IT WAS MADNESS AT MEDINAH

While a horde of celebrated contenders struggled as if in straitjackets, imperturbable Lou Graham found the key that locked up a crazy U.S. Open
June 29, 1975

From the beginning it was a golf tournament that begged to be forgotten, one that was called everything from the Sauna Bath Classic to the Lost Ego Invitational, so it was probably appropriate that last Monday, on still another steamy afternoon in Chicago, a rather invisible journeyman professional named Lou Graham finally brought this U.S. Open championship to a merciful conclusion. Being the last human being alive out there on the damp, insufferably humid premises of the Medinah Country Club with all of its inconvenient forests, Graham became the Open winner by beating young John Mahaffey in an 18-hole playoff, doing it with the nonchalance and lack of bother that had accompanied his performance throughout the week. The best thing about Graham winning is that whenever he captures a tournament, as he has twice before, it gets canceled. And if the U.S. Open is now going to turn into the kind of event that was on display at Medinah, it might be better remembered as a relic of the past.

There can be no doubt that the main reason a Lou Graham and a John Mahaffey got into the playoff in the first place, after tying over the regulation 72 holes with the uninspired three-over-par total of 287, is that, if nothing else, they are straight hitters off the tee. Graham has a kind of flippy swing and just keeps hitting low shots out there a safe distance, never very far off line, except on rare occasions when he happens to remember he is in an Open. And Mahaffey, while being a slightly more stylish swinger, is nonetheless one of the PGA tour's most accurate hitters.

In the Monday confrontation they each played exactly as they had during the previous four rounds. Steady, unspectacular golf. Down the fairway, on the green. After three holes they were tied at one over. Graham then made two straight birdies and after four routine holes he made another. So with eight holes to play he had a three-shot lead and it was only a question of whether he could keep forgetting this was the Open, because Mahaffey wasn't making any putts. He had not made any all week.

With a minimum of drama, Graham did exactly what he needed to do. Oh, he staggered a bit with a couple of bogeys on the last five holes, but he was headed for an even par 71, and Mahaffey could do no better than a 73.

Graham is what you would call a "good old country boy" from Nashville. At 37, and after 12 years on the tour, he had won only a thing in Minnesota and a Liggett & Myers Open nobody saw, and both have since disappeared.

Mahaffey, by contrast, is one of the tour's young turks who is going to be around a long time. He's a University of Houston guy, an NCAA champion, a kid who swept out the shop for Jimmy Demaret and Jack Burke at Champions, and he has played in skin games with Ben Hogan and a few rich oilmen—and won. He is known as the "waggle leader" on the tee, and he's a good mimic of the other players. Not that there was much to mimic at Medinah.

"This course was never as difficult as the scores looked," Mahaffey said. "I agree with everybody who said it was the easiest Open in history to have won. At least 10 guys could have won it by five shots if they'd played golf."

But in the end, as the pack of contenders—most notably Jack Nicklaus, Frank Beard, Tom Watson and Ben Crenshaw—collapsed, only Mahaffey and Lou Graham played golf at Medinah.

Why?

In many ways it is fun to watch a group of 18-handicappers play a $100 Nassau, as much fun as there is in the annoying game of golf. You can laugh as they work their hooks around and through the trees, hot-line their sand shots into access roads and get headaches limping after their putts, which slide onward and downward away from the cup, or pull up woefully short. But to have witnessed it in the U.S. Open from a collection of the world's finest shotmakers on a course that should never—never, ever—have been that difficult was an experience not soon to be forgotten.

One reason for all the bumbling was that the event was the Open, which always tightens the throat and causes awkward and uncharacteristic things to happen, even occasionally to a Jack Nicklaus. But many of the stars who were so humiliated by Medinah last week have participated in scads of Opens that were held on tougher courses, Opens in which they performed well, if not brilliantly. So that alone was not the answer.

