BACK TO BALTUS OAK

The U.S. Open returns next week to Rochester's lovely Oak Hill—not to be confused with Oakmont or Oakland Hills—where in 1956 Dr. Cary Middlecoff won what has come to be known as "the Rhubarb Open"
June 09, 1968

The United States Golf Association's annual shrub-judging and weed-stomping contest, more commonly known as the U.S. Open, will be renewed for the 68th time next week at another of those historic old country clubs—Baltus Oak, or something like that—and it will disappoint a great many of us if the Open's usual array of stars, or their counterparts, are not among the fungus and fern of the setting. You know the gang: Bob Gajda, Lee Mackey, Bobby Brue, Rives McBee, Les Kennedy, Al Brosch, all of those fellows who either lead the first round or shoot a course record in the second and then return to their club jobs back in Willoughby, Ohio. You can't take the unknowns out of the Open any more than you can take the oak out of the USGA.

Actually, the course is Oak Hill this time, a fine layout in Rochester, N.Y. that hosted the Open once before, in 1956, but it is not to be confused with Oakland Hills near Detroit or Oakmont near Pittsburgh, a couple of exalted venues that have combined to stage eight Opens in the past. Oak Hill will nevertheless require the usual USGA quota of Mackeys and Brues and Gajdas to fill out the field of 150 persevering souls who must struggle with the botanical wonders that every Open layout presents. The unknowns rarely win, of course. In fact, nobody ever really wins an Open, except possibly Jack Nicklaus (see cover). Normally, the champion turns out to be the man who has lost it more discreetly than the others.

Precisely because of all this, and much more, the Open has developed a special kind of personality among tournaments. The mere setting of the Open is enough to overwhelm the unsuspecting. The course gets dressed up to resemble the Argonne Forest, and these old courses nearly always have a clubhouse that looks as if Wuthering Heights has been nailed onto the side of Jay Gatsby's cottage in West Egg. And wandering all over the premises will be scores of aristocratic gentlemen in striped ties, button-down shirts and blue blazers pointing out drop areas. If you scooped up a Southampton lawn party, put it on a Scottish moor and ran up a flag, you, too, could hold an Open.

The thing that makes the Open work, however, is that for all of its crusty tradition, imposed dignity, and calf-high rough it remains the biggest, most important championship in golf. The Masters comes close, right to the lip of the cup, but the British Open and the PGA, the other tournaments comprising the game's Big Four, are not really in the same bag. The Open is the title that stays with a man longer than any other, like forever, and this aspect of it has caused as many mis-hit shots as the prize money. Record books can do that. The Open is simply the Kentucky Derby, the Indy 500 and the Rose Bowl of its sport, and so it is only natural that it has often been a sort of combined twilight zone and laugh-in.

Just look back at some of the more obvious moments for proof. There was a limping Ben Hogan winning four times on the monsters of Oakland Hills, Oakmont, Merion Oaks and Riviera Oaks. Over the same period there was a robust Sam Snead never winning. There was Ken Venturi, back from the forgotten, surviving the heat of Congressional. There was Julius Boros, his game unfit for the elements, surviving the storm winds of Brookline. There was Billy Casper, trying only to be second, surviving Arnold Palmer at Olympic. And then there was that "Open coma" group, the unsaliva-tested Sam Parks, Tony Manero and Jack Fleck, three winners who succeeded in making the headlines read like garbled type.

Understandably enough, the sports fan is jolted year after year by the tournament's quaint surprises. This is mainly because he is more familiar with the history of Joe Namath's knee than he is with that of the USGA. All he knows about any Open course is that it's tougher than the one he loses his Maxflis on every Saturday, but, heck, he figures Arnold Palmer can handle it easily enough. So if the baseball game isn't too interesting on this particular Sunday afternoon every June, he tunes in on the Open to see how many old Arnie will win by this time. And then comes the shock. Either Casper, Boros or Nicklaus, who have won five of the last nine, will come wading through a gangsome of Monty Kasers to do it again.

