All week they kept climbing wearily out of the deep bunkers, poking their heads around trees and yelling at their putts to stop sliding toward New York City. They were the best golfers in the world, but they looked like men waving at taxicabs to take them away from the scene of an accident. They were being beaten to death by a marvelous old course, Winged Foot, which had never really received the recognition it deserved. In the end, that golf course, probably won the U.S. Open Championship as much as Hale Irwin did.
The facts were these. The weather was conducive to low scores throughout the four rounds, and Winged Foot was not tricked up too much. If anything its fairways were a little wider than most Open courses. The greens were slick, naturally, but they weren't "Merion lightning." It was long, but there have been longer layouts. For all of this, however, the Open came down to which poor soul could merely survive.
That turned out to be the gutty, hardworking Irwin who, day after day, kept hitting his trusty two-iron and his trusty sand wedge, hanging in, hanging on, and being startled from time to time by a putt which actually found its way into the cup.
Irwin was seven over par at the finish; with his 287 total he was one of only two players to break 290, and he won the Open with a closing round of 73, three over par, a whopping 10 strokes more than Johnny Miller had used a year ago at Oakmont, proving once again that there are many ways for the Open to seek its champion.
There is no record book to look it up in, but Irwin may have become the first player ever to win the Open wearing glasses. Which of course leads to the joke that maybe you have to be blind to play Winged Foot. Actually, what you had to be was what Irwin is—a straight driver, a fine bunker player, a super competitor and a very patient fellow. He is far from an unknown on the PGA tour. He has won $100,000 the last three years and now he is well over that figure for 1974. He has always played decently on tough courses, as evidenced by the fact that his two victories prior to Winged Foot both came at Harbour Town, one of the meanest courses around.
"I don't see how this is going to change me into a person other than who I am," Irwin was saying Sunday evening as he let the victory sink in. "I'm still Hale Irwin, the former Colorado football player. I don't think I'm anonymous, but if I am I can't help it."
Somewhere in his makeup is the kind of determination and ability that was needed at Winged Foot. It is possible that football gave him part of it. As he described himself, "I'm not a birdie machine. I'm not an overpowering hitter. I've worked hard on hitting all kinds of golf shots and that's what you had to do on this course."
True enough. Winged Foot surrendered no subpar rounds the first day when Gary Player led with a 70. It gave up only four on Friday, including Hubert Green's 67, low round of the tournament. Irwin was one of four guys who shared the 36-hole lead, a quartet that included none other than Arnold Palmer. On Saturday, when Tom Watson went in front by one over Irwin, there were only two rounds below par. And on the last day there were just two more, one of those by a forlorn Jack Nicklaus who was so far out of contention by then he thought he needed to shoot a 51 to win. Nicklaus' final-round 69 vaulted him over 14 people into a tie for 10th as Winged Foot continued dragging everyone backward. Jack was amazed.
"I kept driving it in the wrong place, hitting to the wrong side of the greens, and misreading the putts," Nicklaus said. "I felt I was playing miniature golf without sideboards."
The question of the week was why. Where did it say in all of that lore of the game that Winged Foot was a killer? The answer was in the subtle design of the course. No water to speak of, and even the trees do not often come into play, but, ah, the tumbles and turns of those old-fashioned, elevated greens and, ah, the bunkers. On Friday morning Johnny Miller took four swings to escape from one of them.
It is the type of course the pros rarely see, one that gave them a different look on their approach shots, one that made it virtually impossible to get "up and down," as they say, from the traps, and one that demanded the almost forgotten art of hitting long irons.
Lanny Wadkins said at one point, "There's nothing out there but low-burners and talent shots, and the guy who wins is gonna have a hole worn through the face of his two-iron."
No one was more delighted by the situation than the average Winged Foot member. He cheered bogeys, drank toasts to double bogeys and bought champagne for catastrophes.
Winged Foot is a sporting club, a place for serious golfers and good conversation about the game. With its huge stone clubhouse, outdoor terrace and lovely elms, it has the classic look of a stuffy Eastern country club, but it is far from that. Among the membership are such men as Fred Corcoran, who did much to build the professional tour, television celebs like Frank Gifford, Jack Whitaker, Joe Garagiola and Roone Arledge. Even an ex-running back, Tucker Frederickson, and a noted 52nd Street restaurant owner, Mike Manuche. The late Tommy Armour was a member. Claude Harmon has been the resident pro for 30 years, and many a name player has passed through "Harmon Tech" as one of Claude's assistants. Men like Dave Marr, Jack Burke, Mike Souchak.
It has often been said that the quickest way to get overgolfed is to spend an afternoon on Winged Foot's terrace. Armour used to sit there telling tales for hours. Harmon and Corcoran still do. Because of the character of the membership, Winged Foot, more than any other club in the metropolitan area of New York, has sort of been looked upon as the Yankee Stadium of golf. Its monuments are not in center field, however. They're in the bar.
