle of the fairway as if drawn there with a T square and was past Refram and Duden by 10 yards. The crowd applauded. Relieved to be away, George walked rapidly down the fairway with Ben hard on his heels. He parred the hole. As he came off the green, there was Andy McKenna waiting for him.
"Nicklaus took a 6 here," he gabbled.
There are regular hole-sitters at every big tournament, and these together with the small special-interest groups—like Andy McKenna and Russ Priehs of Long Beach, Ind.—were George Thomas' gallery.
"Every second seems like a minute," George said.
"Take your time, George, take your time," Andy coached.
George parred the first two holes, but he was underestimating his long irons, and misjudgments cost him bogeys on 3 and 4. "Well, at least you're doing a good job," he said to his lady scorekeeper. Then he birdied the 7th with a 45-foot putt and turned his head away as if it were just too brilliant to look at. "You know why I'm so excited?" he said to Andy McKenna. "A guy called me in the clubhouse. He owns a restaurant. A Syrian restaurant, right here in St. Louis. We are all going to have Lebanese food tonight."
Thomas finished the first nine in 38, three over par, and lost another stroke at 10, then picked it up with a birdie on the par-3 13th by laying a two-iron shot five feet from the cup. Russ yelled, "Your head's coming up, George, keep your head down," and Andy reported, "Hey, George, last year's Open champion is eight over par!"
Then a run of misery. He bogeyed the 14th and as the shadows lengthened on the course he three-putted the 16th for another, muttering to himself. "Short, dammit, short," and rapping his putter lightly on a steel pipe. He drove into the tall grass on the right side of the 17th, a tough par-5.
"I'm asleep," he said, walking into the grass. "I'm unconscious. I've got it right here on the card: 'Play left of center on 17,' and look where I am." The ball was in a cultivated area, dug out for a tree, and he might have been given official relief on the shot, but he did not ask for it. He played it from where it was and wound up with a 7.
So he was 77 for the day, nine shots behind the leader, Kel Nagle, and somewhere in the middle of the 150-man field. Nicklaus had shot a 78, Palmer a 76. The next morning's Michigan City News-Dispatch carried this headline: THOMAS, PALMER, NICKLAUS GROUPED.
That night George got his Lebanese food at the restaurant of the man who extended the invitation. He also got the check.
It was Friday morning, and Barbara Thomas was nervous. She was standing outside the ring of people around the first tee. George was to tee off at 10. "I'm not sure what to do," she said. "I don't want to bother him, but I know how he gets when he's down. He might want me to be ready to leave in two minutes if he plays poorly and misses the cut."
George came over holding a half-pint milk carton with honey in it. He predicted it would take a pair of 75s to qualify, and he felt he could do better than his 77. 'The trouble is there are so many good golfers behind me who'll play better, too." He drank the honey. His thoughts wandered. "I wonder how my dad's doing running my pro shop. If I don't make the cut, I'd better get back right away."
The 6th hole at the Bellerive Country Club is the kind of pastoral scene lovers go in for on a Sunday afternoon. There are pine trees and oak trees around the green, which happens to be the smallest on the course, and following its contours from the upper right side down to the front of the green is a pond, tranquil and innocent. The green slopes down toward the pond. The pond is as innocent as a bear trap. Thirty-nine balls were hit in there on the first day of the U.S. Open. A professional named Robert Panasiuk made the green with his tee shot and then putted down the slope into the water.
By the second day, the hole was so famous for its high incidence of comedy that 2,000 people clustered around it. On the morning of his second round, George Thomas came to the 6th hole even par. He was hitting the ball better than ever. "If he keeps it up," Ben Johnson said, "we're in." There was a delay in play at the 6th, and George was standing there waiting his turn when Gene Littler and Ken Venturi duck-hooked their tee shots away from the water, and scrambled back for a bogey and double bogey.
This is how George remembered what happened:
"When I saw Littler and Venturi absolutely take the gas on those two shots, really quit on the ball and yip it 40 yards to the left, I said to myself, 'I'll never do that, not with 2,000 people watching. I'm going right for the pin.' I hit a two-iron. The pin was up on that right side. The wind was blowing left to right. I figured, hit it for the pin and it will draw into that wind and be just right. When I hit it, it looked perfect. I remember Doug Sanders was standing right behind me with the next threesome. He had on that white outfit and those fancy shoes. I remember him because you remember everything when you are playing with the big boys. I remember he said, 'Looks like a hell of a shot.'