Meanwhile there is a slightly more knowledgeable observer who has learned to accept the mischief of the Open as willingly as he accepts heel prints in all of the bunkers at his club. And he would not be stunned at all if the drama of Oak Hill next week unfolded in the manner of the following news bulletins, which have been only faintly exaggerated:

WARMUP:

ROCHESTER, N.Y., June 12—A glittering field on the eve of the 68th U.S. Open agreed today that there is so much exotic plant life bordering the fairways of Oak Hill that only a malnourished hippie could walk down the middle of them without snagging his britches.

Gardner Dickinson, chairman of the PGA Tournament Committee, said he was withdrawing because he had never learned how to hit golf shots out of asparagus.

"If this kind of thing doesn't stop, we might not have a spot on the tour for the USGA next year," Dickinson said. "The sponsors may have the tents, but we've got the dog acts."

ROUND ONE:

ROCHESTER, N.Y., June 13—Jesse Ray Rives, an unheralded driving-range pro from Longing, Utah, grabbed the opening-round lead in the U.S. Open here today with an even-par 70. Rives birdied the first nine holes, shooting a record 26 and, although he bogeyed the entire back side for a 44, he had a total of only six putts, tying another record set by Bob Rosburg.

"I'd feel a lot better about my chances if I wasn't so lonely back here in the East," Rives said. "I wish my mama and my pet bobcat was here."

ROUND TWO:

ROCHESTER, N.Y., June 14—Eric (Bo) Mackey, an obscure pro at a putt-putt course in Clump, Calif., seized the halfway lead in the U.S. Open tonight when he added a 65 to his first-round 81 for a total of 146, only six over par on the Oak Hill course.

Having teed off at 5:14 a.m., Mackey was one of the day's early finishers at 4:30 in the afternoon. Sweating out his lead in the clubhouse, he had some anxious moments until shortly before midnight, when Jack Nicklaus came in.

First-round leader Jesse Ray Rives failed to make the cut, largely because a lurking animal—believed by some to be a bobcat—swallowed his ball on the 16th green.

Mackey confessed that he had received a lot of help in molding his game. He specifically singled out Cyril Walker, Olin Dutra, Ralph Guldahl, Billy Burke, Lawrence Auchterlonie, Jimmy Barnes, Willie MacFarlane, Tom Morris, Alex Smith, John J. McDermott and Charley Coody.

ROUND THREE:

ROCHESTER, N.Y., June 15 Billy Clyde Riddle, an assistant pro from Wee Briar, Conn., playing in his first golf tournament, tied for the 54-hole lead in the U.S. Open today with four amateurs, all from the University of Houston. Their score was 223, only 13 over par on historic old Oak Hill. Best known of the Houston collegians was Rex Zark, who has been the Western, Southern, North-South, Trans-Miss, Broadmoor, British and Idaho State amateur champion every year since the age of 9.

None of the leaders could afford to rest easily, however, for only 16 strokes off the pace, poised to make one of his patented finishes, was Arnold Palmer.

The tournament was further struck with misfortune when midway leader Eric (Bo) Mackey, the putt-putt pro, was disqualified for deliberately banking a shot off an ABC-TV equipment truck, injuring Producer Malcolm L. Hemion.

ROUND FOUR:

ROCHESTER, N.Y., June 16—With the coveted U.S. Open championship all but sewed up, Arnold Palmer caught his backswing in a flowering banyan today on Oak Hill's 71st hole and had to be rescued by a demolition team from the Corps of Engineers. Palmer's accident enabled Billy Casper to make up seven strokes on the final two holes and capture his third Open.

Sam Snead, who mailed in his scores, was again runner-up.

None of the third-round leaders managed to finish. Billy Clyde Riddle, tormented at the sight of his first gallery, made a 21 on the third hole and left to join the Army. The entire Houston team, including Rex Zark, quit after nine holes and departed for the NCAA tournament in order to squeeze in an extra day's practice.

Casper said he felt sorry for Palmer but that he knew all along he would win if he could avoid food poisoning.

Strangely, this imaginary Open was hardly any more weird than the one at Oak Hill in 1956. It was a tournament struck by more controversies than the USGA has seen since it tried to design its coats and ties. It was not only a championship labeled "the Rhubarb Open," it was the last one played in which a man sat in the clubhouse and won. This is what Cary Middlecoff was obliged to do as first Ben Hogan, then Julius Boros and then Ted Kroll all came down to the last few holes with splendid opportunities to beat or tie him and, one by one, collapsed. It was at Oak Hill, also, that Hogan, for the first noticeable time, hovered too long over a crucial putt and finally yipped it. In the end, Middlecoff won even though he had taken two 7s during the tournament—a double bogey and a triple bogey.

