I am writing to see how you are and tell you everybody misses
you and how strange things have gotten in golf these days, and
to ask if you could make some calls or glare at somebody, and
maybe some things might straighten out.
Take last week's U.S. Open. They held it at Oakland Hills
Country Club in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., where you won in 1951
with a 67 on Sunday, and remember afterward you said, "I'm glad
I brought this monster to its knees." Nothing much exciting
happened in between then and last week except they last saw
Jimmy Hoffa right near the gates of the club in 1975 and maybe
that day somebody said, "I'm glad I brought this mobster to his
knees." But that's not why I am writing to you.
I am writing to you about this Steve Jones, a nice guy who is
about as square as a pan of corn bread. He won the Open by
shooting two-under 278 (74-66-69-69), one shot better than Tom
Lehman and Davis Love III. What has happened to golf when the
Open champ grips the club completely wrong? Seriously, he grips
it like Marilyn Monroe used to grip a microphone, which is by
putting the index finger of his left hand on top of his right
hand, which is the opposite of what it says in all the books you
ever wrote. He calls it his "reverse overlap Vardon Jones grip"
and laughs about it. He grips it this way because he blew out
his left hand in a dirt-bike accident in 1991 and couldn't play
golf for almost three years, and the doctors weren't sure he was
ever going to play again. In fact he wasn't too sure either, and
maybe that's why he kind of gave up a few years ago and started
selling some waterless car-wash gizmo.
Now, using this ugly grip, he's the Open champ, which is one
helluva long way back from lying unconscious under a dirt bike,
though it's nothing like the bus accident you went through, sir.
June 23, 1996
And that's not all. This Jones was battling this Lehman fella
down the stretch, and it's real warp and woof, with Jones mostly
one shot ahead of Lehman, and about the 16th hole, Jones is just
as nervous as a priest with a Sunday tee time, and guess who
talks him off the ledge? Lehman!
Yes, sir. Lehman lays a little Joshua 1:9 on him. They're
walking down the fairway, supposedly trying to beat each other's
brains in, and Lehman says to Jones: "God wants us to be strong
and courageous," real nice-like. "That's God's law." And Jones
looks at him and says, "Right. Amen." This calms Jones down
enough that he is able to beat Lehman and Love by that one shot.
Now, my question is, You never said anything like that to Snead
or Demaret or Nelson, did you? I mean, I can't see you saying
anything at all. Remember when you won in '51, and Clayton
Heafner, who was second by two shots, shook your hand afterward
and said, "Congratulations, Ben," and you replied, "Thank you.
How did you do?"
I mean, the only Scripture I could see you giving a guy during
the middle of the last round of the Open would be something like
"Turn thy other cheek so I might smite that also." Something out
of the Book of Persimmon. Am I right?
Anyway, I think this Jones would listen to you because he
really respects you and, in fact, you actually won this thing
for him, which is pretty good for a man who is, what, 83 now?
What happened was, Jones had to go through Open qualifying like
thousands of other hacks--and had to survive a playoff to get
in, at that--and somebody sent him a new book about you called,
well, Hogan, and he said it pretty much changed his life. Jones
said reading it showed him how little he practiced compared with
you. So he went out and practiced till his blisters blistered,
the way you used to. He also said the book showed him that he
needed to focus completely on each shot the way you used to. He
even said, "I don't think I would've won the Open without
reading that book."
That's another reason I'm writing you, on account of it seemed
like you were everywhere this week. Your picture was all over
the place from your win in 1951, including on a plaque on this
rock behind the 1st tee with plaques of the winners of the other
majors that Oakland Hills has hosted. Then there was a rumor
that you were in town until the guy spreading it said, "Hell,
yeah, he was in a wheelchair, and I met his son too!" That, of
course, would've been a nice trick since you've got no kids.
But if you were here, I'm not sure you would have recognized the
place. The USGA has this funny habit of taking classic Donald
Ross courses like this, courses with roller-coaster greens that
were meant to be putted on at nothing more than, say, a 5 on the
stimpmeter and turning them into 10 and 11, which makes things
kind of preposterous. Oakland Hills became home of the 15-foot
putt with a 20-foot break.
To make things even gorier, the USGA took two holes--the 8th and
the 18th--that look like par-5s, are built like par-5s and are
par-5s, and made them par-4s, so that the landing areas made no
sense and guys were hitting three-woods into greens that were
built to handle wedge shots. I mean, if you're gonna admire the
Mona Lisa, admire it, don't redo the eyes and change the
shadowing and try a new frame. Right?
If you want to know the truth, Mr. Hogan, the Open has become
more the trophy of attrition than a championship. What they do
is peel away players one by one until there's one guy left, sort
of huddled and shivering, and they give him the trophy and call
it a week. Jones is the fifth consecutive Open champion who
never won a major before--Tom Kite in 1992, Lee Janzen in 1993,
Ernie Els in 1994, Corey Pavin in 1995--and none of them has won
a major since. If this is what the guys at the USGA are after,
then I guess they're doing things just right.
"Hell, I'm not even hittin' balls this week," is what John Daly
said one day. "How you gonna work on luck?"
The leader boards sort of told you what he meant. Each day it
looked as if somebody had brought in fresh ones from another
tournament. Thursday was Woody Austin and Payne Stewart Day.
Friday was Greg Norman Day. Saturday had Lehman in the lead,
Jones one back and a guy named John Morse two back. You get the
feeling they could've played this thing for 10 days and had 10
different names at or near the top of the leader board.
Anyway, this Sunday pairing of Lehman and Jones was nothing like
you would remember from the good ol' days. First, Jones was
weak-kneed and white-knuckled. "When they call my name on the
1st tee," he said on Sunday morning, "I think I'm going to throw
up." Then, first thing both he and Lehman do is up and introduce
themselves to Chip, the standard-bearer boy. You introduce
yourself to many standard-bearers over the years, Mr. Hogan?
