When a more bizarre conclusion is scripted for the U.S. Open it will have to be written by Woody Allen. Picture this. A guy is clinging to a lead about as wide as a bead of sweat with the first major title of his career within his reach. Then out of the trees on the 14th hole come nine uniformed and armed policemen. From TV towers, ABC cameras swing over Tulsa's Southern Hills golf course, not shooting the tournament but scanning the crowd of 20,000 lining the fairways and clustered around the greens. At the 14th green a group of USGA officials is conferring quietly. Hubert Green, 30, the tournament leader by one stroke, putts out, and Sandy Tatum, the vice-president of the USGA, draws him aside. Green is informed that a telephone call, probably one of those that sick people make, has been received by a clerk at the FBI office in Oklahoma City. A woman has said that three of her male friends are on their way to Tulsa to rub out Green.
Play stalls. Finally Hubert moves to the 15th hole. Photographers down the fairway suddenly find their view obscured by city police. Green tees up his ball. He then takes an understandably nervous swipe at it and the ball hooks wildly toward the trees. If the ball goes as deeply into the woods as it appears it might, golf's most precious tournament will belong to Lou Graham, who is the fellow putting the most heat on Hubert and keeping the tournament from becoming a yacht race.
But good things should happen to a man who has been victimized. Green's tee shot at the 15th strikes a tree trunk and comes to rest in the rough, leaving him a clear shot to the 407-yard par-4 hole. He lofts a nice, gutty iron onto the green and gets the putt down in two for a par. It seems routine to those who do not know about the extra strain that has been placed upon him. Open pressure is quite enough, usually.
Hubert's drive and second shot at the 569-yard par-5 16th look a bit shaky. But that's where he jams a pitching wedge up there for a cough-in birdie and gets the two-stroke advantage he desperately needs to survive Lou Graham, the rugged course, the steaming climate and Hubert's own nerves.
June 26, 1977
At the 17th hole, where Graham had hit one of the most confounding three-irons in the history of low, dark, prowling hooks to stay in contention, Green does something equally marvelous. He gets a 40-foot putt close enough to secure a par from a place on the green where the ball has to travel up and over and down by way of a Ramada Inn.
Now comes the 18th, where Hubert has to sit on his golf bag and wait for what seems like 9,000 hours while people named Gary Jacobson and Don Padgett finish the hole. Jacobson has hit under the immense scoreboard. Padgett is in a trap. But Green sits there calmly and then strolls over to chat with some USGA officials.
Apart from a homemade bomb or some distant rifle fire, Green's problem is to make sure he makes no worse than a bogey 5 on this great finishing hole that has humbled Jack Nicklaus, for one. Nicklaus bogeyed it every day. Green drives safely enough into the light rough and can lay up with his second shot.
But to make the ending all the more suspenseful, he bounces into the front left bunker. From there a bogey is likely and worse is possible. Hubert gets the ball onto the green but is still 30 feet from the hole, and the putt has a left break and then a right. He hits it about three feet short. Standing over that second putt he may feel he needs a bulletproof vest, but he hits the ball right into the heart of the cup—a "center cut," the pros call it. With that, Hubert Green has a closing round of 70, which, along with his earlier 69-67-72, gives him a remarkable winning total of two-under-par 278 and the first major crown of a career that has long been underrated.
Death threats are not unknown in sport, but one rarely has been made to a golfer, and never in the U.S. Open. The chief of tournament security, Lieut. Charlie Jones of the Tulsa police, was informed of the threat about the time that Green finished the front nine. He immediately summoned Tatum and two other USGA officials by walkie-talkie. The men met on the paved apron of the clubhouse, finding privacy in its openness. The woman caller had told the FBI that the men would shoot Hubert on the 15th green, which is on the periphery of the course. By now, Green was putting out on the 10th hole. Jones already had a house near the 15th green under surveillance and had sent word to the plainclothesmen spread out on the course to work Green's gallery. Extra plainclothes-men had been called from downtown Tulsa and ABC had agreed to surrender some of its cameras to the police for more surveillance.
Before the tournament had started, Lieut. Jones had drawn up a "disaster memo" (later changed to an "emergency memo"), but his major concerns at the time had been tornadoes, kidnapping, pickpockets and prostitution. The memo did not deal with death threats.
Bearing in mind ABC's ballyhooed national TV broadcast—which for the first time showed viewers all 18 holes and more sport at one sitting than even the Olympics—the USGA officials and Jones decided to proceed with caution. Green would be given all the information they had and the option of deciding whether or not he would continue the round. He would be offered half an hour to think about what to do. If he had decided not to keep playing, the USGA admitted later it would have been in a quandary.
