Maybe Fuzzy Zoeller plays golf the way everybody should. Hit it, go find it, hit it again. Grin, have a smoke, take a sip, make a joke and every so often win a major championship. That's how Fuzzy went about things in the 84th U.S. Open on the contrary and confining layout of old-fashioned Winged Foot in the New York City suburb of Mamaroneck. Most often, Zoeller laughed his way out of trouble, and when he wasn't doing that, he putted his way out. "It's only my career, folks," Zoeller would say to the gallery on finding himself in the trees or in the rough or in a bunker. The popular Zoeller started winning the Open on Sunday when his putter and his raucous followers turned Hale Irwin, the three-day leader, into a more nearsighted fellow than he is. However, the Great White Shark, Greg Norman, played the last three holes by way of his native Australia but somehow made three pars at Winged Foot in New York and forced the 18-hole playoff. It was expected to be a stirring contest between two of the longest-hitting gorillas in the sport, but it was more or less over after the second hole. That was where Zoeller took a three-stroke lead with a 68-foot birdie putt while Norman three-putted from 25 feet for a double bogey. After that, Fuzzy never looked back, except to see if the Shark was still tied to the boat.
Fuzzy began the playoff with a joke on the first tee, by taking a telephone out of his golf bag and handing it to Norman. "I don't have any snakes, but I do have a phone," he said. "Would you like to make a last call?" Norman, a good-natured fellow himself, played along. The reference to snakes, of course, had to do with the rubber reptile Lee Trevino had thrown at Jack Nicklaus before their Open playoff at Merion in 1971, after which Lee went out and beat Jack by three shots. On Monday, Zoeller defeated Norman by a record eight strokes, 67 to 75, his 67 merely representing the lowest round ever fired in an Open playoff. Every now and then, the Open rewards humor.
It quickly became obvious that the 29-year-old Norman had used up all of his miracles on Sunday. In the playoff, he three-putted three of the first five greens, and at the turn Zoeller held a five-stroke lead with a one-under 34 to Norman's four-over 39. Zoeller then birdied the 12th and 14th holes to remove whatever doubt remained.
Later, as Norman stood on the 18th tee, trailing by eight strokes, he said to Zoeller, "Double or nothing?"
June 24, 1984
Said Fuzzy, "Only if you promise to hit your second shot where you did yesterday."
On Sunday Norman had hit his six-iron approach into the bleachers, but later holed a memorable 40-foot putt from the fringe of the green to force the playoff. Now, after his approach to 18, Zoeller faced almost the same putt, meaningless as it was. He could have nine-putted and still won. He looked at Norman for the line, and Norman pointed to a brown patch that he had used as a reference point on Sunday.
Fuzzy's ball didn't come near the cup, didn't take the five-foot break that Norman's had.
"You'd never make a caddie out here," Fuzzy said with a grin.
What to make of Frank Urban Zoeller Jr. now? He has added a U.S. Open to the Masters he won in a sudden-death playoff over Ed Sneed and Tom Watson in 1979. That's two majors in two playoffs for the 32-year-old quipster out of New Albany, Ind., a guy who swears he doesn't take the game all that seriously, who is plagued with a back ailment dating from childhood that restricts his practice, who likes wine and cigarettes and entertaining the crowds. "Those people make my living," he says of the paying spectators. What other player on the tour would pause in the early going of a U.S. Open playoff to walk across a green and shake hands with a sportswriter, to kiss a lady in the gallery, to chat with a drunk?
The tour needs more people like Fuzzy Zoeller, who has taken the torch from Lee Trevino, who took it from Jimmy Demaret, who took it from Walter Hagen. Men of levity. Small wonder the New York crowds embraced Fuzzy from the start. They adopted the only guy who wasn't out there brooding and complaining, and his victory was their reward. It just took an extra day because a shark went momentarily berserk.
It had been nine years since the Open had ended with a playoff, and no sane person could have foreseen a tie as Sunday's round unfolded. The front nine belonged exclusively to Zoeller, who, between cigarettes, rolled in four straight birdie putts on the 3rd, 4th, 5th and 6th holes of 20, 20, 15 and eight feet respectively. Zoeller's birdies gave him a four-stroke lead and were knockout blows to Irwin, the two-time Open winner who had shared the first-round lead and held it alone after 36 and 54 holes before his desultory 79 on Sunday.
