Long before Miller Barber got out of his golf cart to take a triumphant walk to the 72nd green of the U.S. Senior Open at the Edgewood Tahoe Golf Course Sunday, it had become ridiculously apparent why he has breezed to the championship three of the five times he has entered: This guy is not a senior golfer. Oh sure, he's 54 years old, and he rides in a cart when he can. But far better than any of his venerable peers, Barber can fly bunkers with his tee shots, slash his way out of rough and hit green after green in regulation until even a tough golf course has to give. Which, of course, is usually long after other seniors have waved the white flag.
Such was the case at Edgewood, where Barber was the only man to break par with a remarkably consistent, almost restrained three-under 71-72-71-71—285 that beat Roberto De Vicenzo by four shots. "He hit it like a young fellow," said the 62-year-old De Vicenzo. "But I am not jealous. When you get over 50, you are not jealous anymore."
On Sunday, after rotating some golf balls in his fingers like a polyester Captain Queeg during the wait to tee off, Barber blasted his opening tee shot 295 yards through the thin air 6,200 feet above sea level and hit a wedge a foot from the flag for a birdie. He birdied the 2nd from 15 feet and he birdied the 540-yard 4th with a 300-yard drive followed by a 255-yard four-wood and two putts from 25 feet. Then on the 6th hole, De Vicenzo left a 40-foot birdie putt 20 feet short and three-putted from there. Barber ducked his head in embarrassment and almost apologetically left his eight-foot birdie putt on the lip. The lead was then seven strokes, and no one else had a chance.
Because of the altitude, the USGA, for the first time ever in one of its championships, allowed players the option of riding in carts. Carts are standard in PGA Senior Tour events; thus the USGA's kindness gave the Edgewood galleries a chance to see former greats who otherwise would have stayed away, like Julius Boros, 65, who has had a quintuple bypass operation, and George Bayer, 59, who has an artificial joint in his left hip. Barber, who suffers from an asthmatic condition, certainly appreciated not having to walk all of a 7,055-yard course spread over two states, Nevada and California. On Thursday, only 41 of the 150 players chose not to use carts, though many, Barber among them, walked some of the holes while their caddies drove.
The robust Arnold Palmer, 55, said, "They'll have to carry me out of here before I use a cart." Palmer, coming off an 11-shot victory in the Senior Tournament Players Championship in Cleveland, looked like a man on his way to a second Senior Open title after he shot a 72 on Thursday, helped by a bird that landed on a pine branch where his ball was lodged, causing it to fall back into the 16th fairway. Arnie's Air Force. But Palmer was gradually undone by untimely hooks and mediocre putting compounded by hard greens, heavy rough and 35-mph gusts that raised whitecaps on Lake Tahoe.
Peter Thomson, the Senior Tour's leading money-earner and winner of five events this year, was most critical of the course. He called the greens "unreceptive"—this from a man who won five British Opens with his mastery of run-up irons to decidedly unreceptive, windswept greens. But Thomson also knew that the difficult conditions eliminated most of the field from contention. Even after a second-round 77 that left him six shots behind the unlikely early leader, Walter Zembriski, Thomson told reporters, "I should think you would want to talk to me. There are only five players who can win this, and I am one of them."
Give or take a player or two, Thomson was dead right. It is both the charm and weakness of the Senior Open that there is such a wide discrepancy in skill between the best and worst players. While Zembriski's 141 set a record for the first two rounds, the cut at 158 was the highest ever. Eight rounds of 90 or worse were recorded, and one pro, Francis Deschaine, shot 93-78 while carrying in his bag the universal symbol of hackerdom, a ball retriever.
Yet from the ranks of the unknown sprang Zembriski, a wiry, 5'7", 155-pound bundle of nervous tics and guts. A former ironworker from Mahwah, N.J., Zembriski has spent the last 10 years on the Florida mini-tours. He won 10 events in that time, his biggest payday being $5,000. Last May he turned 50, and he quickly qualified for this Open, his first senior event. After his 73 on Friday, his 73-year-old father, Stan, called from New Jersey and asked, "What are you trying to do, win the tournament?" Alas, he wound up doing what all Walter Zembriskis do—shooting 78 Saturday and 75 Sunday to finish tied for fourth.
Meanwhile, Barber was killing the field softly with pars. As if to alleviate the monotony, there were occasional blasts, like the 345-yard drive on the downhill par-5 16th on Saturday that set up a birdie. "Best drive of my life," he said.
Before he became a senior, Barber's greatest disappointment was blowing a fourth-round lead to finish sixth in the 1969 U.S. Open at the Champions Club in Houston. "I guess I just didn't have the experience to handle it," he said then. But he won at Edgewood the same way he had won Senior Open titles at Portland, Ore. in 1982 and Rochester, N.Y. in 1984. "I've learned that if you beat the golf course, you'll beat the field," said Barber. "Who knows? Maybe next year I can beat Shinnecock Hills." That's the site of the 1986 "Junior" U.S. Open.