For three days the U.S. Open and marvelous old Merion belonged to all of those unusual characters who always seem to clutter up an Open: a dogged tour veteran named Labron Harris Jr.; a tall, paunchy transient named Bob Erickson; a guy named Jim Colbert, whose putter looked like the bandage hadn't been taken off; and a young amateur, Jim Simons, who had the appearance of a kid who didn't like his date for the prom. But then it came down to what everyone knew it would, this superb course acknowledging only the best in golf, and ultimately it was Lee Trevino (see cover) playing Jack Nicklaus one-on-one for the title—Nicklaus, the country-club kid from Ohio, our best shotmaker, against Trevino, the Mexican from Texas, our best hustler.
It came down to a dramatic playoff on Monday, and right away you had to feel it might be Trevino's day. Around Merion's usually tranquil starting hole the tension was unbelievable (Nicklaus was sitting under a tree, his head down) when Trevino came out to the tee, smacking gum, rubbing his hands together, pacing, waving to the crowd. He reached into a side pocket of his golf bag, pulled out a three-foot-long toy snake and held it up. The crowd shrieked as Lee laughed and tossed it at a scrambling Nicklaus. Big Jack broke up laughing. So did the crowd. So did the world.
"I need all the help I can get," Lee shouted cheerfully, shaking the very land where Jones and Hogan had won, and the playoff began.
The only frightening thing after that was Nicklaus' sand wedge, which left him in bunkers at the second and third for a bogey and a double bogey and let Trevino take a two-stroke lead. Nicklaus managed to pull himself together, but Trevino played steady, beautiful two-under-par golf to win 68 to 71 for his second Open title. In his classic hustler's way, Trevino topped Nicklaus at every opportunity. When Jack birdied the fifth, Lee birdied the eighth. When Jack birdied the 11th, Lee birdied the 12th. And when Jack had a birdie putt waiting at 15 that would gain him a stroke, Lee rammed a far longer putt home first.
June 27, 1971
Trevino said, "I'm a lucky dog. You gotta be lucky to beat Jack Nicklaus because he's the greatest golfer who ever held a club."
The day before, Sunday, had been even more dramatic. Young Simons, who had shocked everybody by taking a two-stroke lead after 54 holes, had quickly done what a 21-year-old amateur in his exalted position is supposed to do in the Open's final round—he made a couple of bogeys to let everyone draw close. Nicklaus caught his young playing companion on the 4th hole by sinking a slow, curling, downhill 30-footer. But on the next hole Jack did what Jack seldom does: he suffered his second double bogey of the tournament. He had played croquet around the Baffling Brook at the famed 11th on Friday, and now on Sunday at the difficult 5th he drew his tee shot wildly into a creek.
Such things happen at Merion, and Nicklaus' disaster brought to mind what Trevino had been saying about the course all week. "There are 16 birdie holes here," he conceded, "but there are 18 bogey holes. I'll eat all the cactus around El Paso if anybody breaks 280."
Nicklaus' poor play on the 5th, just when he seemed to be taking charge, made it anybody's tournament again, and Trevino looked like the anybody who would win it. Lee, that Supermex unknown who had won the Open at Oak Hill in 1968, played the best golf on Sunday, and for a couple of hours the Open was all his, until Nicklaus caught up with him again on the last hole.
Trevino had said Sunday morning that he thought he would win because "I'm playing fantastic." He said, "I've been playing super ever since Nicklaus told me in February that he hoped I never found out how good I really was. For the best player in the world to tell me that just filled me up with confidence, and I've almost won every tournament I've been in the last six weeks. I know I can win this thing."
Considering the circumstances, Trevino's golf on Sunday might be the best he ever played. All he did was split the center of the narrow fairways and rivet his irons right to those wicker baskets that Merion calls flagsticks. Somebody said Trevino thought maybe they were Pennsylvania pi√±atas. He very nearly made a deuce at the tilted 12th with more backspin on his approach shot than you can get in car wheels on a sandy road. That birdie put him in a tie for the lead. On the 13th a 20-foot birdie putt stopped short of the cup by the width of a tamale husk, but then he birdied the 14th to take the lead by himself and held it with an eight-footer for a par at the 15th.
During all this Nicklaus was hanging on behind him, as, indeed, Simons was, too. Simons, a Wake Forest student with a mop of hair and a bewildered expression, a kid who had shot a 65 Saturday despite two bogeys, did not come apart. On the final hole, one stroke behind, he still had a long-shot chance to tie—if he could make a birdie. He gambled and made a double bogey. His closing-round 76 will look to history as if he choked, but it isn't true.
Nor did Trevino choke with the bogey he had at the last hole. He was laughing on the tee, teasing his caddie for forgetting to give him his club. "You choking already?" Lee asked him. The crowd roared. Lee, grinning, said, "You want to give me something to fan this with?" The crowd whooped again.
