TRAPS IN AN OPEN FIELD

The history of the U.S. Open offers ample proof that given a chance to win, most golfers, even the best, have a tendency to self-destruct
June 09, 1974

Over almost all the years since the first U.S. Open in 1895, the championship has had two things going for it: golf courses hidden in weeds and a title big enough to choke a hippopotamus. And more often than not these two things have produced one result: the grandest of our tournaments has been lost rather than won. Lost in the snarling, argyle-high rough or lost on a linoleum-fast green. Lost in an evilly designed bunker or lost in an obtrusive creek. And sometimes lost in a combination of all this plus some poor soul's anger, passion and suffocating thoughts of immortality. But lost. Continually.

And lost even by men who knew how to win it. A Bobby Jones, a Ben Hogan, a Walter Hagen, a Harry Vardon, an Arnold Palmer and that steadiest of all Open losers, Sam Snead. A golfer hasn't lived who couldn't blow the Open.

All of which brings to mind the classic remark of Cary Middlecoff, always worth repeating on the eve of another championship. "Nobody wins the Open," said Middlecoff. "It wins you."

The Open won Middlecoff twice as he sat in the clubhouse and let others falter, which is how most men have won it. In 1949 at Medinah, Middlecoff began the last round with a six-stroke lead over Snead. Cary struggled to a 75, and sat down to twitch while Sam carved away at him. Snead got to the 71st hole needing two pars to tie. Alas, Sam missed the green and took a bogey 4. That was it. And once again Snead had added to the negative fame he has achieved come U.S. Open time.

In 1956 at Oak Hill, Middlecoff finished a good hour ahead of the men who could beat him. He watched on television, chewing hay-fever tablets, as Ben Hogan, needing three pars to tie, missed a 30-inch putt; as Julius Boros, needing a birdie over the final three, rimmed out two of them; and, finally, as Ted Kroll, needing four pars to win, made a bogey and then a triple bogey.

Such is the pressure of an Open.

A basic truth is that nobody—you can look it up—in the 79-year history of the championship has ever made a putt of any size to win the Open when he had to. In other words, no man has come to the final green, late in the day when all other challengers had finished, and rapped in a five-footer, a 10-footer, or something bigger, for birdie or par, to capture the Open by a single stroke. Men have holed long putts to tie or to win by two, four, five strokes. But never to win, under Open pressure, by the thinnest of margins—when the competition had finished and it was all up to them alone.

There is evidence that the Open started getting lost the very first time it was played. On Oct. 4, 1895, over 36 holes in Newport, R.I., exactly 11 players were entered in the first tournament. For 27 holes that day one W. Campbell dominated play. But on the final nine W. Campbell soared to a 48, and the bewildered winner turned out to be 19-year-old Horace Rawlins, who blazed around in 91-82—173 and became $150 richer for it.

Since then the bodies of a lot of W. Campbells have been stacked up in the Open. Undoubtedly, some more will be added next week at Winged Foot when, in contrast to Newport 79 years ago, there will be 150 qualified and exempt competitors out of more than 3,500 entries seeking a first prize of $35,000, and all of the fringe benefits an Open victory now generates. To get in the proper mood for the 1974 Open, let us review some classic case histories.

Bobby Jones practically owned the Open, but he lost it as often as he won it. He was second four times, as many as Snead. If Jones could have closed with anything less than a horrendous 78 at Oakland Hills in 1924, no one would ever have heard of Cyril Walker. But the one Jones really kicked away was the Open of '28 at Olympia Fields. Through the fifth hole of the last round Jones had a five-stroke lead. As he later wrote, "I made the fatal mistake of trying to play safe."

Playing safe, Jones went from the sixth hole through the 10th in seven over par, going double bogey, double bogey, bogey, bogey, bogey, stumbling toward a 77 and into a tie with Johnny Farrell and a playoff he would lose.

In the same era Walter Hagen spent more time losing the Open—and less time winning it—than Jones. For all of Hagen's success, it is a little-known fact that he never won a major championship that Bobby Jones played in. He won the U.S. Open twice before Jones came around. He won the British Open four times when Jones stayed home. And being an amateur, Jones was of course not eligible for the PGA, which Hagen took five times. The rest of his career Hagen enjoyed life, made easy shots look difficult, being a showman, and perhaps both enjoyed life and showed off too much in the six U.S. Opens he could have won. Walter was a good one for playing lousy final rounds, being over-lifed and thirsty.

In the famed Open of 1913, when Francis Ouimet shocked the globe by beating Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, Hagen might easily have been the winner. But he closed with an 80 and lost by three. In four other Opens Hagen could have won with just about anything reasonable on the last 18; instead, he shot a 76—or something higher.

"But I stopped to smell the flowers," he argued.

It was Sam Snead who stopped to smell the Open more than anyone, but never to win it. The Open Sam lost the most tragically was 35 years ago on the Spring Mill course of the Philadelphia Country Club. Much has been written of Snead's blowup on the final hole, and most of it inaccurately, even by those who claim to be eyewitnesses. Here is the true account of Sam Snead's historic eight in that crazy 1939 championship.

The circumstances were these: Byron Nelson was in the clubhouse at 284, having come from way back with a 68 on the final 18. Snead had led at 18, again at 36, had surrendered the lead briefly, by one stroke, to Johnny Bulla at 54, but had regained it. He reached the 71st hole needing par-par to beat Nelson by two. That would also have bettered Craig Wood and Denny Shute, who later tied Nelson, as well as Bulla, who blew to 76, and Bud Ward, an amateur but a serious contender throughout, who himself failed by a single shot. In short, it was Sam's title, for the last two holes were considered a cinch. First, Snead three-putted the 71st from only 20 feet, and he says, "That's where I really lost it." Well, not exactly. A par on the last hole—an easy birdie hole—would still win, even a bogey would tie. "But I didn't know that," says Sam. "There were a lot of folks behind me."