Winged Foot itself measured up beautifully, despite the fact that the USGA definitely set it up to play more easily than it had in the '74 Open, when only seven subpar rounds were registered (compared with 30 this time), and Irwin survived the slick greens and brutal rough to win with a seven-over-par total of 287. The four-under 276s posted by Zoeller and Norman were a whopping 11 shots better—and all because the greens were slower, the fairways wider and the rough shorter.
As is often the case, the first round found strangers asserting themselves. Irwin's 68 on Thursday was matched by Jim Thorpe, Hubert Green and an unknown named Mike Donald. One David Canipe—"as in wipe," he said—shot a 69 and added another 69 on Friday. Green and Donald would go away, while Canipe would add his own memorable line of scores to Open history: 69-69-81-83. Thorpe stayed in there all the way, finishing tied for fourth with a 282.
Zoeller had opened with a 71, but on Friday he punched out Winged Foot with a four-under 66, the lowest Open round ever played there. He began Saturday one stroke behind Irwin, and his 69 left him the same stroke behind Hale after a grueling battle. While everyone anticipated a Zoeller-Irwin fight to the finish, Norman wasn't attracting too much attention. He had shot 70-68-69, so at 207 he was two strokes behind Irwin and one behind Zoeller. Norman had won his first U.S. tournament two weeks earlier, when he drowned a weak field at the Kemper.
There was absolutely no reason to suspect that Norman could wrench miracles out of Winged Foot's three closing holes for the 69 Sunday that tied him with Zoeller and forced the overtime.
As they reached the turn Zoeller had what appeared to be a solid three-stroke lead over Norman. But Fuzzy proceeded to go three-over on the back nine by failing to get up and down out of two bunkers (at the 10th and 17th) and hitting a big hook off the 14th tee, followed by a layup shot and ultimately another bogey. Norman covered the back side in even-par 35, primarily because he one-putted four of the last five holes, the last three for pars. What he did to get 'em defies description, defies logic, defies sanity.
He was playing just ahead of Zoeller, and you have to understand that Winged Foot's closing holes, all par-fours, averaging nearly 450 yards, are often referred to as "the whole golf course." They are surely among the most demanding finishing holes in golf. The last way you want to play them is the way Norman did, which was like Harpo Marx.
At the 16th, on his second shot, Norman hit a looping hook four-iron that put him in deep, ragged USGA rough next to a bunker by the green. You don't get it down in two from there. You make a double bogey. Norman gouged the ball out somehow, it dribbled onto the putting surface, and he sank a seven-footer to save his par.
On the 17th, Norman practically shanked his drive, the worst drive he hit all day. The ball came to rest almost against a tree, between roots and buried in high grass, and all Norman could do was pitch out into the fairway. He was still 163 yards away, needing to get down in two for a par. So he hit a marvelous six-iron that swallowed the flag and left him with a 10-footer for par. He made it.
Norman drove onto the 18th fairway, but then that same six-iron deserted him. He hit a half-shank that flew into the grandstand to the right of the green. A spectator actually caught the ball on the fly, to cheers from the gallery. "I envisioned the ball going about four feet from the cup," Norman said, "but when I started the club back, my adrenalin rushed." Norman got a free drop in front of the bleachers, but the ball settled into a bad lie in deep rough and he couldn't get his pitching club underneath it. The ball scooted clear across the green and onto the fringe. Now he had a downhill 40-footer for a par. Norman stroked the putt, and it slowly crept into the cup.
Back down the fairway, Zoeller was watching, and when the putt went in, Fuzzy waved a towel—a white flag. He was surrendering, in his amusing way. Greg returned the gesture with upraised arms and a smile. What no one knew was that Zoeller thought Norman had birdied the hole. Moments later, he knew differently. And it was with a certain amount of relief that Zoeller hit onto the green and two-putted from 20 feet for the par that sent them into the playoff.
Earlier in the week, Fuzzy had said, "I don't think of myself as a celebrity or a superstar. I'm just an ordinary guy who makes his living in a crazy way."
Nothing was crazier than the way Norman turned those three double bogeys into pars, pars that added to the lore of both Winged Foot and our grandest golfing championship, and set up the gorilla-off.