The U.S. Open golf championship won a young fellow named Andy North last week. It won him the way so many Opens have won other strangers, by throwing him into a daze and then letting him stagger home amid the immense pressures that accompany a final round, especially the last few holes when a guy is out there alone fighting himself and the elements and all of the uproar that goes with a major title. In the case of this Open, there is perhaps no tougher stretch of golf than the last five holes of the Cherry Hills course on the outskirts of Denver. And there is certainly no 18th hole as demanding as the one Andy North had to conquer in the earlier rounds and then survive at the very end.
For certain, North's victory brought to mind the old saying: nobody wins the Open, it wins you. The way it happened to North is that on the last day he played four-over-par golf on those last five holes, from the 14th in, which at Cherry Hills have a different character from the rest of the layout. The holes require laying up, letting out, thinking, with a long par 4, a medium par 3, a short par 4, a risky par 5, and then the swooping par-4 18th that combines such length and danger it should have been the place where all of those movie companies went looking for King Kong.
After four full days of splendid excitement and utter bewilderment, what 28-year-old Andy North needed on the 18th was to make a bogey 5 to outlast Dave Stockton and J. C. Snead and avoid the Open's first three-way playoff since 1963. From the 14th hole North had been frittering away a lead he had gained with his putting stroke. For those uninitiated to Open drama, North's four-stroke lead over Stockton with five holes to play may have seemed insurmountable. So may it have seemed to those who thought the Cherry Hills finishing stretch was nothing but numbers with a little water here and there.
But that was just where North confronted the golf course, the real golf course. When he bogeyed the 14th, no undue harm was done, because Stockton bogeyed it as well. But for the first time, North appeared to have lost his composure. After Stockton had birdied 15, North double bogeyed it by leaving.) a sand shot in the bunker, and you had to know he might fly apart in every direction.
June 25, 1978
Over and over, throughout the tournament, North had rescued himself with his putter and a putting style—hunched over, hands creeping down the shaft—that would dismay any instruction-book illustrator. North one-putted the first four greens of Sunday's final round, for example, and it immediately became clear that this Open was going to be his for the winning or losing.
North gathered himself together to save par at the 16th and he played to a steady par at 17. Stockton was one stroke back, Snead two. But finally he had to face the monstrous 18th, the hole that had thoroughly dominated the championship. It is a golf hole with absolutely no room off the tee. Anything left goes into a lake. Anything right goes out of bounds or into the rough. Essentially, you are aiming at a 15-yard-wide landing area whether you are hitting a driver or a two-iron. Next comes a long second shot up a hill and over a couple of yawning bunkers and onto a firm green where three-putting was commonplace and birdies were almost as rare as an Andy North victory on the regular tour.
However, North had been winning last week's Open on the 18th hole even before Sunday. Somehow, he birdied it twice. In the 432 times the hole was played there were only 11 birdies. The hole played so much over par on every single round, people could only joke about it. Tom Weiskopf, who incredibly wound up being a contender with a last-round 68 after coming within one shot of missing the 36-hole cut, might have made the best joke. When he was asked how he would play the 18th if he needed a life-or-death par 4, he said, "I'd make a 6."
Now about North's historic bogey. He drove into the upper right rough at the 18th, which meant he couldn't possibly reach the green in two. But at least he didn't flirt with the lake on his left and have to call on the gods to skip his ball across the water as Snead's tee shot had a few minutes earlier. From the rough, the best North could do was dig the ball and get it up the hill behind the bunker to the left of the green and directly between himself and the pin. By this time, of course, he knew that J.C. had missed his putt for a birdie and that Stockton had missed his putt for a par. In other words, North knew a bogey 5 was golden.
What he then did, naturally, was pitch daintily into the bunker. From there, he could make almost anything, having already demonstrated back on the 15th that he could leave it in the sand, this being the Open. One had to remember what Lee Trevino had said about the 18th hole: "A man could be standing on the 18th tee with a two-shot lead on Sunday and finish fourth."
North hit a splendid bunker shot in full view of the day's 25,000 spectators and a television audience that had seen as many promos as it had seen crucial golf shots. Now, at last, North faced a four-foot putt to win the Open. And if it wasn't suspenseful enough at this point, North added to the moment by twice stepping away from the putt as if he fully expected it to turn into a demon before his very eyes.
He got over the ball, paused and backed away. He got over the ball again, paused and backed away. But the third time he crouched over the putt—and just when most everybody knew he would surely blow it—Andy North rammed the ball into the cup.
It might have been the 30th or 40th four-footer he made in this Open. No matter. It was definitely the longest putt the last player in the field ever made on the last hole to win an Open.