Sam drove long off the 72nd, but the ball found the left rough. Fred Corcoran, his old friend, remembers standing over Sam's drive to keep the gallery from trampling it. Snead hit a three-wood from the rough, hoping to reach the green in two. He hit it well but pushed it slightly. At first, he yelled, "Giddyapp," but he saw the ball heading for a bunker 40 yards short of the green, and then he yelled, "Hey, whoa." It didn't. The ball buried in the sand up against the bank, denying him a decent stance. Twice he slashed at the buried lie, twice the ball stayed in the bunker. His fifth shot finally found the green, but he was 50 feet away from the cup. Yet he almost holed the putt that would have tied. It got a piece of the cup but spun out and past. Frustrated, angered, humiliated, embarrassed, Snead didn't even try on the next putt, a three-footer. He left it short, then tapped it for the most famous eight anyone ever had the misfortune to make.

"Send me back out there now—at 62 years old—and tell me I need a par to win the Open, and I believe I'll hit me a couple of two-irons," says Sam. "If I'd won that thing like I should have, I think I'd have won seven or eight Opens."

Other men had suffered calamities before Snead. Harry Vardon had once played the last seven holes in seven over par to lose the Open by one. Gene Sarazen had made a monumental 7 on the 11th at Merion to blow the Open in '34. And there had been all of those collapses by Jones and Hagen, but somehow those things were excusable. If Sam Snead's misfortune seemed inexcusable—and if the Open would thereafter be the tournament that he, more than anyone else, would lose—it was a tribute to his picturesque swing and the fact that he won so much of everything else.

"They talk about the three-foot putt I missed in the '47 playoff," Sam says, "but they don't ever talk about the 20-footer I made to get in the playoff."

Nor is very much ever said about the Opens Ben Hogan let slip away. Like Bobby Jones before him, Hogan, a player who overwhelmed the tournament with four wins (five, if you want to count an unofficial wartime event), spent an equal amount of time losing it. In '46 at Canterbury he bogeyed two of the last three holes to lose by one, three-putting the 72nd. He lost to the unknown Jack Fleck in the playoff of '55 at Olympic. He missed the 30-inch putt at Oak Hill in '56. And in 1960 at Cherry Hills he was tied with Palmer two holes short of the finish, and put a wedge shot in the water.

If anyone has taken over from Snead as the best loser of Opens, it is Arnold Palmer. He has lost no fewer than three Open playoffs, and the last one probably did him more harm than his public will ever know. This was the Open at Olympic in 1966 that Palmer gift-wrapped for Billy Casper.

As late as three o'clock on Sunday afternoon, with only nine holes to play, it not only looked as if Palmer would win his second Open—and his ninth major title—by as many as seven strokes, it appeared that he would break the 72-hole Open record. Hogan's record. Even par on the last nine would beat the record by two strokes. He could afford a bogey.

Palmer and Casper were paired, and Arnold has admitted that he was thinking about the record, while Casper has confessed that he was only playing for second place. Palmer bogeyed the 10th with an indifferent chip shot, and Casper parred. But not much importance was attached to that. Palmer still had a six-stroke lead. They both parred the 11th and they both birdied the 12th.

"I wasn't concerned," Palmer says. "I'm six strokes ahead with six to play, and two strokes ahead of the record."

Palmer pulled a four-iron in the left rough and bogeyed the 13th while Casper parred, but when Palmer parred the 14th he had no reason to be concerned about any kind of impending doom. He was still five strokes ahead of Casper with only four holes to play, and he still could par in to beat the record.

Casper was still playing for second.

The short 15th hole, a par three, brought the first indication that something truly unbelievable might be about to take place. Palmer unwisely shot for the pin and located a bunker. Bogey. At the same time Casper casually holed a 20-footer for a birdie. A two-shot swing. Now, with three holes to play, Palmer appeared shaken although he still had a three-stroke lead.

"For the first time," Casper recalls, "I heard some cheers in the crowd for me."

At the long 16th Palmer leaped at his tee shot trying to drive it 40 miles. He hooked into the brutal rough of Olympic. His three-iron barely got airborne, going only 100 yards, and it was still deep in the rough. He had to dig out with a nine-iron and then hit a three-wood toward the green, which he bunkered. Only a good sand shot saved him from a double bogey 7. Casper, meanwhile, had played the hole cautiously and wound up sinking a 15-foot putt for a birdie.

"I think the thing that still nags at me is Billy playing safe when he was behind and still making a birdie," says Arnold.

By now furious with himself and the circumstances—the record was gone and the tournament itself was slipping fast—Palmer promptly drove badly again at the 17th, hit his second into the rough, chipped decently but missed a seven-foot putt for a par while Casper made a routine 4. They were tied. In three holes Casper had made up five strokes.

If anything, Palmer did his best to lose the tournament on the last hole before he ever got around to losing it in the playoff the next day. He drove terribly again into the rough, somehow got to the green, but was asked to hole an evil four-footer just to tie Casper, the man who had been the last thing in his thoughts only an hour earlier.

"We were both in some kind of daze because of what was happening," says Casper. "It seemed to happen so fast. It was like neither one of us had any control over anything."

Ah, yes. In the weeds and pressure of the Open, men seldom do.

ILLUSTRATIONOakmont in 1935 was just one of the Opens Hagen could have won with a good finish. ILLUSTRATIONIn 1939 Snead needed a par, but took an 8. ILLUSTRATIONPalmer squandered a seven-stroke lead in 1966.

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)