It was the day everybody forgot how to play golf. You went out there Ben Crenshaw or Curtis Strange and came back an amateur. Never have so many great players looked so foolish all at one time.
The Saturday massacre began calmly enough. An isolated double bogey here, a triple bogey there, a breeze that flapped in the pants legs of the competitors and rattled the hospitality tents. There was nothing obviously extraordinary about what would become one of the worst days in U.S. Open memory, no sideways monsoon rains, no gale force winds. In fact, that was what made it so terrible. No one could even blame the weather.
By the end of the third round at Shinnecock Hills, the quaint but diabolical par-70 that meanders among the Southampton, N.Y., dunes, Tom Kite had shot his worst round since he was a sophomore in college, an 82. Jumbo Ozaki had begun in second place, climbed within a stroke of the lead, then dropped clean off the leader board with a backside 45. Nick Faldo had disappeared after the very first hole, Scott Simpson had snapped a wedge over his knee, and Tom Watson had given up and begun daydreaming about hot dogs. "It was a disaster," Kite said.
Players expect to experience a certain amount of rage, grief and humiliation in an Open. They know the USGA will harden the course, and inclemency is all too likely. There have been some memorably horrible days, like the final round at Pebble Beach in the 1992 Open, won by Kite, when the wind howled and it rained so hard it stung and the field averaged 77. Or the first round at Shinnecock in '86, when temperatures plummeted to 40 degrees.
But those were the result of acts of God. What happened last Saturday at Shinnecock was man-made carnage. The majority simply couldn't manage the unforgiving course, one that played, in the words of Greg Norman, like "an absolute bitch." Norman summed up the day after a 74, with which, under the circumstances, he got away almost scot-free: "I can't ever remember such great players being so humbled. I hit some good shots, but when they finished, I ended up looking like a 15 or 16 handicapper. You could say the golf course got the best of all of us."
Sixty-nine players in the field of 73 were over par at the end of the day. There were 33 double bogeys, and some of the highest scores came from former champions. We're not talking Duffy Waldorf here. We're talking Crenshaw, two-time Masters winner, taking triple on the 10th hole en route to a 79. "I'm walking up 18," Crenshaw said after he finished, "and all I'm thinking is, I've got to make par or the snowman is here." We're talking Faldo, owner of two Masters and two British Open titles, shooting 79. Watson, possessor of eight major titles, trudging to a 77. And Raymond Floyd, who won here in 1986, collapsing with a pair of double bogeys for a 76.
With the sun shining and the wind persistent, but not severe, conditions seemed right for what is traditionally called moving day. Instead, Crenshaw renamed it "crash and burn day." Only three players had rounds under par: Tom Lehman with a 67 to tie Norman at one under for the 54-hole lead; Gary Halberg with a 69, which included a hole in one; and Ian Woosnam with a 69.
The litany of disasters was endless. For a brief moment Fuzzy Zoeller stood at one under but finished at 76, despite an eagle, and felt like he had survived a prize fight. "I'm lucky I didn't break any bones out there," Zoeller said. "I was in the hay all day. This course will just wear you out."
Strange, who was two over at 142, had hopes for a third Open title, but his 76 was a slow, bleeding affair. Hal Sutton took 41 on the back nine for his 76.
Some players suffered one disastrous hole and bled slowly for the rest of the day. Faldo's demise was a double bogey on the 1st hole, a seemingly harmless par-4 of 394 yards. He drove into the rough and then badly misjudged the wind on his approach, which bounded through the green, rolled through the chipping area, kept going over a television cable and some short grass, and finally came to rest in the weeds. He somehow gouged the ball out with a wedge. It ran 30 feet past the hole. He stroked it to two feet and then lurched at a hopeless bogey putt.