Lee hit a drive with a bit too much fade, and his three-wood to the green was a bit too much club. His chip back from 70 feet beyond the pin was excellent, but he still needed a seven-footer for a par and the Open. He did not get it, and whether this was because he became momentarily nettled and had to back away from the ball will never be known. As he was addressing this crucial putt a kid fell off his perch near the clubhouse, breaking Trevino's concentration, although Lee refused to blame anybody but himself. He had his 69 for the round and a 280 for the tournament, and he was just glad to be in.
Par golf is colossal golf on Merion's closing holes and those who saw it will long remember the way Nicklaus came down the stretch behind Trevino. At the 15th, 16th and 17th he was confronted with the necessity of sinking difficult putts for pars on the icy-slick greens. Making any of them in a round of pleasure golf would have been impressive. Now, in the pressure of the U.S. Open, Jack made all three. Each time that he bent over to concentrate, those watching could see the Open escaping him. It had to. But the putts dropped, each of them, even the seven-footer at the 17th, when he knew Trevino had finished with a bogey. The putt broke like a winding mountain road, but it dropped—and Nicklaus was tied for the lead. The one that didn't drop was a birdie putt at the final hole. There it was, the most perfect calendar picture of all: Nicklaus at Merion sinking a 14-foot birdie for a 279 and the Open. But it slid left, Merion's par held up and golf had another playoff for the ages.
Before the competition began on Thursday the players had practiced only on a soft golf course, one dampened by rain. It played easily. They realized the course would toughen as the weather cleared, but they still believed one or two and maybe three or four players would shoot in the low 270s. Yet Merion was Merion, not a place to cast insults at, so they strained to be kind.
"It's really a fun golf course," said one. "It must be a real pleasure for the members to play." And then, privately, nearly all of them would whisper to a friend, "273." In other words, two under the Open record, the one shared by Nicklaus and Trevino.
When the tournament finally got under way, beneath the huge old trees by Merion's lovely veranda, the players seemed to have it figured right. The first man out of the trees, a guy named Ralph W. Johnston, from nowhere, had the audacity to make seven birdies during his round. By noon there were six or eight players under par, their scores marked in red on the leader boards that rose out of the rough.
"Six by noon, 12 by sundown," said a grizzled journalist, quoting an old Open rule of thumb. "Merion is in trouble." The usual tour troupe was whacking at the course. Labron Harris was three under. Bob Goalby went by him early, four under. Then came Larry Hinson, five under. By now the scoreboard glittered with red numbers. It wasn't until late in the afternoon that things began to change. The course fought back, not to turn into a monster but simply to be the fair, wonderfully prepared course that it was. Hinson had had the best chance to humiliate Merion. After 13 holes he was five under par and aiming at 65 or better, but it was through him that the field found out something about Merion. What it sometimes gives up so easily, it can quickly take away. In a tour of the rough and bunkers of the last five holes Hinson lost six strokes to par. He wound up with an ordinary 71 and was never a factor again. Harris did finish with 67 but on Friday he soared to 77 and more or less disappeared.
Friday was the day Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer put on their vaudeville acts in the press tent. Palmer had holed a nine-iron from the rough for an eagle deuce on the first hole and had moved into contention with his 68, but neither eagle nor round stirred as much interest as his criticism of Nicklaus' slow play.
Nicklaus struggled to a 72 on the second day and was twice warned about taking so much time to get through his round. Palmer commented on the pace, implying that it was inexcusable. "They should have told him to move up," he said. Nicklaus had some remarks to make about the pin placements. "They were ridiculous," he said. On which holes? "One through 18," he said. He accused the USGA of trying to hide the pins so as to protect the integrity of Merion, which he said was unnecessary.
Although an enormously exciting tournament was in progress, you couldn't tell by the leader boards. Up there tied after 36 holes were 45-year-old Bob Erickson, a sometime club pro, and a tour regular named Jim Colbert, the guy with the fat putter and a hat brim turned down all around like a gardener. Colbert had put together a couple of 69s, and Erickson had posted a 67 after an opening 71. They were at 138, two under. The situation was normal: guys named Erickson and Colbert leading the U.S. Open while Tony Jacklin, Billy Casper, Dave Hill, Frank Beard and Tom Weiskopf missed the cut.
But now the real Open began. The course had dried out, the elegant greens were being rolled and triple-cut to make them slicker still, and tee shots were going to be dangerous. The field was down to the low 64 players, and the glorious weather was holding. It was time then for the amateur, Simons, to slice himself a portion of Open history with his 65 on Saturday, and time then for all the glorious fun on Sunday. The battle lines were drawn. It had come down to Nicklaus against the kid, Simons, and both of them against the lurking Trevino, and everybody against the quiet strength of Merion. Some think Merion was the big winner.