Later, North said, "Making a four-foot putt to win the Open is something you usually only pretend to do in practice rounds."
Who is Andy North? Well, he's a tall, friendly, likable chap who won only one tournament as a professional before last week. That was last summer's Westchester Classic. He is a long hitter like so many other young men on the tour, another of those fellows who learned his trade in the college ranks at the University of Florida. It may have added to his relative obscurity that Florida's two NCAA golf championships came the year before Andy got there and the year after he left. Of late, he had mainly been known as a close friend of Tom Watson. In the locker room, Watson and the others call him "Drew."
The record will show that North's concluding 74 was the most mediocre finishing round for a winner since Cary Middlecoff's 75 back in 1949, but all along the players had guessed that Cherry Hills' tangled bluegrass rough, and the rugged homeward stretch—and the devilish 18th—would produce a winning total of even par, or near there. North's 285 was one over. In further testimony to Cherry Hills' confounding problems was the fact that both Stockton and Snead had made a good run at the title by producing nothing more blazing on Sunday than one-over 72s. Stockton will dwell for a certain amount of time, no doubt, on the curious statistic that he played the 18th in four over for the tournament, and lost by one.
As for Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus, they may be thinking of opportunities lost in the final round. Player started Sunday only one stroke back of North, and paired with him. He was, as his friend and manager Mark McCormack described him, "in a deep spiritual mood" to win the Open and carry the title along with the Masters toward a possible Grand Slam. Gary shot a stunning 77, however, largely because of some atrocious putting. He wound up in a six-way tie for sixth place with Nicklaus, Bill Kratzert, Andy Bean, Johnny Miller, who had two gorgeous rounds of 68 and 69, and Watson, who kept last week from being an embarrassment by plodding back with a couple of 70s after a terribly indifferent beginning.
Nicklaus was another weird story. He was very much a part of the tournament all the way until a pair of double bogeys did him in on Sunday. On Saturday he had a triple bogey 7 on 13. He did it with his own little wedge from the heart of the fairway. He first hit a fat wedge into a creek, then he hit a strong wedge over the green and into a bunker, and the only thing humorous about any of it was that Jack had paused after his tee shot to visit a portable John. Make up your own jokes.
If not always a laugh a minute, each day of the Open was fascinating and filled to the brim of the bag with weird events. There were aces and whiffs, eagles and triple bogeys, shots soaring into the water, shots disappearing into the blue-grass, greens firmed up to make wedges bounce all the way to Cheyenne, footnotes to history and outside agencies distracting competitors to the point of compelling them to curse and scream.
Thursday's opening 18 had barely started, for example, when a fellow named Bob Impaglia became a part of golfing lore. At around 10:15 that morning Impaglia (page 19) was given a two-stroke penalty for slow play—the first such penalty ever in the U.S. Open.
Also on Thursday, a few thousand people decided to go out to the 1st tee and watch Arnold Palmer drive the green, as he had in 1960 when he came from all of those strokes behind to win the Open with a 65 in the last round. Except it was a different 1st tee this time, one which had been constructed to make the par-4 play much longer and more of a dogleg.
Many of the players, press and fans felt they had been robbed of tradition, history—whatever. How dare the hole be changed in order to make Cherry Hills more "competitive" for today's shotmakers! Well, maybe it should be. As USGA President Frank D. (Sandy) Tatum Jr. said: "It doesn't bother me that Arnold Palmer will be the only man who ever drove the 1st green at Cherry Hills."
The fact is, the USGA had made the proper decision in fixing up the course, including the 1st hole. These older courses ought to continue being used as Open venues, and the only way for that to be done is to modernize them. Otherwise, the Open would sink into a rotation of Bellerives, Hazeltines and Atlanta Athletic Clubs.
Anyhow, the USGA could point out that at least some history was made on Thursday. Arnold Palmer hit his opening tee shot all the way over the old 1st tee.
Thursday was a day that saw words and phrases coined. This being the old home ground of Hale Irwin, who was the leader with a 69, there was talk of Irwinmania among the throng—and Hale Crush. He got whoops and roars on the course such as are normally reserved for the Jack Nicklauses. And he was very much a contender until the last few holes on Saturday.
There was another new word. Clampett. As in Bob Clampett. There is nearly always a Bob Clampett on the scoreboard in the early rounds of an Open, but this one was slightly different. He was only 18 years old, an amateur, and no longer than the average five-iron. With his bush of curly blond hair, he looked like a teen-age Harpo Marx. But his one-under 70 stunned everyone. He hung in there with a 73 on Friday, but then came Saturday and Bob Clampett was paired with Trevino, and he could no longer perform in privacy.