An indication that the 1956 Open might not be the smoothest tournament staged came on Wednesday, the day before play began, when defending champion Jack Fleck, co-favorite Sam Snead and Roberto De Vicenzo all had their caddies taken from them because of irregularities uncovered in the caddie assignment department. Roberto hadn't signed anything wrong—there simply had been some switching around without proper approval. Then, in the first round, the rules got a workout that made this year's Masters look like a singsong at P.S. 6.

First, Walker Inman Jr., a good player of the era, showed up 11 minutes late for his 9:04 a.m. pairing, even though he had been on the grounds since 8:30. But instead of disqualification, which the rules called for, Inman was given a two-stroke penalty and permitted to tee off last and play alone with a scorekeeper. This set a precedent for the long, loony day. Later on Doug Ford, who was the PGA champion at the moment, scooped a short iron and thought he saw the ball splash into a creek on the 10th hole. He dropped a provisional ball over his shoulder but, as he did, his gallery informed him that his original had skipped into some high grass across the creek. Good. Ford played the original but, alas, under the rules he should have been disqualified because he had put a second ball into play and had not finished the hole with it. Instead, he was given a two-stroke penalty.

Now came Jack Burke, who had won the Masters earlier in the spring. Burke shot a 76, which outraged him and, as he walked away from the last green, he hastily approved a score of 75 on his card. When he saw it posted on the board Burke scurried to the officials and pointed up the error. He, too, was let off with a two-stroke penalty instead of disqualification. "They said I acted like a gentleman, so they bent the rule," Burke says, smiling.

So, over a span of 24 hours, Oak Hill had produced a controversy involving the Open champion, Fleck, the PGA champion, Ford, and the Masters champion, Burke. The next day the current British Open champion, Peter Thomson, would forge into the lead, thus making it a Grand Slam, publicitywise. Back on that first day, however, came the stickiest incident of them all.

It occurred on the 17th green, where Englishman Henry Cotton was paired with Middlecoff and Jimmy Demaret. Cotton had a short putt for a bogey 5, and he reached over and raked at it, as golfers will. The ball was sort of dragged into the cup. "What would you say he made?" Demaret asked Middlecoff. "Oh, 6 or 7," Cary said. Cotton said 5. Well, Middlecoff and Demaret, risking international embarrassment, refused to approve his card when the round was finished. "We'll settle for a 6, they told Cotton, but the Briton insisted he had made 5. Cotton then said to the press, "I say I didn't have a go at it, but the other two chaps say I did." And Demaret said: "He had a go at it. I'd guess he had two or three goes at it." Once more the USGA relented. Cotton was allowed a 5.

Ultimately, everyone's attention was directed to a very exciting Open, especially to the last hour on Saturday—there was still Open Saturday then, the final 36 holes in one day. Ben Hogan still had five holes to play when Middlecoff reached the clubhouse and hung up his score of 281. Ben needed one birdie and the rest pars to tie. He got the birdie at 14 with a wedge shot and a three-foot putt. Now another birdie and three pars would win that much discussed fifth Open. A 20-footer barely missed at 15. A shorter one practically went in and came out on 16. Then at the long 17th, needing to drop a 30-incher for his par, Hogan stood up to the ball, froze, looked and, suddenly, backed away. Just as suddenly it occurred to millions on television and thousands at Oak Hill that Ben was, after all, human. Also that he was 43. And nerves go eventually, don't they? Hogan missed that putt, and he would never come so close to winning the Open again.

Next came Boros. Julius needed a birdie over the last four holes to tie, and he had chances of nine feet, 20 feet and, on the last green, 15 feet, but none fell, the final one actually peeking into the cup and spinning out as Boros, characteristically, chewed on a blade of grass and shrugged.

