The United States Open golf championship can no more dodge making history than it can avoid criticism or mysterious happenings. The one staged last week at the old Inverness Club in Toledo will mostly be remembered for a spruce tree, an impostor, a clown and, finally, the first Open winner with braces on his teeth. Where the sainted Harry Vardon had once walked, Hale Irwin invented the underlapping overbite.
A truly fine player who deserved to win another Open—one more than Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, two more than Sam Snead—Irwin actually won this one on Saturday, when he fired a 67 into the antagonistic little old-fashioned greens and humping, curving fairways of Inverness. He may even have won it with a single shot that day, a career two-iron for a gimme eagle on the 13th hole. All he really had to do in Sunday's final round was not lose, and he is too reliable and accomplished a player for that.
Irwin began the last 18 with a three-stroke lead on Tom Weiskopf, his closest competitor, with whom he was paired. After four holes, silent Tom Purtzer was second, only two strokes behind. Purtzer had started five back but he birdied three of the first four holes. Twenty minutes later, however, Irwin held a four-stroke lead over Purtzer and Jerry Pate.
Irwin is not only a splendid shotmaker with every club in the bag, but he is also a tenacious golfer. As Weiskopf had said on Saturday evening, "Hale is about as tough a guy to catch as anybody you'd have to chase." Weiskopf tried—but too hard. He bogeyed the first two holes on Sunday and kept missing fairways and greens on his way to a five-over-par 76.
June 24, 1979
Irwin lost a shot to par through the first seven holes, but he birdied the 8th—the spruce tree hole—playing the par-5 the conventional way instead of what had come to be known as the Lon Hinkle way. Irwin bogeyed the 11th, he birdied the 12th. He went on making those tough pars, and toward the end of the round only cardiac arrest could have stopped him. Double-bogey/ bogey on 17 and 18 certainly didn't. After all, with only the two holes to play, he was five strokes up on Weiskopf and Player. Gary was already in the clubhouse, having closed with a 68, as had Jack Nicklaus. Those two rounds finally made the crowds realize the two giants had been on the grounds during the week. But Player's final round put him in at 286, two over par, and he wound up tied with Pate for second place. Nicklaus' redeeming three-under gave him a tie for ninth. He was out of this Open after the first seven holes on Friday, when he three-putted five times. Still, that was better than what befell the favorite, Tom Watson.
Watson saved his worst driving week of the year for Inverness; he seldom saw a fairway up close. With rounds of 75 and 77, he missed the 36-hole cut for the first time since March of last year. "I tried to tell everybody I was driving poorly, but nobody would listen," he said. "I want to win an Open so badly, I must be trying to guide the ball or something. I've got to rethink my Open preparation."
Irwin, of course, knew how to win an Open. He had won at Winged Foot in 1974, when he became the first bespectacled Open champion. Winged Foot is a brutal course with problems comparable to those at Inverness. Inverness' greens are much smaller than Winged Foot's—they seem smaller than most card tables—but they offered some of the same agony. They were speedy and they had swells in them. They were torturous to recover on if you missed them in regulation, or to hit into if you missed the fairway off the tee.
Irwin is a notably straight hitter who rarely misses a fairway by much, and he's a great bunker player. When he is going good, as on Saturday when he nailed Inverness with that 67, he simply does everything well. Weiskopf had shot a 67 of his own the same day, but Irwin's was more impressive because he had to look at Weiskopf just ahead and then match him.
The most special moment of the championship came during that round. Weiskopf, who has been so close so many times in major championships, was making a deadly run at this one. On the 523-yard par-5 13th, he had a chance to reach the green in two. With Irwin watching, he sailed a four-iron onto the green, and then holed an eight-foot eagle putt.
Now came Irwin with the pressure on him. Giving up would be easy, but a man who decides to straighten out his teeth with braces at the age of 34 is a determined son of a gun. He had the braces put on two weeks earlier to correct his bite and narrow some spaces. Now it was time to put the bite on Weiskopf or anyone else in contention.
"Hell, let's make a damn eagle of our own," Irwin said to his caddie as he waggled a two-iron in the 13th fairway. Then he burned a shot toward the flag. The ball sneaked onto the green and started tracking the cup. It was a shot the pros sometimes call "a movin' momma," and it was getting beamed in. The ball stopped three feet short of the cup. Irwin had covered an eagle with an eagle.
Although Irwin shot a final-round 75, an unlovely score for which he apologized profusely, he wound up at even par for the tournament after previous rounds of 74, 68 and the memorable 67, the only player to match par.
"Closing with a double bogey and a bogey is not my idea of championship golf," he said, "but when you wind up two shots better than everyone else, that's what counts.
"It was a fight. I was never in control. This is the Open and I started choking on the first tee. I found myself out there hoping bad things would happen to the rest of the guys because I couldn't sleep all night. I used up all my adrenaline on Saturday."
Irwin summed up his final round and the tortures of an Open by adding, "I must have looked like I couldn't get to the barn fast enough, and I feel like I got there just in time."
