All right, you wise guys with your tricky sports questions. So you know who was on deck when Bobby Thomson hit the home run, and how old George Gipp was when he asked Knute to do him that favor, and who shot Eddie Waitkus, and how many guys have hit 50 home runs twice, and all those other answers that pass for saloon talk. Here's one for you. There was a guy from Killeen, Texas (or Chickasha, Oklahoma or Yukon, Oklahoma, depending upon his mood) who putted cross-handed and won the U.S. Open golf championship one time in Houston after he spent 14 years in the Army. Yeah, yeah. Everybody knows his name. Orville Moody. The question is, why didn't he hang in there after all that time and retire as a 30-year man like Omar Bradley?
The answer is a quick $30,000, which is what Orville Moody earned last week by being on a golf course instead of in the Army. Actually, he had tried it once before, after a nine-year hitch, only to discover that PX beer wasn't the best training for the pro tour. So, after missing the cut in the only previous U.S. Open he ever entered, he re-upped for six, won the Korean Open for the third time, not to mention the Fort Hood post tournament and came back swinging late in 1967. He won $13,000 in 1968 and this year he had already earned $38,000, which means that last Thursday, even before his name became a household word, more or less, he was hardly a Jack Fleck. In fact, one golfer in the field even picked Moody to win before the tournament began—Defending Champion Lee Trevino.
The golfers that ex-Staff Sergeant E-6 Orville Moody really had to beat to win his Open were not Trevino, however, or Billy Casper or Arnold Palmer or Jack Nicklaus. They were Miller Barber, pro golf's Mysterious Mr. X, who doesn't putt cross-handed but who wears dark glasses and whose elbow flies out on his backswing, and 42-year-old Bob Rosburg, now a country-club pro who had won about 37¢ all year and who hits the ball with a baseball grip. Barber led by three strokes through three rounds only to wilt when he could have won with a final 74. Rosburg was even with Moody as late as the 18th hole on Sunday but left a putt hanging on the rim of that cup. And so Orville Moody, with his nice, straight, steady golf game, came in at 281 to find himself suddenly the most famous sergeant since Alvin York.
What really happened to most of the big favorites with the cannon swings was that they either drowned in the humidity at Houston or they are still trying to figure out what all those funny clubs were that they had to use on a surprisingly long, long Champions course. Things like two-irons and four-woods, which almost never get dirty on the tour. Meanwhile, Orville Moody and men like Barber and Deane Beman and Al Geiberger, who are accustomed to hitting such clubs because they are almost never very long off the tee, were having a field day. In fact, it was a highly unusual tournament from the very start.
June 22, 1969
To begin with, there was no big old creaking clubhouse for everyone to rattle around in, for Champions is modern and sparkling new. Across the street from the clubhouse were cottages and houses woven in and around trees and quiet streets and swimming pools, and most of the name players were quartered there. It gave to them the feeling of being in some sort of compound, of being on some kind of strange team, all together. They cooked in and drank in, for the most part, and late in the evenings many of them sat around a pool, chatting, relaxing and verbally taking each other 18 holes again.
In the mornings it was very eerie to look out of one's window over the paper and coffee and see Julius Boros strolling down the lane on his way to work. And in the evenings it was like being in any other suburban neighborhood. The fellow across the street was out in the yard with his kids getting ready to go to Astroworld and arguing with his wife about the directions. Then another fellow would drive up with his children in the car and honk. Where were they going to eat? How do you get there? This was definitely not the usual Open tournament surroundings for Nicklaus and Gary Player, who happened to be the man in the yard and the man in the car, respectively.
Lee Trevino was nonchalant in another way. In Thursday's first round, out to defend the title he won so excitingly last year at Oak Hill, and on a golf course that should have suited him, Trevino was gagging it up and clowning more than ever because Phil Harris, the entertainer, was hanging in his gallery, trading wisecracks.
Trevino started joking about missing the cut the first day, and after the second day was over Trevino had done just that with rounds of 74 and 75. When the Fleas in Lee's gallery chided him about his Mexican bandit costume on the cover of this magazine (SI, June 9), Lee would laugh and shout back, "Hell, man, I had to dress that way until about two years ago."
There were three other pretournament favorites who were never a force in this Open. They were the players who had managed to win two tournaments on the tour this season: Casper, Gene Littler and George Archer. Littler missed the cut after a second-round 80. Archer, the Masters champion, opened with a 69, a tribute to his putting stroke, but after a 74 on Friday he was never in contention. And Casper, looking as if he were playing on the dead run, could never get anything resembling a low round started. Champions' length simply wore them out.
The only person who was ready for Orville Moody to win the big one was Trevino. He actually picked him—seriously, no fooling—and had said to the press before the tournament began that Orville Moody would be the next Open champion because, said Lee, "He's one helluva player."
"I won it for Lee," said Moody later, also in all seriousness. "It took a lot of guts for him to believe I could win." And then Orville Moody wept, along with a lot of other Moodys, his wife, Doris, and his two children. They had been out at some Holiday Inn in Houston where the nonnames were. Orville Moody had been driving to the course, from about an hour away, which was even a better reason to weep, some thought. But the tears came from the delirious joy of it all. Tears are very popular in sports these days.