Mostly, that was the Open: Chip and these two Simon the Likables
at the center of the golf world, though Love crowbarred into the
picture, tying for the lead with a birdie at the 15th, but then
bogeying the last two, including the 18th when he gagged a
tiddler that would've tied him with Jones. But I'm sure he
doesn't want to hear about three-putting from 20 feet on the
72nd hole of a major when he was tied for the lead.
This Jones, who is a big, smiling, cocky 37-year-old-going-on-18
kind of a guy, got rolling with birdies at 9 and 10 to tie
Lehman and then took a two-shot lead at the par-5 12th when
Lehman bogeyed out of the back trap and he birdied out of a
Lehman had his chance to catch up, though trying to catch up on
the last five holes at Oakland Hills is like trying to lose
weight at a Haagen-Dasz factory. But if he could've just gotten
his birdie putt at 16 to drop instead of having it spin out, we
might've had a different finish.
The whole thing came down to the 18th. The players were tied and
Lehman teed off first, with a driver, even though his caddie
made a face at it and suggested a three-wood. "I didn't like
driver," said Andy Martinez, who has a major under his bib with
Johnny Miller and should know these things. Lehman smoked it
into that tiny driving area, which can't be more than 30 Shaq
sneakers wide. The ball bounced the wrong way and trickled into
a bunker right near the front lip, and as you looked at the
ball, you just knew it had a week of sleepless nights written
all over it.
Then Jones stepped up and hit driver too, and nobody made a face
at all because he lasered it down the right side, over some
bunkers and into the fairway. After Lehman laid up, Jones just
stepped up and hardly waggled and nearly tore down the pin with
a seven-iron so pure that even you would've liked it, not that
you would've told anybody.
But get this: As Jones walked to the 18th green with his
brother/caddie, Scott, he had no idea how the leader board
stacked up. He was in that deep Hawk zone, like you always were.
He had to ask, "How's it stand?"
"Lehman and Love are tied with you at two [under]," Scott said,
which was wrong, of course.
Oh, great, that means I gotta make this, Jones thought. Jones
did not want to come back for an 18-hole Monday playoff. His
stomach could not handle that.
"Wait," Scott said. "Love is at one [under]! It's you and
Lehman." Which meant Jones only had to two-putt from 14 feet
because what were the odds Lehman was going to save par from 60
yards with the Open on the line? Lehman didn't, but Jones slid
his first putt over the edge and left himself an 18-incher that
must've looked like 18 miles.
Meanwhile, back in Scottsdale, Ariz., where Jones lives, there
is this guy, Kevin Failoni, who was maybe the only guy on earth
who wanted Jones to make that putt more than Jones himself. For
five years Failoni has had to live with the thought that he
ruined one of golf's most promising careers. He was the friend
of Jones who hit the front brake on his dirt bike instead of the
rear, flipped head over heels off his bike, causing Jones, who
was behind him, to dump his own bike to avoid smashing his
buddy. Failoni separated his shoulder, but Jones ripped his
ankle, shoulder and left ring finger, and his career--he had
three Tour wins in 1989 alone--looked to be over.
Standing in Scottsdale on Sunday, five years later, Failoni and
his wife, Eleni, are another kind of wreck because her father
died last Thursday and the Failonis are late for the wake. Kevin
literally has his hand on the door, but he and Eleni can't leave
until they see whether their friend makes that 18-inch putt and
becomes the Open champ out of nowhere. Back in Michigan, Jones
is looking at his wife, Bonnie, who's holding their
five-year-old son, Cy, and saying over and over, "Cy can make
Above the green, Cy asks, "Can Daddy make this?" And Bonnie
says, "Sure," and somehow Daddy wiggles it in on Father's Day
for the best comeback story this side of you, Mr. Hogan.
So your reigning U.S. Open champion is a New Mexico-born simple
guy who says he went 12 years between golf bets, hardly ever
drinks and was the Colorado state sand-greens champion two years
running. When he saw the plaque with your picture on it and then
saw there was a plaque with no picture on it--just the words
1996 U.S. OPEN--and realized it was for him, he pretty near
cried. "Hey," he whispered to Bonnie. "I got a piece of the rock!"
Flying home on a friend's private jet, Lehman was trying to get
used to another too-close-to-believe loss in a major. This makes
three now--by a hair to Jose Maria Olazabal in the 1994 Masters,
by a fingernail to Pavin in last year's Open and now this. But
instead of dwelling on that, Lehman had stood on the 18th green,
taken the microphone and told the gallery, "I'm not sure you
realize what it would be like to miss three years of golf right
in the middle of your career. For Steve to come back and win the
U.S. Open, to me, is just an incredible story." That is just
about what Love said too, even though he was second in the '95
Masters and tied for fourth in the '95 Open and was now a
runner-up again and should've just been mad enough to chew
glass. Instead he said, "My hat is off to Steve." I guess some
people just don't know the right way to lose.
So, that's it, and.... Oh, wait. I forgot to tell you what
happened to the guy in Scottsdale. Well, somehow the sound of
that little golf ball dropping in a hole in Michigan made a
grown man and woman in Arizona cry like babies. "You need to
know what kind of man Steve is to know how this feels," said
Kevin Failoni. "Never once did he blame me. Never once did he
stop being my friend."
Tell you how hacked off Jones was at the guy who iced his career
for three years and cost him probably a million or two: Last
Saturday night, on the eve of his greatest chance in golf, he
left a message on the Failonis' answering machine saying he was
thinking of them and that he loved them.
Pretty square, huh? No way you ever did anything schmaltzy like
that. Am I right, Mr. Hogan?