Bob Clampett whiffed—yes, missed—two consecutive shots out of the gnarled bluegrass rough on the 1st hole and began fading from celebrity, but he would tough it out to become the youngest low amateur in an Open since Bobby Jones wore a sailor suit, finishing 30th with a 297.
Missing the golf ball completely became rather commonplace, as a matter of fact. There were many who slashed into the rough, heard a funny sound, then looked down and found the ball where it was to begin with. On the first day Jerry Pate went completely under the ball with a wedge. Jerry McGee did something even worse. He blew the shortest putt in the history of golf on the 7th green. He did it by missing the ball altogether when he reached over with his putter to tap it in from the lip of the cup.
On Friday, when North took the lead with his second straight 70—mostly because of the catastrophes that were befalling others—two incidents occurred that would haunt a couple of serious contenders the rest of the way. That they happened to Andy Bean and J. C. Snead, who are two of the game's rural comedians, said something or other about Open nerves as well as the nature of the game itself.
Bean made six birdies on Friday and he shot a one-over 72. But he claimed the thing that really did him in was a car radio. At the evil par-5 17th hole, that thing with a moat in front of the green, Bean was all set to nip a wedge into the pin for another birdie when tragedy struck.
Like this: busy Quincy Avenue runs along the 17th fairway and a lot of noise comes from it. In the case of Bean's wedge shot, it was loud music from a passing car. Club back, club forward, music, contact, jerk, ball plopping into water.
"Whoever it was did it on purpose," said Bean.
No one got the name of the song on the car radio, but Bean said it wasn't Sleepy Lagoon.
What happened to Snead was even more bizarre. First of all, J.C. had made himself something of a celebrity on Thursday by refusing to come to the press tent for interviews after his opening 70, which had left him tied for second along with North and Clampett. J. C. Snead doesn't like press rooms, and he had not been near one on the tour for quite' a while. J.C. thinks the people in press rooms don't like him, write about him as if he were dumb and make fun of his plantation hats.
So on Thursday afternoon a voice came over the loudspeaker in the tent saying, "J. C. Snead has finished with a one-under 70. He was invited to the press tent but he has declined."
At which point about 100 writers applauded.
But now it was Friday and J.C. was very much in the Open, and he lifted his boycott and granted all the interviews anyone wanted. He proved that he should hang around more often, for J.C. is wonderful "copy," as they say.
He revealed how his caddie had cost him a stroke, maybe two, on the same 17th hole where Bean heard the sound of music.
Snead had been wearing out his one-iron off the tees and doing a splendid job of avoiding the brutal rough. But after he had addressed his one-iron on the 17th tee, and just as he took it back, he heard a shout.
Of all things, it was the voice of his own caddie, trying to be helpful. With J.C. already into his windup and unable to stop, the caddie hollered, "Wind's blowing left to right."
J.C., of course, pulled his tee shot wildly into the left rough, and was forced to hack it out with an eight-iron, which still left him an eight-iron away from the dangerous green to which he should normally have been hitting a pitching wedge and contemplating a birdie.
Worse still, J.C. no longer knew how far he could hit his eight-iron in the thin mountain air. On the 16th hole, just a few moments before, he had hit an eight-iron that never came down. It flew roughly 200 yards, winding up over the green.
But the shot on the 17th did not go far enough to clear the water in front of the green. Splash! Bogey.
J.C. was asked if he said anything to his caddie that could be printed, or rather if he had done anything to his caddie's head that might make it blow left to right, after the tee shot that caused him all the trouble in the first place.
J.C. said he just thanked him for his help.
On Saturday it continued to be an Open of unusual sounds. Trevino could rightfully claim that another kind of noise was perhaps responsible for the horrible double bogey he suffered on the 1st hole of the third round, a blow from which he never recovered. It was a disaster that sent him reeling to a 75 at a time when he surely looked like a man to be reckoned with.
Just as he slammed into his tee shot on No. 1, however, someone—it was never determined who—shouted, "Fore!" The someone was hollering at a spectator strolling across the fairway far down the hill. Trevino lunged at the ball as if he had been stabbed, and the ball hit a tree. From where he wound up, the best he could do was keep gouging at it until he had made a six.
For all of the outside influences that had an effect on this Open, however, nothing tortured the golfers like the Cherry Hills course itself, especially that 18th hole.
It tortured Andy North enough on Sunday, but he was up to the challenge. He claimed that he backed off his putt because he was waiting for a lull in the wind. Maybe so, maybe not. It would be more romantic to think he was waiting for a lull in his throat, this being the Open.
Still, he left the world with the kind of remark befitting a champion.
Before knocking in the putt, Andy North said to himself, "Listen, sport, show 'em what you're made of."
He already had. Andy North was two parts putting stroke and one part Open fog.