The man whose career is defined by the U.S. Open may have played his final one last week. Andy North has won only three events in his 23 years on the PGA Tour, but two of them were U.S. Opens. Still, there will probably be no special exemption extended to him next year at Oakland Hills, even though that was the site of his second Open championship.
"I'll be sending my entry in, trying to qualify for next year," North said as he unwrapped a bandage from his knee in the locker room after missing the cut last Friday afternoon. "I'd like to play in as many more of these as I can. Just because the exemption ran out doesn't mean you can't figure out a way to get in."
North's 10-year exemption for winning in 1985 at Oakland Hills expired this year. He was hoping to finish in the top 15 at Shinnecock and thereby earn a spot in next year's field, but with rounds of 75-75 he missed the cut by four shots, and on Friday he headed home to Madison, Wis., disappointed.
For now North has a promising television career as an ESPN commentator and a course-design business to keep him busy, and that's good because his prospects for making the Senior tour five years from now aren't bright. The top 31 career money winners get exemptions, and North was ranked 142nd going into the Open.
North's birth certificate says he's 45, but some days his body feels like 75. His career has been savaged by injuries. He has endured 12 operations—six on his knees, one on his elbow, one on his neck and four for skin cancer. His hair is so gray he could be a poster boy for Just For Men.
"A lot of times Oakland Hills seems like it was 30 years ago, the way my body has been the last 10 years," says North. "What's hard to believe is that Cherry Hills [the site of his first Open title] was 17 years ago. You look at the pictures, and there was some color in my hair, so it must have been."
His knees give him the most trouble. Downhill lies are especially painful, and sometimes his left knee simply locks up. He has ruled out replacement surgery because there is still hope that he can play competitive golf. His swing, once powered by strong legs, is now all upper body.
"What's really frustrating is that my nerves are good, my mind works, I can do almost everything I want to do other than try to hit a golf ball," North says. "I can get on a bike and ride for 100 miles. It's just frustrating that I can't seem to get my knees to work. One day I'm O.K. Then I get a little bit cocky and start trying to swing at the ball a little bit harder and do the things I want to do, and the next day I feel terrible. I get excited and hit two buckets of balls instead of half a bucket, and I can't even walk the next day. And that's why it's frustrating. I feel like I can still compete out here. I'd just like to be able to try it one more time."
North's first Open victory came in a dramatic shootout in 1978. He had one Tour victory to his credit—it had come the previous year at the American Express- Westchester Classic—but there he stood over a four-foot putt on the 72nd hole at Cherry Hills, trying to avoid an 18-hole playoff with Dave Stockton and J.C. Snead. Up by four strokes with five holes to play, North had staggered to the 18th green, and twice he had to back off that putt before ramming the ball in the cup for the bogey and a 74 that won the Open.
Seven years later North arrived at Oakland Hills with a chip on his shoulder. He had won only $51,695 coming into the Open and had missed cuts in three of the previous four tournaments. In the press room after the first two rounds his reputation for being a "fluke" champion was brought up. North bristled. "Who says it's a fluke?" he demanded.