On a morning in early May two middle-aged men met in Tulsa for a round of golf. The day was already warm at 8:30 as they stood high on the 1st tee looking down a tunnel of trees that is the 1st fairway. Five miles in the distance the white towers of downtown Tulsa rose like a modern Cadiz against the clear blue Oklahoma sky.
The talk on the tee was the friendly banter of weekend golfers, but this was to be no ordinary round. The course was Southern Hills, where the U.S. Open will be held next week, and the players were P. J. Boatwright Jr., executive director of the United States Golf Association, and Frank D. (Sandy) Tatum Jr., a San Francisco lawyer who is chairman of the USGA's Championship Committee.
These are the people who have set up Southern Hills for the Open. A year ago they produced a memorandum, addressed to the chairman of the club course committee, that gave hole-by-hole instructions for preparing the course. The round of golf was to be the last step in the process of readying the layout for the national championship.
To the USGA, setting up the Open course is an annual demonstration of its philosophy, which is, at bottom, If God Gave Us 14 Clubs He Must Have Meant Us to Use Them. To the players, if one can believe what one hears, four days on a course set up by the USGA is four days on the rack. If matters proceed according to schedule, one week from now the decisions that Tatum and Boatwright have made at Southern Hills will have earned them the undying enmity of at least some of "the best players in the world," as the PGA tour often refers to its collective self. At best, the USGA officials' motives will be impugned. At worst, their antecedents will be called into question. It happens every year; only the intensity of the criticism varies. Last June, at the Atlanta Athletic Club, the abuse directed at the USGA's striped-tie-and-blue-armband brigade was enough to make a Phillie fan blush.
June 12, 1977
This year the grumbling began even before anyone had seen the course. Bob Toski, who was a touring pro from 1948 to 1958 but now is known mainly as a teacher, wrote a column for the June issue of Golf Digest about the way the USGA runs the Open. "What will confront the field at Southern Hills...is typical," he said. "By converting the 13th hole into a par-4 from a par-5 without an appreciable change in the yardage, the par has been reduced from 71 to 70.... You make a fool of the professional and demean his talent by chopping down par and tricking up the course."
Toski overlooked the fact that in 1970, when the PGA held its championship at Southern Hills and the USGA was nowhere near the premises, par was also 70 because the 13th had been changed from a 545-yard par-5 to a 470-yard par-4. Furthermore, the rough was so deep that Dave Stockton, the winner with a total score of 279, one under par, said recently, "I can still see Mason Rudolph on 10, standing in grass that was knee deep."
Toski concluded his column by saying, "I'm convinced that their objective is to build a monument to themselves."
The U.S. Open is, indeed, a monument to the USGA. It and the Amateur Championship are the oldest institutions in American golf, both dating to 1895. In golf's apostolic succession they are America's links to Old Tom Morris, John Ball and the sport's Scottish heritage.
Like the game, but a bit slower, the USGA has evolved into a mid-20th-century phenomenon. By common consent of the country's golf organizations, it interprets the rules, codifies the handicaps, defines amateurism, tests equipment and develops new grasses. It conducts 10 national championships a year and four international team competitions, and for all this nobody pays the USGA the slightest mind. But come June and Open time, when it presumes to tamper with the inalienable right of a pro to reach a par-5 in two, the USGA becomes everybody's whipping boy.
There are two schools of golf-course architecture. One holds that every shot should be to a target and that every target should be protected. The USGA leans toward this school. The other maintains that the putting area should be defended to the death, but how the golfer gets there does not matter so much. Augusta National, with its wide-open fairways and negligible rough, is an excellent example of this school.
Southern Hills is close to the USGA ideal. Its greens are small, its fairways are narrow and, though it is a mature course, it is not so old that the game's technical advances have made it obsolete. Its challenges are varied but it is not, like Winged Foot, intimidating.
The greens are bent grass from which all traces of grain and thatch have been combed and brushed and verticut away, and they are firm and fast. As Tatum and Boatwright played their final inspection round, the putting surfaces were already being cut to [3/32] of an inch.
Sonny Faust, the 29-year-old superintendent, had seen the course through one of the hardest winters in memory. He lost five acres of grass to the cold in January, almost every north-facing slope on the course. This spring he laid 20,000 feet of new sod in the playing areas and hydroseeded some four acres elsewhere. The day of the Tatum-Boatwright match, the outlines of the Bermuda rough were just becoming visible in most places. But after a month of 90° days and 70° nights Southern Hills will have rough worthy of the best players in the world, who, of course, will hate it.
Open rough is intended to penalize bad shots. The USGA's championship manual, the booklet that serves as a guide to clubs preparing for USGA events, says, "Where the rough is thin, a cut of six to eight inches might be desirable; where heavy and matted...a cut of even four inches might not be sufficiently low" and "The rough should not be so deep as to make a recovery impossible or to increase greatly the prospect of lost balls, but it should not be so thin that a wood or long iron can be played from it without difficulty."
At Southern Hills the Bermuda is of a particularly virile strain, and the USGA is proceeding carefully. Tatum has asked that the rough, which originally was to be 3½ inches, be maintained at only three inches until he arrives in Tulsa this week. Then he will decide whether it should be taken down to, say, 2½, or allowed to grow, in the final days, to 3½. Tatum's caution may have risen out of his memory of Ben Hogan on the 18th hole in his 1955 Open playoff with Jack Fleck at the Olympic Country Club in San Francisco, where the rough was downright immoral.