"The ball bounced once, on the front edge of the green, rolled up past the hole, and then down, down, down and into the water as though it never intended to do anything else.
"It didn't shake me up. I had hit it so darn well I felt I could still come back for a 4. I hit my next shot from the drop zone, over by the tree behind the pond. A sand iron. It hit four feet from the pin, right on line, and it drew back into the water. Ben Johnson was standing there at my elbow. 'I'll be damned' he said. 'You've hit two perfect shots and you lie 5.' I couldn't believe it. I said, 'Ben, I can't believe it. How good do you have to hit the ball?' "
Thomas had a 7 on that 6th hole at Bellerive. When he finally holed out, he threw his ball into the water, underhanded, behind his back.
He was still smoldering six holes later. Then, perhaps in anger or frustration, George Thomas began to play a grade of golf which, for its excellence and while it lasted, rivaled any in the tournament. He birdied the par-3 13th when he hit his tee shot four feet from the pin. He birdied the 14th with a 10-foot putt, and on the 456-yard 15th hole he hit his second shot, a three-wood, 35 feet to the left of the pin, and made his putt. He dropped the putter and lifted his hat to the applauding crowd.
"He's madder'n a hornet," Ben whispered as George teed off on 16. "Ain't nobody hitting it better than he is right now."
George bogeyed the 16th when he got into a bunker, but he came back on the 17th, the hole that had punished him the day before, and hit his third shot from the rough within two feet of the pin. Another birdie, his fourth in five holes. No one, not Gary Player or jack Nicklaus, not anybody, had played those holes any better than that all week.
George finished with a 75, two strokes better than the day before. He walked swiftly off the 18th green, unrecognized by the milling people, and for a moment paused at the giant green board where the scores were being posted. "I'll never make it." he said. "Too many good players out there." He rubbed the head of a little boy standing beside him. "Hi, Red, how's it going?" He signed an autograph book pushed in front of him by somebody taking a chance he might be famous and then turned to his caddie.
"O.K., Ben, that's it. Let's get the car loaded up."
At his locker he opened the door and sat down wearily. "No guts," he said. "No guts. I wouldn't gamble," forgetting for a moment that he had done exactly that on the 6th hole.
He picked up some telegrams from Michigan City. "It really gets you. LOOKING FORWARD TO SEEING YOU SATURDAY AND SUNDAY ON TV. How can you face people like that?
"I've never—I can never remember having a 7 on a par-3 hole. Why now? Why? It was the difference between a really good showing and being right out of the tournament."
His 152 tied Arnold Palmer for the 36 holes. His 152 was better than the scores turned in by people named Goal-by, Hebert, Bayer, Besselink, Cupit, Campbell, Venturi, Pott, Sifford, Furgol, Charles, Ragan and Finsterwald. But the cut that eliminated 100 of the 150 players was made at 150 strokes, just as George Thomas had predicted. Next day the Michigan City News-Dispatch would carry this headline: THOMAS, PALMER BOW OUT WITH 152s.
George and Barbara Thomas left early the following morning for Michigan City. They did not stay around to see Gary Player win the U.S. Open or to figure out that 19 of those 50 who won big money in the tournament had rounds worse than the two that were not even good enough to keep George in it. But that's how it is with the Open.
They threw a party for him at the Long Beach Country Club, his patrons and pupils, and they clapped him on the back, and they told him how proud they were. He was amazed. He said he had not expected to be rewarded for failure. Eventually he got a form letter in the mail from the tournament committee. With the letter was a check for $300. And his life was never really the same again, because the Elcona Country Club in Elkhart, Ind. urged him to come be their pro, at a very handsome salary, and he took it because it just happened to be about the best country-club job in the state and the pro shop reminded him of something he had seen in St. Louis once upon a time. And almost a year later he would admit that he has never really tried to scrape off that parking sticker on his windshield, the one that reads: "Contestant, 1965 U.S. Open."