There are golf strokes that you lose. And there are golf strokes
that are stolen.
The latter must have been on the mind of Ernie Els last Friday
when he found his golf ball embedded in a cave with a sand floor
and a sod roof. Specifically, the unfaithful pellet was lodged
under the lip of a greenside bunker on the 12th hole at Oakland
Hills Country Club, a venue notorious for such betrayals. To say
the ball was plugged would not do justice to a lie that looked
as if it had been achieved by industrious rodents using a
technology of the Pharaohs. All the 1994 U.S. Open champion
could do was dislodge the ball with a cricket swing and let it
roll back to his feet. "He will lose the tournament by one
stroke," predicted a longtime student of the golf course known
as the Monster. "That stroke."
O.K., the prediction was a bit off. But the prognosticator had
the right idea. What history shows, and the players know, is
that Oakland Hills is not about monsters, it's about gremlins.
Oakland Hills is where Sam Snead's run of U.S. Open frustration
began. It's the bad-luck bastion where a nicely saved par-4
cost one player a major championship and a restless tree denied
glory to another. At Oakland Hills victory charges are foiled by
shutterbugs, portable johns and other misfortunes not covered in
a standard insurance rider. "Luck plays a huge part in what
happens here," Brad Bryant said last Saturday after playing the
par-4 18th with a magnificent drive, a sterling five-iron, a
splendid sand shot, an exquisite four-foot putt, a disbelieving
examination of the green and a tap-in for bogey. "If it were my
golf course, I'd eliminate 80 percent of the traps and lower the
rough a little."
June 23, 1996
Since bad luck comes in two flavors--immediate and
lasting--historians may quarrel over the reach of the Oakland
Hills whammy. Some think it a stretch, for instance, to blame
the golf course for the sad demise of Cyril Walker, who won the
first major championship played there, the 1924 U.S. Open.
Walker subsequently lost all his money in a Florida land scam,
turned to caddying and died a pauper. It's undeniable, though,
that the great Snead first wound his bad-luck clock at Oakland
Hills. At the 1937 Open, Snead shot a final-round 71 and was in
the clubhouse the apparent winner until Ralph Guldahl stormed in
with a 69 and a then tournament-record 281 to win by two
strokes. Snead would spend the rest of his career trying to win
the one major championship that would elude his grasp.
More typically, Oakland Hills grief comes and goes quickly, like
a stab of pain. Many remember Gary Player's winning the 1972 PGA
Championship there with a heroic nine-iron over trees and water
on the 16th hole. Few remember that he had missed a 15-inch putt
on 15, allegedly because someone slammed the door on a portable
outhouse while he was putting. At the 1961 U.S. Open, Mike
Souchak birdied three of the first four holes in the final round
to take the lead. On the 5th, after flying the green with his
approach, he settled over his delicate pitch, only to muff the
shot when a camera clicked during his swing. His concentration
broken, the angry Souchak made double bogey and finished with a
73, three shots back of winner Gene Littler.
The most memorable microburst of bad luck, of course, involved
T.C. Chen, the former sailor in the Taiwanese Navy who should
have won the 1985 U.S. Open. Chen led Andy North by four after
four holes of the final round, but then a pushed four-iron
approach on the par-4 5th left him in deep grass, 30 yards to
the right of the green. Chen's first pitch fell short. His
second made history. Chopping down with a wedge, Chen somehow
popped the ball into the flight path of his follow-through,
where he struck it again in midair. In an instant the horrified
leader had acquired a nickname--Two Chip--and probably a
neurosis, as well. Chen made 8 on the 5th, bogeyed the next
three holes and finished a stroke behind winner North and an
eyelash from being immortalized as the first Asian to win a major.
A fluke? Try telling that to Jack Nicklaus, who swears that a
malicious elm tree robbed him of victory at the 1961 Open. "I
remember it like it was yesterday," he says. Trailing leader
Littler by two shots in the final round, the 21-year-old
Nicklaus, then an amateur, tried to smack his second shot, a
three-wood, onto the green of the par-5 12th when--well, let
Nicklaus tell it--"I nailed it, right at the pin...and suddenly
I saw hats blowing in the air and paper going up and this little
whirlwind came through and hit this little elm tree...."
And, yes, a branch whipped out and swatted his ball to the
ground. Nicklaus didn't bogey but birdied the hole. "Then I
bogeyed 17 and lost by three shots," he says. "But I remember
Oakland Hills for that."
