Luckily, there was one American who could play this game. In this strangest of U.S. Open golf championships, one of big hits and little misses, one which forever will be remembered for the Blunder on the Orient Express, Andy North, a Big Ten assistant football coach, a man once so far over the hill that most people figured he would need a map to come back, a player whose last victory had been in the 1978 U.S. Open, stood in a bunker on the 17th hole Sunday contemplating the shot that could win him the '85 championship.
It had been a horrible day for North. Starting two strokes behind leader T.C. Chen, he had scattered shots all over the Oakland Hills Country Club in Birmingham, Mich. He had missed all but three fairways and been in eight bunkers, and were it not for the uncharacteristically sparse rough, he might not have been on the leader board. But miraculously, after the collapse of almost everyone else, including the remarkable Chen, North was leading by a stroke. Later, asked to sum up his round, he would say, "Guts."
Now, North was marooned in the bunker facing an explosion of perhaps 20 yards to a cup that he couldn't see. His feet were above the ball and the pin was cut about 12 feet from the edge of the green, a setup for disaster. North blasted away. Instantly, he knew the shot was perfect. He started out of the bunker as the ball dropped near the edge of the green and then bounced forward and skidded to within inches of the cup. North knew the ball was close, and he clenched his fists in triumph.
That gesture was straight from the football sidelines. So deep is North's affection for his native state and the University of Wisconsin, that he spends each fall as a volunteer coach with the Badgers, working with the offense. And so after winning luxuriously with a final-hole bogey, with no goal posts to tear down, North settled for the flag from the pin at the 18th hole and stuffed it into his pocket for a souvenir.
June 23, 1985
This 85th Open was a tournament with the pacing of a good book: a fantastic beginning, some remarkable action in the middle and a trick ending. North had rounds of 70-65-70-74—279, one under par, to take the title and $103,000 by a shot over three foreigners: Chen of Taiwan, Denis Watson of South Africa and Dave Barr of Canada.
The number two appeared throughout the Open script: a double eagle, a two-stroke penalty, a double hit, North's second Open victory, and the two-days-and-out showing of some of the biggest names in the game.
It was on Thursday that the improbable Chen, playing the Open for the first time, made history and introduced himself by sinking a three-wood shot for a double-eagle 2 on the 2nd hole. That began a run in which Chen would delight almost everyone with his charming naiveté and his remarkable candor—"I lucky," he kept saying. He owned the tournament for three rounds and 4½ holes, until, with a four-stroke lead in his pocket, he made an eight, flubbing a pitch and double-hitting a chip shot on the 5th hole Sunday. Just that quickly, Chen was off on an odyssey of disaster, three-putting, shanking, visiting trees and bunkers.
It was his second shot on the fifth hole, a 457-yard par-4, that started Chen's undoing. At that point he led North by four strokes. Instead of playing safely at the fat of the green, Chen, a gambling man who won $5,000 at blackjack in one session in Las Vegas this year, aimed a four-iron at the pin, which was tucked behind a bunker on the right. There is a fine line between being bold and being foolish at a major championship—just ask Curtis Strange, who blew this year's Masters with a four-wood into the water at the 13th hole and a four-iron into the water at 15. Chen's shot sailed to the right. He was short out of the rough with his next pitch, then tried to cut a sand wedge onto the green. The club hit behind its target, then accelerated, catching the ball twice. It was like pinball.
With everyone counting on his fingers, Chen—for the first time in the tournament he wasn't smiling—then chipped eight feet past the cup. He missed that putt. Eight. The Open was open.
Shaken, Chen bogeyed the next three holes and eventually finished with a 77. He three-putted the 17th hole, but just missed a last-gasp bunker shot on the final hole that nestled within inches of the cup. Later, he said of his longest day, "I just play pitiful golf. But second not bad for U.S. Open, and I make lot of friends." Who wouldn't pull for a 145-pound former caddie with a hitch in his backswing, the son of a greenskeeper, who didn't take up the game until he was 17? He wears a hat endorsing a Japanese company that makes automotive glue. Chen claims he is only the third-best player in Taiwan after his brother Tze-Ming Chen and "Mr. Lu"—Lu Liang Huan, who finished second to Lee Trevino in the 1971 British Open. If this is the case, the USGA ought to consider holding local qualifying in Taipei next year.