All right, then, let's consider the fact that Medinah was a tight driving course, with those 4,000 or so trees out there on the outskirts of Chicago. Fine. It was narrow, which is one reason a couple of the tour's straightest hitters wriggled their way into that playoff. But there have been tighter fairways in the Open, such as those at Oakland Hills in 1961, or those that some veterans have seen at Olympic and Merion and Southern Hills. Not only have there been narrower Open courses, but they have played "fast," as the pros say, meaning the ball would race through the target areas and into a deeper, more menacing rough than Medinah had.

One can only wonder what this distressed field of 1975, which developed a simultaneous case of the yanks and yips, would have scored had Medinah played as hard as it might have without the rains early in the week that softened the greens and made it, by everyone's admission, much easier. The softness made it possible for many a player to scramble his way to a par, or a bogey. With the greens holding just about anything golfers threw at them, a guy could put his tee shot off in the groves, chip out to the fairway, and then stick a rescue shot up there and make his putt and go on to the next tee. Ho hum, another routine four. On the normal Open premises he would have been struggling simply to stay alive.

Nobody even suggested that Medinah was anything but fair and inviting. Nicklaus called it the "easiest" Open course he could remember playing, but he played poorly nearly all the way through the four rounds except for that one steady surge that put him into contention on Sunday. Even then he saved his poorest play for the moments immediately thereafter when he could easily have won. Namely the last three holes, when Sam Sausage could have spotted him two-up and won Golden Bear, Inc.

So what did it all mean? If the course wasn't that much of a monster, why did the game's best players provide the record crowds of Medinah and millions more watching television some of the most atrocious exhibitions of non-golf within anyone's memory?

Over and over, a competitor of grand repute would step up on a tee, remove some sort of club from his bag and hit some kind of shot that would look as if it was doing stunts in the air. The high, disappearing hook became a trademark for Nicklaus, and it was that all along for the scrambling but competitive Crenshaw. The irretrievable slice or shove became a nightmare for Watson, who had dominated the play for two days with rounds of 67 and 68, tying the 36-hole Open record. When Beard took command after a 67 on Saturday, he quickly reverted back to his old ways of hooking everything down to the putter. As Beard gradually let his game erode on Sunday, his old friends were reminded of what he always said of himself: "My fade only hooks 20 yards."

The plain fact of the matter is that last week at Medinah all the best players, the favorites, played pretty awful, and the guys who stayed in contention, including the two who managed to give the Open its 26th playoff in 75 years, shot just about what they normally might have been expected to shoot.

Johnny Miller, for example, was never the remotest factor in the tournament. Gary Player's name was never mentioned. Lee Trevino's was for a couple of days, but on Saturday, when he and Nicklaus needed to make a move, they calmly went out there and made 15 bogeys between them on an ideal day for scoring. Trevino managed to do even worse on Sunday, when he shot 79.

Saturday was the day the tournament had the youthful glamour of a Watson-Crenshaw pairing, with 25-year-old Watson holding a lead and supposedly having cured himself of blowing tournaments as he had so often in the past. And here was 23-year-old Crenshaw, back from a terrible slump. The wave of the future. Terrific.

What they did in 18 holes was to make one birdie between them as Watson fumbled it away again with a 78 and Crenshaw shot 76. Watson almost four-putted the first green from about 20 feet as his knees buckled, and Crenshaw hit his occasional "looking for Jane" drive, meaning that he sometimes drives into Tarzan's part of the jungle. Later that night, when Crenshaw was asked if he and Watson had much to say to each other during the round, Ben laughed.

"We never saw each other," he said.

This was the day when Beard rose from the grave with that 67 to move past nine players in the field and pick up 11 strokes on Watson, taking a three-stroke lead.

"This course isn't that hard," Beard said. "Being where I am with a 67 is the greatest ripoff since Riggs and King."

Let us now ponder the various ways this Open was lost by so many people on Sunday. For Beard it can be said that he simply let it slide slowly away because his confidence left him. Being a negative thinker anyway, Beard just sort of strolled along, looking at every shot and putt as if to say, "It figures."