Denis Watson, the pro from South Africa, is another who dreams
of what might have been at Oakland Hills. In the opening round
of the '85 Open, Watson thought he saved par on the par-4 8th,
but his ball hung on the lip, defying gravity. Hoping to catch
the attention of the golf gods, Watson stood near the
hole--forgetting Rule 16-1H, which gave him only 10 seconds to
wait for the putt to drop. After some 35 seconds the ball
Enter Montford T. Johnson of Amarillo, Texas, a rules official
noted for his black eye patch and stern demeanor. Johnson
informed Watson that his 4 was actually a 6, thanks to the
two-stroke penalty he had just imposed. "It is the rule," a
surprisingly placid Watson said after shooting 72. "But I think
the people setting the rules get a little carried away
sometimes." Watson went on to join Two Chip Chen and Dave Barr
at 280--a stroke behind North.
Even winners have left Oakland Hills with smiles somewhat
strained. In 1979 David Graham came to the 72nd hole of the PGA
Championship needing a par to break the single-round and
tournament scoring records, which together would have earned him
a $100,000 bonus from Golf magazine. Graham made double bogey,
blew his chance at the loot, and had to endure three holes of
sudden death to wrestle the title from Ben Crenshaw.
Then there was the strange case of George Archer at the 1964
Carling World Open. Showing up for the first round without his
credentials, Archer was turned away and wandered helplessly
outside the club gates until he was recognized by a Michigan
state trooper. His mishap, at least, didn't prove costly.
Archer, with no warmup, shot a course-record 65 and took the
first-round lead, though he eventually faded to the middle of
It is important to note that none of these calamities, with the
exception of Graham's failure on the difficult 18th, could be
blamed on the course or the player. Freak winds, noisy cameras,
and Texans who look like Long John Silver fall under the
category of "outside agencies," which is why John Daly was wrong
on Thursday when he said it was "bad luck" that Tiger Woods's
fourth shot at the 16th hole found water after landing pin high,
eight feet to the left of the hole. It was Woods, after all, who
imparted so much backspin to his ball that it raced for the pond
like a scared duckling. Neither could Greg Norman plead
misfortune when a photographer disrupted his play on Friday--the
lensman was shooting for Cobra Golf; that is, for Norman
himself, who endorses Cobra clubs.
No, Thursday's genuine victim was Peter Teravainen, the Yale
graduate, Singapore resident and European tour veteran. Playing
in his first U.S. Open, at age 40, Teravainen was on the leader
board at one under par when he hit his tee shot at the par-3
13th into the back right bunker. Walking off the tee, he
encountered a rules official who informed Teravainen's threesome
that they were "on the clock"--i.e., being timed. Teravainen, a
fast player, could not hide his exasperation. "We were waiting,"
he said later. "Nobody was waiting on us."
As it turned out, Teravainen's delicate bunker shot needed some
study. Conscious of the clock, he splashed out short of the
putting surface and took three more to get down--the first of
three double bogeys the rattled expatriate made on the way in.
"They want you to go fast so the big boys can take their time,"
he said afterward, no doubt reflecting on the many times he has
played caboose to Bernhard Langer and other slowpoke stars. With
his 75-79, Teravainen wound up missing the cut.
Another European tour veteran, 35-year-old Wayne Westner of
South Africa, paid tribute to Chen and Oakland Hills by
reenacting the double chip. Westner's misplay came on the 17th
hole in the third round, and though he was not leading at the
time, his pitch from greenside rough was in all other ways the
"Chenuine" article. "It happens," said Westner, who signed for a
lopsided 32-42-74. "I'm not the first."
Neither of those mishaps proved decisive, but on Sunday the
resident gremlins went after a contender. Davis Love III was
tied for the lead when some sort of machine--he thinks it was a
TV crane--created a sudden racket just as he swung his five-iron
at the 17th tee. It led to a bogey. Another stroke vanished on
the 18th when a swarm of flies bothered Love as he stood over a
four-foot putt for par that, had he made it, would have put Love
in an 18-hole playoff. Love, however, refused to blame his loss
on the distractions. "I've got no excuses," he said.
This was probably a comfort to the USGA, whose officials are
sensitive to the charge that U.S. Open courses are wheels of
fortune, granting victory as often to the lucky as to the best.
"Luck is always a factor," says former USGA president Grant
Spaeth, "but 72 holes is an extraordinary number of holes.
Things tend to even out."
But maybe this year's Open was like Snead's in '37, a turning
point for a player--perhaps Els--who won't realize for years that
the pins at Oakland Hills were like pins in a voodoo doll.
But that's the legacy of Oakland Hills: heartaches by the
number, troubles by the score. And pencils with no erasers.