Before Irwin took charge there had been more tree jokes than heroics. Inverness was the Arbor Day Open, the 8th hole became known as Hinkle Bells. There were cracks like a Hinkle grows in Brooklyn and only Hinkle can make a tree. And all because the USGA planted a tree to the left of the 8th tee after the first round to try to prevent a handful of players, led by Lon Hinkle, from taking a shortcut.
The planting was definitely unprecedented. No tree had ever been planted on a golf course after a championship had begun, and by doing so to "protect the integrity" of the hole, the men who wear the USGA's striped ties, medals and armbands opened themselves to an unholy amount of criticism from players and press alike. The plain fact was that Hinkle had outsmarted the rules-makers. He had found an opening on the 8th tee that would allow a player to drive down the adjacent 17th fairway, and from there hit a difficult, but not impossible, shot to the 8th green. This shortened the 528-yard par-5 hole by about 75 yards. On the first day, Hinkle drove with a one-iron, played a two-iron approach and got a two-putt birdie. His discovery filtered back into the field behind him. Eight players, in all, tried the shortcut, and six of them made birdies, but it was Hinkle's that really distressed the USGA. His 70 gave him a tie with four other players for the first-round lead.
At 5:40 a.m. on Friday, a scraggly, 25-foot Black Hills spruce was planted in Hinkle's Gap. It looked like a Christmas tree you wouldn't buy, and it turned out to be too small to discourage the short-cutters. Hinkle announced in the locker room before teeing off on Friday that he was going around it or over it.
When Hinkle and Chi Chi Rodriguez, in the same threesome, reached the 7th green, they looked at the tree before lining up their putts, and they started laughing. On the 8th tee, Hinkle glanced over at George Burns and John Schroeder, who were on the 17th tee, and waved an arm in their direction, as if saying, "Here I come again, fellows." Chi Chi teed up his ball on a pencil, six inches high, and went over the top. Hinkle cut a low driver around to the left of the spruce after first having gallery ropes, stakes and spectators removed from his line of fire.
Walking toward his ball in the 17th fairway, Hinkle said to Burns and Schroeder, "Hope I'm not bothering anybody," and everyone had a big laugh. Hinkle then hit a seven-iron over some more trees toward the 8th green. A six-iron would have been perfect. Hinkle's shot fell short, into a bunker. Still he got up and down for another birdie.
The USGA wouldn't have had to plant a tree had it merely moved the tee markers forward, as it did on Saturday. This still didn't prevent Hinkle from attempting the shortcut again, this time by driving around the right side of the spruce. It was too good a joke to let die.
Hinkle didn't get a birdie on Saturday, however. His gambling tee shot found the deep rough, his iron shot struck an unfamous tree and he had to settle for a par. On Sunday the USGA moved the tee markers yet again, but Hinkle tried the gamble once more, having nothing better to do; he was out of contention. He drove into the rough, hit some more unfamous trees and made a bogey.
Later he said, "That tree took me out of the tournament, I think. There I was tied for the lead after the first day, but there was so much talk about it, I was thinking more about outfoxing the tree than trying to play golf."
Besides the affair of the tree, the USGA suffered some embarrassment at the hands of golfers who were not in the Open but did peculiar things on the course. On Wednesday an impostor named Barry Bremen played nine holes of practice with Wayne Levi and Kip Byrne, and then had his photograph taken on the practice tee with Nicklaus. In February, Bremen had gained fleeting notoriety by getting hold of an old Kansas City Kings warmup suit and participating briefly in the halftime shooting drills during the NBA All-Star game before he was discovered.
On Sunday morning the USGA had to make a citizen's arrest of Bob Clampett, a fine amateur, for conduct considered "demeaning" to the championship. Clampett, who had missed the cut, was sent out as a "marker," a non-contesting companion for pro David Edwards, who otherwise would have been playing alone. Clampett looks a little like Harpo Marx, so maybe that explains what he did. He drove off the 1st tee on his knees. He drove off the 10th tee on his knees. He frequently putted between his legs, putted with a sand wedge and did a number of Chi Chi-type comedy routines. He was finally escorted off the course at the 12th hole by Jim Hand, chairman of the USGA's championship committee, and P. J. Boatwright, executive director of the USGA.
"I'll have the last laugh," Clampett said. "I'll turn pro."
That Hale Irwin started winning the championship on Saturday pleased everyone who may have been wondering who Purtzer and Larry Nelson, the 36-hole co-leaders, were. Well they are fine players, and Purtzer has one of the best and freest swings in golf, but they are two of the quietest players on the tour. Somebody told Sandy Tatum, the president of the USGA, that instead of planting a tree, if he really wanted to do something to help this Open along he should plant a ventriloquist near Purtzer and Nelson in case either of them won.
As it turned out, the spruce got Purtzer, too. This was on Sunday when he, of all people, tried to take the 8th-hole shortcut while seriously in pursuit of Irwin. He wound up with a double bogey.
Storied old Inverness more than held its own. Irwin's limping double bogey/ bogey on the last two holes wasn't the most historic or stylish of finishes for a man winning one of the grandest of titles, but it was plenty good enough among the Toledo wounded. And it made one wonder whether all Harry Vardon needed back there in 1920, when he lost a five-stroke lead in the last seven holes, was braces on his teeth.