The black hills spruce looks sickly and is dwarfed by its
neighbors on the left side of the 8th fairway. It's hard to
imagine that this is the same tree that caused such a commotion
during the 1979 U.S. Open at Inverness. No matter, there is only
one Hinkle Tree (right), and it defined the career of journeyman
pro Lon Hinkle. "People still associate me with the tree. I hear
about it on a regular basis," says Hinkle, 53, semiretired and
living in Big Fork, Mont.
Playing with Greg Norman and Chi Chi Rodriguez in the first round
in '79, Hinkle arrived at the 8th tee, a par-5 dogleg, to find
the group in front of them still waiting to play their second
shots. With time to kill, Hinkle surveyed the area. "Chi Chi and
I were chatting," says Hinkle, "and I looked over and saw a big
gap in the trees through which you could see the 17th fairway. I
became rather animated at finding a shortcut."
Hitting first, Hinkle adjusted his stance well to the left and
knocked a one-iron through the opening. Guessing he had about 220
left, he hit a two-iron onto the green and two-putted for birdie.
Rodriguez did the same, and as word spread, dozens of others
USGA officials were fuming and demanded that the gap be closed.
By 5 a.m. on Friday, the 25-foot spruce was in the ground. When
Hinkle, the first-round leader, reached the 8th tee, "I was four
over," he says, "and disappointed at myself for letting the
tournament get away." (When Norman laid eyes on the tree he said,
"Boy, things sure grow fast around here.") Hinkle blasted a
driver over the tree and again made birdie. In the end he wound
up 20 shots behind the winner, Hale Irwin, and embittered by the
experience. "I looked at the tree as if it somehow ruined my
Open," he says.
July 6, 2003
A qualifier for last week's Senior Open, Hinkle and his tree
finally met again. Hinkle shot 83-81 to miss the cut, and on
neither day did he try to hit his drive on number 8 over the tree
that carries his name. Says Hinkle, "Maybe in the letters I write
for sponsor's exemptions [on the Champions tour] I should simply
say, 'I'm the guy with the tree in Toledo.' Maybe that would ring
a bell." --J.E.