Lieut. Jones told Green that 99 out of 100 death threats were empty and suggested that he not be alarmed. After some reflection, Green shrugged it off in a lighthearted fashion and said he would finish his round. He walked up to the 15th tee. When he snap-hooked his drive, it appeared that the death threat might well cost Green the championship he had sought for so long.
By the time Hubert had reached the 18th fairway and was sitting on his golf bag, he had decided not to mention the incident to anyone. After sinking the winning putt, he was hustled into the clubhouse by USGA officials and the police and was closeted with them for an hour. Then he was brought to the press tent where he recounted his hole-by-hole performance. The questioning was traditional—about clubs, bunkers, yards, about the pressure of being in the lead from the first day. Only a handful of reporters had realized that something out of the ordinary had happened.
Well into the session, one reporter said, "Hubert, do you have anything to say about your conference with the police and USGA officials on the 14th hole?"
"I'm not going to comment on that," Green replied.
He took another question: "Hubert, do you consider yourself a better bunker player than off the tee?"
It seemed that the USGA, ABC, Green and the Tulsa police were going to get away with their secret. But a couple of reporters persisted until the story finally came out. Green wanted very much not to talk about the incident.
A few hours later, when Tom Weiskopf was asked what he would have done if he had been in such a situation, he cracked, "I was so hot [he had birdied 15 and 16], I'd have caught the bullet in my teeth and bit it in half."
By then one could be humorous. The jokes on the tour are just beginning, e.g., a guy who putts like Hubert Green ought to play under armed guard.
It was Green's putting that won him the Open. On the front nine on Sunday he turned several bogeys into pars and birdies into birdies when he had the opportunity, and when he truly had a chance to make a horrible double bogey at the 9th, he rolled in a dandy, curling eight-footer for a mere bogey.
For a while on Sunday, Green had a four-stroke lead and the championship looked to be all but over. The famous names who had hinted they might make a pass at him—Gary Player, Nicklaus and Weiskopf—were standing still. Player had supplied a few thrills earlier in the week by holing out an ungodly 40-yard pitch shot from ankle-high rough for a birdie and by finishing Saturday's play with three straight birdies to stand just two shots behind Green. But Player looks more and more like a man whose nerves are strained by Sundays. He finished in a tie for 10th at 285 with, among others, Nicklaus.
Weiskopf had another fine Open, but he lost vital strokes early on, racking up two double bogeys and a triple bogey. He would lose the championship by only three strokes, ending with a one-over 281 for third place.
There was an hour or so in the final round when Tom Purtzer was Green's only challenger. Like Hubert, Purtzer holed almost every putt he looked at over the front nine, and he remained a very serious contender as late as the 14th hole. But Purtzer's Open went over the fence and out of bounds on that 207-yard par 3, and the double bogey resulting from his errant long-iron shot sent him on his way to a 282 and fourth.
Which brought to the fore the miracle man, Lou Graham. He had started with bogeys on the first two holes and was thought to be no more a part of things than, say, a man who missed the cut. But he birdied the 12th, and then he birdied the 14th, and then the 15th, and then the 16th with a shot you figured couldn't hold the green or get close to the pin unless it had been hit with a seven-wood. It was, in fact, a glorious five-iron. And then he hit that 170-yard three-iron out of the trees at the 17th and barely missed the putt for what would have been still another birdie. It was indeed a brave charge and full of excitement.
But by then, of course, the real excitement was out there with Hubert Green and Starsky and Hutch and Sam Spade and Philip Marlowe. And one must also include those USGA officials.
These are the genteel clubmen—bankers, businessmen, lawyers—one usually sees at an Open standing among wheat or anthills discussing the fate of another fellow in floral double knit and lime polyester. On these innumerable occasions the USGA officials are making rulings. They do a lot of this now. In the old days Joe Dey or someone like that would simply look down at the mud caked on the ball, glance through the narrow opening of tree limbs confronting the golfer and say "Hit it."
Rulings did not play any vast role in last week's Open, but they provided some humor and relief. Ben Crenshaw got to drop freely off an ice cube before striking a chip shot to the 18th green. And he asked the official to hurry up and give him the drop before the ice cube melted and his ball rolled to Muskogee. Terry Diehl got to lay away from a sprinkler head without sacrificing his lung and right forearm, which is the normal USGA price.
The pros like to ask for rulings in the Open because they secretly enjoy watching the USGA chaps get nervous and summon each other over walkie-talkies and thumb through the rule book and quite often never be totally sure of decisions—at least in the opinion of the pros.
That was not the case in the ruling involving defending champion Jerry Pate. He had driven badly off the 18th tee, and a tree prevented him from swinging in such a way that he could advance the ball toward the green. He could play the shot right-handed, but the ball would go sideways. Or he could try an outlandish left-handed shot by standing on the other side of the ball and hitting it toward the green. Except that when he addressed the ball left-handed, his feet would be on a cart path, and a golfer is allowed relief from that. What Pate wanted to do, of course, was take advantage of the rules by addressing the ball from a left-handed stance, getting a free drop and then hitting the shot right-handed.
