Ben Hogan was going to kill me. I could picture the front page of
the next day's Tulsa Daily World: BOLT WINS BIG ONE, with the
subhead HOGAN MURDERS YOUNGSTER WHO COUGHED. On the previous hole
someone had clicked a Brownie camera, and Hogan had turned and
stared into the gallery with a look that could have melted glass.
Now I, an 11-year-old boy with a tickle in his throat, was
standing eight feet from the great man as he addressed a tee shot
during the final round of the 1958 U.S. Open.
Hogan. White cap, pleated slacks, polo shirt with tight sleeves,
weathered face with tight lips. Hogan. Hit it, I prayed, trying
to ignore the army of dust mites dancing on my larynx. Hit it!
Hogan finally swung, and my asthmatic wheeze expelled the foreign
bodies just as his driver met the ball. With everyone's eyes
focused on the shot, I slipped through the raptly attentive
grown-ups and sprinted into the trees, where I coughed until my
eyes watered. When I came out, Hogan was gone.
That, my friends, is what I remember most about the 1958 U.S.
Open. That and the insufferable heat.
Understand, I'm not working from notes here. If you want details
of John Daly's winning the 1991 PGA at Crooked Stick, I'm your
man. I know how the sky looked when Jean Van de Velde went
barefoot into the burn at Carnoustie in '99 (stormy), and last
year I filled two notebooks following Tiger Woods on his
record-setting turn at Pebble Beach. In the summer of '58,
however, I was a gangly sixth-grader in scuffed loafers, khaki
pants, a plaid cotton shirt and tortoiseshell glasses. To produce
even this modest memoir of the Blast Furnace Open, I had to call
my brother, Tom, in Houston. "Crank up the Wayback Machine," I
said. "I need everything you can remember about the '58 Open."
June 10, 2001
"Uhhh, I don't know if I recall enough to help you."
"You were a couple of weeks shy of 21," I prompted, "a hotshot
golfer at Missouri."
"That," he said, laughing, "I remember."
Actually, Tom's recall wasn't bad. He remembered, for instance,
that we weren't in Tulsa for the entire tournament, only for the
final 36 holes on Saturday. "Dad never missed an opportunity to
see the pros play, but this wasn't a carefully planned trip," Tom
said. "We drove down from Kansas City and bought tickets at the
As my brother and I talked, it came back to me in dribs and
drabs, a long-ago June day in the heartland. Dad always liked to
get an early start, so we were into the car an hour before dawn.
We stopped for waffles and ham steaks at the Toddle House diner
on 63rd Street, filled the tank at the Brookside Sinclair station
and then sped out of town on two-lane Highway 71. We were halfway
to Harrisonville, Mo., by the time the sun had cleared the hills.
Telephone poles divided the farmland into discrete frames, like
stills from a movie.
The car was the most luxurious chariot Dad would ever own: a
red-and-white 1956 Buick Special with three teardrop vents on
each quarter-panel. We had music. When Dad wasn't crooning How
Are Things in Glocca Morra at the wheel, we had the radio tuned
to rock and roll station WHB, which, the deejays endlessly
reminded us, stood for World's Happiest Broadcasters. Sprawled
across the backseat, I read Archie and Sergeant Rock comics, the
wind from the open windows blowing my hair flat against my
forehead. (Comic books had been proved in studies to cause
juvenile delinquency. I had the biggest collection in Missouri.)
We got to Tulsa around nine and fought the traffic to Southern
Hills, where we parked in a dusty field choked with cars. At the
gate we paid for three little rectangular-shaped pieces of
cardboard that read 58TH USGA OPEN CHAMPIONSHIP. We hung those
passes from our belts and then climbed the sun-baked slope to
the clubhouse, which sat on a ridge like a Tuscan palazzo. It
was so hot--close to 100[degrees] and muggy--that no one joked
about it. The spectators on the unshaded sidewalk behind the 1st
tee smelled of sweat, suntan lotion, cigarettes, popcorn and
beer, a malodor that made my nose twitch.
Dad, studying the pairing sheet, set a time and place for us to
rendezvous, and we split up. Tom and I headed for the 10th tee.
Dad walked back down the 9th fairway to intercept the Masters
champion, a fourth-year pro from Latrobe, Pa., named Arnold
Palmer. When we caught up with Dad around noon, he wore the
earnest frown he reserved for moments of profound discovery.
"This kid's going to be good," he told us. "He takes a healthy
cut at it, busts it a mile."
I was equally excited about my own discovery: "Dad, the swimming
pool's got a slide!"
Dad stood in line at a concession stand and bought us hot dogs
and bags of potato chips. A 14-ounce Coke cost an outrageous 25
cents and was mostly ice, but Dad didn't worry about money (not,
anyway, until the bank phoned to ask about his overdrafts). I
also had an ice-cream sandwich, possibly two. I was going through
an ice-cream sandwich phase.