He never expected to go out and shoot a 72, two over par, in the final round and post a total of 281 and take the U.S. Open. But Moody's 72 was a pretty good score on Sunday. Only two players broke par and only five others equaled it. The greens were not only huge but hard so that nothing held, and the wind came up from somewhere, and all of the pins were either way back or snuggled close behind enormous bunkers. From seven to 10 players had broken par on each of the previous three days, and Miller Barber's 54-hole total was, after all, four under. But Open courses are generally styled to achieve the magic total of 280, and Champions was certainly a worthy 280 golf course. It figured that Barber would come back toward the field on Sunday, although it didn't figure he would come back so far.
"I don't think I'm a choker," said Barber after his horrible 78 round. "I've just got to go hide somewhere and try to figure out what happened to me."
Orville Moody, who was paired with him, said he thought he knew. "I think Miller was trying to coast," said the sergeant, who looks like a sergeant should. "We all knew it would be a hard course the last round, and that nobody was likely to get a 66 going. I think Miller felt he could coast along and win with a 73 or 74, and he just got too cautious."
Like almost all U.S. Opens, this one truly exploded on the final nine holes. It made everything that came before as obscure as the rut iron, including all of the talk about Mr. X and Geiberger's peanut-butter sandwiches and could Palmer do it or not. Palmer's immense crowds thought he could, and they stayed with him all the way—all the way to his tie for sixth. There were a couple of moments when Palmer could have got right in it, but each time, with a chance to do something sensational, he would do something dumb. Like a poor chip or a missed birdie or follow up a birdie with an aggravating bogey.
When Barber soared to four-over on the outgoing nine, he knocked down the fence for everyone, including Palmer. There was a crazy interlude on the back nine when eight players were only two strokes apart, and if Champions had been a course where the contenders could have gone at the flags with clubs they were familiar with, there might have been a charge or two. But it was always a question of who could make a par, who could rip off a drive and tear up a one-iron and survive the hard-to-read Bermuda greens. It was simply a question of who could survive.
For a whole hour during the final drama, only Al Geiberger, rising from the depth of his peanut-butter jar, was able to put a bunch of birdies on the board—five of them in eight holes. And until he did that, few people knew that Al Geiberger had made the cut. By now, Miller Barber was out of it and Deane Beman's four-wood was worn to a thread, and really only two men remained, Orville Moody and Bob Rosburg.
On the course Rosburg stopped to chat with friends on the 16th tee. "One birdie and two pars would be 280," he said. "I believe that might get it."
"Three pars would get a tie," somebody told him.
"I might even win my bet on no 280," he grinned.
At that moment, Rosburg was tied with Moody, who was back on the 15th. Also at that moment in the locker room a lot of the veterans were sprawled out on the carpet, watching television and cheering for Rosburg. A lot of Mike Souchaks and the like who were Rossy's contemporaries. Rosburg is an in-group man from the old establishment, a club pro now, and he hadn't played this well in years.
The locker-room boys got Rosburg through the 16th, roaring in a tough three-footer for a par. They got him out of the bunker on 17 to within 10 feet of the pin, and they got that one down for a par. Rosburg had looked over the putt and looked up at the sky and smiled in his cynical way. You could almost hear him saying, "The National Open, right? And into the grain. Thanks a lot." But he jammed it in. One more par and he'd have his 281 and the sergeant might have to reenlist again. Sadly, Rosburg just didn't have it. He dragged his tee shot to the left and caught a limb, the ball falling in the rough. His second, a pretty risky four-wood out of the thick Bermuda, was a good shot but it spurted too far to the right and he was bunkered. Then, as the locker room roared, Rosburg exploded out marvelously again to within four feet of the hole. "He'll get it," Souchak said, bowing his head, afraid he wouldn't.
Rosburg has always hit it quick, a jab putter, and he didn't want to give himself time to think about this putt for the U.S. Open that he may never come close to winning again. He struck the ball a trifle too lightly and it hung at the edge. The locker-room ceiling fell in. No one said anything for a while, and then Phil Rodgers spoke up. "He can still get a tie if the blade comes open on the cross-hander," Phil blurted.
It didn't, and it wasn't about to. Orville Moody hit a cannon down the 18th fairway, and he slashed a five-iron into the last green as if it were the Fort Hood post tournament all over again. And when he stood over his 14-inch par putt to win he let the Open daze stroke it in for him. Outside the crowd whooped for the nobody who was all of a sudden somebody, and even in the locker room they gave him his due.
"The sergeant didn't back off from nothing," said Phil Rodgers loudly. And there was some nervous laughter about the fact that Moody, after hitting the shot onto the green, had subconsciously replaced his divot.
Rosburg came in just then and was met by his well-wishers, some tearful, some not. He managed a smile and traded a couple of glances with players who understood. Rodgers understood how it is and, keeping Rosburg honest, he grabbed his arm and shouted, "You dog. You dogged it, man." Rosburg said yeah—that's what he did.
But Orville Moody was somewhere else. He had taken a check for $30,000, he had phoned Lee Trevino, he had attempted to explain to the press who he was—just a guy who thinks he knows how to play golf—and where he originally came from, a town in Oklahoma.
He was also trying to figure out something that he thought he had heard during a long-distance call from President Nixon. Something about it being a great victory for the middle class. Last trick question. Since when is the U.S. Open champion middle-class?