While Winged Foot had a New York reputation as a "tough track," it had never enjoyed any true national glory despite the fact that two previous U.S. Opens had been played on its West course, the one in 1929 which Bobby Jones won and the one in 1959 that was taken by Billy Casper. What was usually said of Winged Foot was that, yeah, sure, it's difficult, but it's no Merion, no Pebble Beach, no Oakland Hills.
The basic criticisms were that it had no particularly dramatic stretch of holes, no unique scenery, or what golf course designers like to call an "outside influence," meaning a Carmel Bay near Pebble, or the old quarry on Merion, or the natural wastelands of Pine Valley. A great course, say the architects, is one where you don't need a ball to play it.
At Winged Foot most of the competitors would have been better off without a ball. Last week's Open ended all of that kind of talk about Winged Foot forever. The dramatic stretch of holes is the full 18. And the scenery that will best be remembered is all of those dead bodies strewn across the suburban landscape.
Despite the glorious weather the first three rounds, Winged Foot produced so many scores in the 80s that you felt like looking around for old Tom Morris or Joe Lloyd or maybe Willie Auchterlonie, for surely this couldn't be 1974. Golfers with names like Lee Trevino, Billy Casper, Gene Littler and Tony Jacklin, men who knew how to win an Open, failed to make the 36-hole cut, and they were jointed by a cluster of other fairly decent competitors, such as Dave Hill, Charles Coody, Lee Elder, Bob Goalby, Tommy Aaron and Rod Curl. Meanwhile, most of those who survived were probably wishing they had not.
Nicklaus began the Open by tapping his very first putt a swift 30 feet past the cup. Bogey. He bogeyed the next three holes, and thereafter Jack was never a contender. Nor was Miller, who opened with a 76, closed with a 77 and barely improved in between.
There were two other grand old names out there, however, who certainly did their best most of the way to scrape the glamour away from Winged Foot itself and lay it on the game and the tournament. Arnold Palmer and Gary Player.
Player did it for two days when he forged into the lead on Thursday and then went out Friday and shot the most curious 73 ever, a round that saw him take a triple bogey, soar to six over par, and then fight his way back into the four-way tie at the halfway point. But on the back nine Saturday, Winged Foot brought Gary to his knees with a 41 and he was gone.
Palmer did it for all four rounds. It will be remembered that good old Arnold, 44 and holding, contact lenses in place, getting gray now, shook some pure theatrics over the scene when he battled his way into contention on Friday and stayed there right up until the final few holes.
It was like old times. The crowds whooping and charging through the trees and Palmer making putts, missing putts, slashing out of bunkers, snap-hooking into the forests, and airmailing three wood shots over mounds, creeks, trees and humanity.
"I'm what you might call fired up," Palmer had said on Saturday. He surely looked it. He bounced along with the old energy, playing to the crowds, buoyed with the knowledge that the greater part of the world was pulling for him. As late as the 10th hole on Sunday when he dropped a 40-foot birdie putt to stay within prayerbook range of Irwin, most of the noise of the tournament belonged to Palmer.
But then, what had to be answered at last was who among the strange assortment of contenders was going to lose this Open the least, as Irwin and Palmer and Tom Watson and Forrest Fezler and Bert Yancey alternately cursed and tried to caress Winged Foot.
Let the record show that poor Watson, the leader after three rounds, had a six-over 41 on the last nine, that poor Yancey took a double bogey at the 13th just when he seemed to be sneaking up on everybody, that poor Palmer bogeyed three of the last six holes, that poor Fezler, who crept to within a stroke of the lead, bogeyed the last hole just when he needed the opposite.
Even Irwin bogeyed two of the last four holes, but he had put himself in awfully good shape to win it. He sank a long, crawling birdie putt at the 9th and a sinister eight-foot birdie at the 14th, both of which offset bogeys on the previous holes. And finally over the last two holes, which are nothing short of par-4 monsters, and with the knowledge that at the moment he was down to a one-stroke lead over Fezler, it was all there for Irwin to win or lose and he sharply demonstrated what he was made of.
After two bad shots on 17 he saved his par with a putt that almost made him collapse from the sheer strain. And then at the 18th, after Fezler had bogeyed, and as he was clinging to a two-stroke lead, Hale Irwin took destiny by the throat.
He stung his drive perfectly, then hit one of those low burners with his trusty two-iron. Under the circumstances it was a magnificent shot. As the ball bored its way toward the green, to settle down about 25 feet from the flag, Irwin knew he had it won. He threw up his hands and began the stroll through a corridor of cheers that will be ringing in his head for a lot of seasons. He almost made the putt he didn't need, and happiness became a one-inch tap-in for the U.S. Open title. And then he threw the ball about as far as a former defensive back could be expected to throw it.
There was nothing left that Winged Foot could do now to defeat Hale Irwin, but the old relic in the suburbs of Manhattan had finished at least second in the 1974 U.S. Open.