Watson will have a harder time living with his performances of Saturday and Sunday, especially since they follow so many others of the past, the sort of thing he is supposed to be overcoming by now. Watson is from Stanford. Perhaps he thinks too much.

Crenshaw was far from as upset as one might have thought him to be. He was tied for the lead over much of the back nine, and he was in fact hitting the ball better than he had on the previous days. Finally, after a long wait on the 17th tee, he hit a two-iron not quite hard enough to clear the water on Medinah's postcard hole. The result was a killer double bogey on a hole he had played perfectly for three rounds.

"I can't complain," Ben said. "I got away with murder for a couple of days. I had a super putting week. It was really great to be in there and find out what it's like."

As for Pat Fitzsimons, or Peter Oosterhuis, or any of those other people who perhaps had fleeting thoughts of winning, they went the way that most players go in the Open who wear wrinkled pants and appear to have their wallets in their hip pockets, as Fitzsimons did, or who stand 6'5" and look silly in a cap, as Oosterhuis did.

The most truly amazing thing of all is how the field began to come crawling out of the woods and creeping back. Hale Irwin, the defending champion, and Bob Murphy finished early with four-over-par 288s, well off the lead, yet eventually missed the playoff by only one stroke. Even more amazing was how Nicklaus, with the leaders all but handing him the Open—with the entire city trying to give it to him—played the final three holes. Nicklaus was two under par for the day, working on a 69, when he went to the 16th tee. He was also one stroke off the pace, but, as everyone figured, a finish of par-par-par would win him his fourth Open as surely as there was a Shriner in Medinah's membership.

Probably not even Graham or Mahaffey would have bet against Jack at this point. But what Nicklaus did was hit as glorious a hook from the 16th tee as anyone is humanly capable of hitting. He bogeyed that one. Then he went to the 17th and put an iron over the green, right of the hole. It did not look all that bad, if he could pull off a decent chip shot. A chip? Nicklaus? Who was kidding whom? He didn't get it on the green, and when he finally did, he had to sink a 20-foot putt just to make a bogey.

Now then, as bad off as Nicklaus was, things were getting worse behind him, and had he somehow been able to birdie the 18th he would have wound up in a tie. But just to cap off this splendid display, Jack hooked his drive on 18, hit his second into a bunker, and then played an uninspired sand shot and missed the putt, finishing up with the hat trick. His final score was 289, two strokes behind Graham and Mahaffey, one behind Crenshaw, Beard, Murphy and Irwin, and one stroke ahead of Watson.

"The soft course in the first two rounds forced me to hit shots I don't like to hit," Jack said. "I thought I'd play well on Saturday, but I didn't. I was going with a sort of artificial swing, because I have to hit so many right-to-left shots on this course. What happened on the last three holes? I think you can say the artificial swing caught up with me."

One of the more astonishing things about the finish is that the last two hours of the tournament proper produced only one birdie. This was a putt that Graham managed to squeeze into the cup out on the 14th hole. That against a score of bogeys.

After all of the gory things that went on during the final round, the 1975 Open ended up like so many old-fashioned Opens did, with one guy—Mahaffey—waiting around the clubhouse to see if anybody could stay alive long enough to tie him. And it took another guy, Graham, to make a bogey to do it.

Some folks thought it might have provided the most Open thrills since 1899, when Willie Smith won by 11 with a closing 77.

TWO PHOTOSGraham did not let Medinah's hazards hold him for too long, but Mahaffey would have trapped him had one more Sunday putt fallen. PHOTOA Nicklaus missed putt followed by a Nicklaus grimace sum up the Nicklaus week. PHOTOEn route to ruin, Beard hits a second shot to the second hole, the first having splashed. PHOTOCrenshaw buries his face in his hands after his watery disaster at the 17th buried him.

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)