Jerry knew he wasn't going to get a free drop, but he inquired about it anyhow, and in a short while he was surrounded by all kinds of Sandy Tatums.
Tatum finally said, "Jerry, if we were to grant you relief, it would substantially alter the configuration of the shot."
Pate looked at Tatum and blinked.
"Huh?" said Jerry.
Tatum repeated the judgment with all of those strange words like grant and substantial and configuration in his sentence.
"What does that mean in English, Mr. Tatum?" said Pate. "I went to Alabama, not Harvard."
After the laughter, Pate played on to the double bogey and a 76, which caused him to miss the 36-hole cut by one stroke, and so ended his reign.
Tommy Bolt also departed on Friday. The 59-year-old pro who had taken the last U.S. Open at Southern Hills 19 years ago shot 75-78 this time. That other golden oldie, Arnold Palmer, did far better, keeping an enormous gallery whooping until the final day when he dropped into a tie for 19th. His best round was a 70 on Thursday, when half of the population of Tulsa shared the lead at 69. One by one, and occasionally two by two, the leaders were paraded into the huge press tent for mass interviews after their 69s. Some of the fellows were not only strangers to many of the literary types, they might as well have been wearing paper sacks over their heads as far as most of the tournament officials were concerned. None of them was Nicklaus, and only one of them was Hubert Green.
There was this wonderful interlude when a couple of leaders, Larry Nelson and Terry Diehl, were in there together. Nelson was behind the microphone with a USGA official named Ted Harbert, who was helping out on the public-relations committee.
When the interview was apparently concluded, Harbert said, "Are there any more questions for Terry Diehl?"
Larry Nelson said nothing.
"Thank you, Terry," said the USGA man.
And Larry Nelson stepped down.
Then Terry Diehl came to the microphone.
"Gentlemen," said the USGA gentleman, "here's another contestant with a fine round of 69, Larry Nelson."
To which Diehl said, "I'm Terry, that's Larry."
Diehl was to become better known by week's end. He held second after Friday, just one stroke behind Green, and was in a tie for third at even par after Saturday's drama. He wound up in a tie for seventh, shooting four-over on the final afternoon.
Another remarkable intruder who made an impact on the Open was Don Padgett. Padgett not only wasn't Jack Nicklaus, he wasn't even Terry Diehl. In fact, Padgett wasn't even in the tournament for two rounds, but on Saturday his name went up on the leader boards. When Padgett shot a front-nine 32, people figured he would come back in 42 and disappear again into the life of a young club professional on the outskirts of Indianapolis. But he birdied the 10th hole and parred the 11th and birdied the 12th, and the next thing anybody knew he was on his way to the 18th, needing only a par for a record-tying 65.
Padgett failed to get his par when he hit into the Arkansas River sand in the bunker, but the bogey still gave him a 66, the low round of the tournament (Jerry McGee matched it on Sunday) and a score no one thought very possible amid the tortures of Southern Hills.
It turns out that Padgett is the son of the president of the PGA, but that fact has not helped him make it on the PGA tour. He had given up a couple of years ago to take a club job, and he said he was happy with the life of renting carts and selling sweaters and playing in a tournament now and then.
Padgett dropped back to obscurity on Sunday, shooting an 80, but Gary Jacob-son, another little-known pro, hung in until the final holes, winning $10,875 and tying Jay Haas for fifth. Jacobson, who is 24, tried to get a golf scholarship at Arizona State and failed (his father paid his way through the school), tried three times to get his PGA card and failed, and even tried the mini-tour circuit and failed. It was no consolation that the mini-tour also went bust; it owed Jacob-son $150. But here he was in Tulsa shooting rounds of 73-70-67-73.
Jacobson and Padgett and Purtzer must wait for other opportunities. And Graham and Weiskopf must wait for other U.S. Opens. The honor and the title this time are Hubert Green's.
There are these things to say of the new Open champion. He doesn't wear a glove, which is unusual in this day and age. His swing is a little swifter than perfectionists prefer. He putts with a funny-looking stance and his hands stretch all over the grip. He addresses the ball with his hands low. Hubert is not a pretty golfer, in other words. But he is among the finest iron players around. There may be no better man in the game with a pitching wedge from 100 yards on in.
And now we know a bit more about his competitiveness as a golfer, and an awful lot more about his nerve and his heart.
In the end it could be said that none of the Ben Hogans or Bobby Joneses or Jack Nicklauses had ever won the Open under the very special kind of pressure that Hubert Green did.