"Hogan was one shot behind Fleck on the tee," says Tatum. "There was some sand on the tee and his foot slipped and he snap-hooked into some awful stuff. He took a full swing with a wedge and the ball went two or three yards. Then he took another full swing and still didn't get the ball to the fairway. He took a six on the hole."
On occasion the best-laid plans go awry. That year both the club and the USGA felt that they had a problem in Olympic's 7th hole. It was a par-4 of only 266 yards and obviously needed tightening. Their solution was to allow rough to grow all over the fairway except for a small landing area engagingly named the Dewdrop. In addition, a bunker was extended across the face of the green and back along the sides. And, as if that were not enough, a crown was built into the center of the putting surface.
A USGA official who was there says, "The 7th was aberrational. It justified every 'tricked up' accusation ever thrown at the USGA. Balls caromed off that mound all over the place."
Sometimes problems are created by the nature of the USGA itself. The organization is made up not of individual members but of clubs, including, of course, the clubs that donate their layouts to the Open. The question of how the Open course is to be set up sometimes becomes a contest of wills between members of the host club and the USGA's executive committee. Olympic in 1955 was a prime example. So was Oakmont in 1953, when the club insisted that the bunkers be raked in the traditional way, with a special Oakmont bunker rake that left furrows three inches deep. The USGA said no, and a bitter impasse existed until the club greens committee chairman, a wise man, devised a compromise bunker rake that made shallower furrows.
But the watershed in relations between host clubs and the USGA was reached at the 1951 Open at Oakland Hills near Detroit. Proud of its tough, old Donald Ross course, Oakland Hills was not about to sit idly by while a new generation of golfers laid it waste. So the club hired Robert Trent Jones to tighten up the layout. The result was what Ben Hogan, the winner, angrily described as "this monster." The dismay with which the USGA viewed the finished product was reflected in this carefully worded summation of events in the July 1951 USGA Journal:
"Besides the new bunkers, the rough before the tournament encroached deep into the normal fairway and was quite thick on some holes. The USGA Championship Committee, headed by John D. Ames, tempered these conditions somewhat by having the rough trimmed in spots, both as to height and to reduce the narrowness of some fairways. It was not possible at that hour, however, to produce the uniform USGA championship conditions prescribed...in the USGA Golf Championship Manual...."
Since then there have been skirmishes, but the championship committee now has the upper hand and insists on being consulted before decisions, large and small, are made. Joe Dey, who was USGA executive director from 1934 until 1969, says, "Some clubs didn't want the competitors to break par and others wanted lots of birdies to draw the crowds. The aim of the USGA was to have a relatively standard test."
One man's meat is another's monster, though, and some give and take remains. At Southern Hills there has been disagreement about the location of the 18th tee. Normally the 18th is a tough 428-yard par-4 with a dogleg to the right and an elevated green with only a narrow opening. It requires a well-placed tee shot and a long iron from there. For the 1958 Open at Southern Hills, a new tee was built behind a creek, adding 20 yards. It was used on that occasion but has not been since. This year, after considerable back and forth, it has been decided to use the 1958 tee, which means that an already demanding drive will become even more so.
Tatum says, however, that the USGA "will continue to evaluate the play every day, taking into account the wind factor, so that the integrity of the design of the hole will be preserved." In other words, the battle was decided but not necessarily the war.
Two new tees were built for next week's Open, but the USGA has chosen to use only one of them. The new tee on the 569-yard 16th, a par-5 that easily could be reached in two with the help of the prevailing southwest wind, has added 25 yards to the distance, but it has also eased the angle of the tee shot. Now a player can, or at least will think he can, haul off and slug one, a rare opportunity at Southern Hills.
The other new tee, on the par-3 6th hole, up and to the left of the old one, was rejected because Tatum and Boatwright felt that the plan of the green—its contours, the location of its bunkers, its best pin placements—was more responsive to the angle from the old tee.
Two of the hardest pars on the course are at the 12th and 13th holes. Twelve is a 444-yard par-4 with a dogleg to the left and a right-to-left slant to the fairway. Its green is set behind a creek and two bunkers in a glen of shade trees. Ben Hogan has called it one of the greatest par-4s in America. Because the second shot is so difficult—from a side-hill lie and beset by hazards—the USGA has decided to leave, instead of rough, a six-foot collar of fairway-length grass around the edge of the putting surface to ease the chip shots.
This generous gesture will probably go unnoticed, however, in the hullabaloo that will undoubtedly arise over changing the 13th from a short par-5 to a long par-4.
As Boatwright and Tatum made their way around the course they paced off the fairways here and there, making sure the widths were what they had asked for. They sampled most of the hazards, sometimes on purpose. On the 2nd hole they ordered a tree limb cut off. On the 5th they worried about the condition of the turf in the landing area. On the 6th they established drop areas alongside an out-of-bounds fence. On the 15th they instructed the course superintendent to remove a couple of small trees that obscured the view of a fairway bunker from the tee. ("A good example of the aboretum syndrome," said Tatum.)
They also had a pretty good time—Sandy Tatum, the 1942 NCAA champion, and P. J. Boatwright, the 1957 and 1959 Carolinas Open champion. The temperature was in the 70s. Dogs were barking in distant yards. Birds trilled, soft breezes blew and the smell of honeysuckle was in the air. It was a nice day to be alive and playing golf. For the record, Tatum won the match, 3 and 2.