For the likes of Tom Watson (75-72—147), Lee Trevino (76-72—148), Jack Nicklaus (76-73—149), Bernhard Langer (74-76—150), Ben Crenshaw (78-72—150) and Craig Stadler (70-80—150), this was a two-day tournament. They all missed the 36-hole cut of 146, six over par, leaving the headlines to such obscure players as Chen and Barr, who had started the year by failing to earn a nickel in his first six events. For a brief spell on the back nine Sunday Barr held a two-stroke lead, but he must have realized this wasn't the Quad Cities Open, and from then on his whippy backswing looked like a slicing machine gone mad. He staggered in, bogeying the final two holes and failing to hit five of the last six greens. "The monster bit back today," said Barr, referring to Oakland Hills' nickname.
He wasn't the only one suddenly given new life by Chen's collapse. Payne Stewart was two under par after 12 holes, just one stroke off North's pace, but he bogeyed the 13th, 14th and 18th. British Open champion Seve Ballesteros played a spotty round of 71 and tied Stewart and Lanny Wadkins (70) for fifth place, only two shots off the lead. A lot of people had trouble sleeping Sunday night.
One of those probably was Denis Watson. In the first round the South African was given a two-shot penalty for dawdling over a ball resting on the edge of the cup of the 8th hole. It was imposed by one M.T Johnson, a USGA official and Amarillo cattleman who wears an eye patch. Johnson came running up as Watson left the green, like a cop handing out a traffic ticket, and called two strokes after Watson had let his ball hover on the edge of the cup for the 35 seconds it took to drop in. A player has only 10 seconds before he must tap in such a putt. Those two strokes gave Watson a double-bogey 6, not a par 4, and cost him dearly; remember, he finished just a stroke behind North. But he wasn't bitter. "I put the penalty out of my mind on Thursday," he said.
North, going for his second Open victory, was fighting not only the course but also his reputation for being a fluke champion the first time around. "Who says it's a fluke?" North bristled Saturday afternoon when a reporter quizzed him about his 1978 Open win, one of his two previous victories. After a 1983 operation for a bone spur in his right elbow, North won only $22,131 last year. He had missed the cut in three of his last four tournaments leading up to Oakland Hills.
You wouldn't have known it Sunday, but it was North's driving that keyed his win. He was putting well, too. Hunched over and gripping way down on the shaft of his club, a cramped style that developed from the putting miseries he had as a kid, North seemed able to figure the treacherous putting surfaces, part of the reason he suffered only three bogeys in the first 54 holes. He holed almost everything from six feet in and made a couple of long ones, including a transoceanic 60-footer that hydroplaned across the 16th green on Saturday rainy Saturday, an afternoon that might have been the wettest in Open history. It rained steadily through the round, and North gave up on his rain jacket. "I knew I was going to get wet," he said. With a towel draped over his shoulders, he looked like a sodden refugee from a Midwestern flood, but he hung tough, finishing within two strokes of Chen. Guts.
At the start of the tournament, Tom Watson predicted scores in the 80s and 90s. Then along came Chen. He was a late starter Thursday, and after a par on the 1st hole and a nice drive at the 2nd, he was 235 yards from the green. The pin was another 21 yards back. Chen took out his MacGregor three-wood and swung, and the ball, a Wilson Staff Tour 432, headed toward history. The shot hit the front of the green, rolled gently up to the cup and dropped. "There were only a couple of fans standing there, and they didn't even clap because they were holding beers," said Ralph Landrum, Chen's playing partner.
Chen played the rest of the day like Lee Mackey, another first-round Open wonder who shot 64 in 1950. (Mackey had 81 the next day.) Chen birdied the 3rd hole, hitting a three-iron to four feet, and notched four more birds, against three bogeys, for his 31-34—65.
No one thought Chen, a three-time winner in Asia but a non-winner in the States, could hold up the next day, much less the rest of the tournament. Chen was still in front after two rounds, but Jay Haas with a 66 and North with a 65 proved that Oakland Hills' wimpy rough and soft greens had made the course vulnerable. Twenty-four players broke par on Friday. Two years ago at Oakmont, the penalty for driving into the rough figured out to .85 of a stroke. At Oakland Hills, the figure was .43 on Thursday and .40 Friday, and it would drop to .38 Saturday and .31 Sunday.
On Saturday, in the locker room before his round, Chen sounded less than positive. "This is major tournament," he said. "I never think to win tournament. If I would win, I would say lucky." Then he went out and played an almost perfect round in the monsoon, hitting 14 greens, shooting a 69 with three birdies and two bogeys. His only mistake came at the 17th hole, where he blasted from a bunker, then missed a two-foot putt because he was distracted by rain dripping off his cap. Said Chen, "Today I hit it ball pretty good. I will try to do my best, uh-huh."
Came Sunday, and the uh-huh turned to oh-no. Chen gambled once too often with the treachery of Oakland Hills, and it was the inscrutable A.S. North who had the patience to win.