If there was any question as to what kind of anguish these holes could produce, Paul Azinger answered it during the first round. After struggling his way to a bogey on 16 and a par on 17, he uncorked a duck hook deep into the weeds on the 18th. Thus shafted, Zinger snapped the offending graphite pole over his knee and marched down the fairway, with half his driver in each hand. He made a 6 and ultimately missed the cut.
The closing holes did see some rousing golf in the opening two rounds. They were at the heart of Nick Price's smokin' 66 on Thursday. Two under after 15 holes, Price got up-and-down from the greenside rough for a birdie on 16, then on the 17th rolled in a gorgeous 25-footer for another bird. Price had a chance to tie the course record with a downhill four-foot birdie putt on 18, but his ball trickled by the cup. That he kept a stiff upper lip may have been a sign of submission.
The stretch run was just as important during the second round. Price had given away four strokes to par when he arrived at 16, leaving him even for the tournament. But he played the hole in textbook fashion, rapping in an eight-foot birdie putt to get back in red numbers and then parring the final two holes to stay there. Friday evening he looked back at the significance of the closing holes. "If I'm in contention on the weekend, one of the biggest factors will be how I've finished off my rounds so far," he said. "It's been a saving grace."
Jumbo Ozaki's surge up the leader board on Friday was punctuated by a 20-foot birdie putt on 18 and the little jig he did to celebrate it. Greg Norman surged to the lead of the Open on Friday with a 67, including a velvety chip-in from the fringe for a bird on 18. "A strong finish gives your entire game a charge," Norman said.
A number of contenders who would ultimately fall just short sabotaged their chances with weak finishes in the opening rounds. Mickelson was leading the tournament on Thursday at five under when he came to the 16th. He promptly smacked an errant drive, chopped his way in and out of the rough on both sides of the fairway, hit an indifferent approach and then three-jacked for a double-bogey 7. Waiting on the 17th tee, Mickelson sat dejectedly on his bag before getting up to hit a poor iron shot past the green. He then left a hairy chip 15 feet short, resulting in a bogey. "This course is brutal," he said. "It's very draining, especially mentally. If you let up just the slightest bit at the end of the round, it costs you dearly."
When Saturday turned into a last-one-standing-wins, bare-knuckles brawl, it was inevitable that the closing holes would get in a few knockout blows—even on a bunch of wily veterans. Floyd, Fuzzy Zoeller and Tom Kite were a combined nine over par there while finishing miserable rounds that took them out of contention. Ozaki, who a day earlier was doing that little victory dance on 18, crashed and burned down the stretch, finishing 7, 4, 5 to shoot an 80 and expunge his name permanently from the leader board.
But if there was any one figure who captured the true essence of the cruelty of the finish at Shinnecock it was Murchison. He is one of pro golf's most intriguing characters, a deeply religious man who supports his wife and eight children by grinding it out on the Nike Tour. He had gotten into the field with a gutsy performance at sectional qualifying. And he spent a good part of the first round atop the leader board, dipping as low as two under par, and winning over the gallery with fine play and the presence of his Punky Brewster-like, 14-year-old daughter, Jennifer, who was carrying his bag. Murchison arrived at the 18th two strokes above par and looking for a birdie to close out a stellar round.
His troubles began when he drove his ball through the dogleg into the right rough. Hell-bent on going for the green, Murchison shanked a five-iron dead right into the weeds. From there he produced one of the most memorable shots of the tournament. He took a mighty cut with a midiron and nearly whiffed, digging under the ball and popping it straight up in the air some six inches before it settled into his freshly excavated divot. "I was shocked, in a state of total disbelief," Murchison says. With the stunned look of a deer caught in the headlights, he reloaded and duffed his fourth shot forward about 25 yards. Finally he landed an approach on the back of the green and three-putted for the frostiest of snowmen and a final score of 76. Murchison may be a devoted family man, but surely he didn't have to take a stroke for each kid.
At the 18th on Friday, Murchison nearly holed a 50-footer for birdie before tapping in his last Open stroke. As he walked off the green, with a 153 that missed the cut by seven shots, he handed his ball to a young woman sitting in a wheelchair, an act of a suitably humbled man. Moments later he was asked if there was any satisfaction in parring the 18th. "None whatsoever," he said. "The only satisfaction is knowing I don't have to play these holes again for a long time."
The rest of the competitors at this year's National Open would surely have something to say to that.