Finally, there was poor Ted Kroll. He wanted only even par over the last four holes to win. But as soon as the news reached him Kroll hit over the 15th and made a bogey, and then, as so many Open contenders have before, he fell apart. He put his second under an evergreen at the 16th and had to get down on his knees and probe at the ball with the nub of his two-iron to salvage a 7. It was all over. Middlecoff had won, but the big winner had been the closing stretch of holes at Oak Hill, as well it might be this year (page 59).

In assessing any Open field, there are always three basic categories in which to deal. First, there are those active players who have won the Open and are still capable. "They been there," the pros enjoy saying. In this case they are Nicklaus, Casper and Boros. the two-time champions, and Palmer, Gary Player, Gene Littler and Ken Venturi. It was Rochester's own Walter Hagen who once said, "Anybody can win one Open [and the record book certainly bears him out] but the man who can win again is quite a golfer indeed." Thus, assuming Boros may at last be too old at 48, it comes down to Nicklaus and Casper as the two most formidable players at Oak Hill.

Not only has Casper gone over the $100.000 line earlier in the season than anyone ever, he has won three tournaments on the tour—more than anyone. And from January through May he finished no worse than 17th in 10 of the 11 tournaments he entered. People tend to forget that Casper has won more money and more tournaments than any player other than Palmer over these last 10 years; and, moreover, that he hits excellent shots all through the irons, is a repetitiously straight driver and a brilliant putter. "Casper is by far the finest player we have," Frank Beard has said, "but nobody believes it."

Nicklaus has no victories going for him this year, but then Nicklaus does not necessarily need any. Up to Baltusrol last June, Jack had looked no better. He had won only once, and he had even missed the cut at the Masters. So all he did was rap out a 275 and win by four strokes. Nicklaus is an Open player, to put it simply. He has finished no worse than fourth in five of the eight he has appeared in, and if his drives are findable he might just five-iron and seven-iron those closing holes at Oak Hill into oblivion. So much for the Big Two.

Palmer and Player, of course, are serious contenders anywhere, but each has become something rather special recently, Arnold physically and Gary, one hears, financially. Palmer, who finished seventh at Oak Hill in 1956, has a sore hip. At least he did. When he begged off the tour for three tournaments during May, a lot of his admirers immediately pictured him in traction with internationally famous physicians being flown in every hour. He did receive a shot of cortisone, but that was way back before Dallas, where he finished sixth, incidentally. It was only partly the hip that sent Arnold home. He was just tired. Men nearing 40 tend to get tired, and they also tend to get sore hips. Palmer was not bedridden as it turned out. In fact, he attended to some business, like looking in on the course he is designing at Indian Lake, Pa., like taking and passing the written part of his instrument flight test, and like playing golf and entertaining—for fees—various groups of business executives. Palmer figures to be fine at Oak Hill, richer and rested.

Player is more of a mystery. He has played superbly all year long, but he hasn't won. Also, for an athlete of enormous competitive resources, his play has sometimes been spotted by dreadful, inconsistent fourth rounds when he was right up in the pack. The reason could be mental. In South Africa, Player is up to his crew-cut in ranches, animals and real estate, and in America he is getting down to his shoe laces in expiring contracts. He therefore seems to be reaching the edge of something after three winless years in the U.S. He is either about to win because he must, or he is making it impossible to win because he's trying too hard.

There are two other groups in which an Open winner may be found. There are those players who have taken other major titles, thus proving they can withstand the pressure of a big one. This group includes PGA champions Don January, Al Geiberger, Dave Marr and Bobby Nichols; Masters champions Bob Goalby and Gay Brewer; and British Open champions Roberto De Vicenzo, Peter Thomson, Kel Nagle and Bob Charles. And last is that collection of notably fine shotmakers who have somehow managed not to grab a major cup but have proved they can win somewhere on the tour. These are players such as Doug Sanders, Gardner Dickinson, Dan Sikes, Mason Rudolph, Bert Yancey, Frank Beard, Tom Weiskopf, George Archer, Bruce Devlin, Johnny Pott, Dick Sikes, Dave Stockton, Kermit Zarley, Charley Coody, Don Massengale and Miller Barber.

If the new champion is not included in all these, from Casper to Barber, well, one can always hope to be lucky enough to draw Jesse Ray Rives in the office pool.

PHOTO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)