The tournament was progressing nicely despite my inattention. The
man of the hour was Tommy Bolt, a club-throwing carpenter from
down the road in Haworth, Okla. Bolt had opened with rounds of
71-71 on a par-70 Southern Hills course that had been tricked up
with thick bermuda rough and talcum-powder bunkers. Now the
scoreboard outside the clubhouse, meticulously updated by a man
with calligraphy pens, read as follows: 211, TOMMY BOLT; 214,
GENE LITTLER; 216, GARY PLAYER; 218, JULIUS BOROS.
In the era of 36-hole final days, the leaders after the third
round were not necessarily the last to tee off for the final 18
holes. Bolt went off at 1:18, and Littler and Boros didn't start
until 2:30. I wanted to see Hogan, so I left Dad and Tom at the
1st tee and disappeared down the hill into a memory-free zone. I
didn't find Hogan until midafternoon, and I didn't hang around
him for long. As noted above, he scared me. Meanwhile my dad and
brother set off with Littler and Boros. "I loved watching
Littler," Tom says. "His swing was compact but beautifully
measured, and he had incredible hand action."
My brother's interest in Littler was not academic. A month
earlier Tom had played as an amateur in his first Tour event, the
Kansas City Open. Littler was his swing model, the template on
which he had built his own graceful action. Littler's ball went
out low, rose, hung...and then fell softly, as if dropped by an
It was the lumbering Boros, however, who taught Tom something
that day. On the par-4 7th hole, Boros's approach caught the left
fringe, no more than 30 feet from the hole. Only it was more than
fringe--it was that thick, tangly bermuda rough, a nightmarish
chipping medium. "Boros took what amounted to a full swing in
slow motion," Tom remembers. "The ball popped out, trickled down
the slope and stopped a couple of feet from the hole. I was
I, on the other hand, was droopy-eyed. I stayed in the shade,
sitting against a tree whenever I got bored, wiping my
sweat-streaked glasses on my shirttail. I might have caught a
glimpse of an 18-year-old amateur named Jack Nicklaus, but more
likely I followed Dr. Cary Middlecoff, the dentist and two-time
U.S. Open champion. I was morbidly fascinated with Middlecoff. He
was a snappier dresser than my hometown dentist, a pain merchant
who saved his novocaine for the adult patients.
Eventually I joined the crowd following Bolt and the Australian
sourpuss, Bruce Crampton. Bolt disappointed me by not wrapping a
club around a tree, but watching him was hardly a waste of time.
His gallery had swelled considerably, so it took me awhile to
spot Dad and Tom walking up the 16th fairway behind the golfers
and the marshals.
"I do remember the finish," Tom says. "We were behind the tee on
the 72nd hole, right behind Bolt." Dad and Tom had made space for
me to kneel between them, so I had a terrific view of Bolt as he
stepped onto the tee. He was a powerful man with thick black hair
and a ruddy face, and his caddie carried a leather golf bag as
wide as a trash can. Bolt was four shots ahead of Player, the
leader in the clubhouse, but Littler and Boros still had several
holes to make up ground.
The 18th was a monster finishing hole--a 468-yard par-4 over a
stream and two cross bunkers to an elevated green. Dad whispered,
"He double-bogeyed this hole yesterday." Impressed with the
gravity of the situation, I held my breath. "The minute Bolt hit
his drive," Tom says, "we took off running around the tee and
into the fairway to get into position for the shot to the green."
We ran? "Oh, yeah," says Tom. "This was a shot that Dad had to
see. He had this sense that it would be historic."
Dad had witnessed a historic shot or two, most notably at the
1930 U.S. Open at Interlachen Country Club outside Minneapolis,
where he saw Bobby Jones bounce his famous Lily Pad Shot across
the lake on the 9th hole. "I don't know if Bolt's shot was
historic," Tom says, "but it was certainly exceptional. We were
behind him again in the fairway, right behind the rope. Bolt
whipped a four-wood, and there was a big roar at the green when
the ball landed."
My brother's description is like a long-forgotten play acted out
on a stage in my mind. Years later I would stand not far from
where we stood on that hot afternoon and watch Nick Price spank
an eight-iron from the fairway to put the finishing touches on
his victory at the 1994 PGA. My memory of that is so clear--the
spectators on the slopes above the green, the meandering creek,
the deep bunkers, the big hardwood trees on either side of the
fairway--that I can put Bolt in Price's place and remember '58
with the same clarity. "That shot was the end of the tournament
as far as we were concerned," Tom says. "That's what Dad had
wanted to see. That's why he drove all those miles."
That night, at a hotel restaurant in Joplin, Mo., I feasted on
fried shrimp and french fries while Dad and Tom ate steak and
continued the obsessive dialogue they had begun on the hot, dusty
walk back to the parking lot at Southern Hills. Dad was excited
for hours after a tournament, going through a couple of packs of
Camels while debriefing himself. I listened with pleasure as they
analyzed the performances of the players they had
followed--Charlie Coe, Marty Furgol, Lloyd Mangrum, Frank
Stranahan--until Dad said something about Hogan.
"Hogan?" The shrillness of my voice made them turn, forks poised
between plate and mouth. That's when I told my story, and not for
the last time.
My memory of Price's shot is so clear that I can put Bolt
in his place and remember 1958 with the same clarity.