There are golf strokes that you lose. And there are golf strokes that are stolen.
The latter must have been on the mind of Ernie Els last Friday when he found his golf ball embedded in a cave with a sand floor and a sod roof. Specifically, the unfaithful pellet was lodged under the lip of a greenside bunker on the 12th hole at Oakland Hills Country Club, a venue notorious for such betrayals. To say the ball was plugged would not do justice to a lie that looked as if it had been achieved by industrious rodents using a technology of the Pharaohs. All the 1994 U.S. Open champion could do was dislodge the ball with a cricket swing and let it roll back to his feet. "He will lose the tournament by one stroke," predicted a longtime student of the golf course known as the Monster. "That stroke."
O.K., the prediction was a bit off. But the prognosticator had the right idea. What history shows, and the players know, is that Oakland Hills is not about monsters, it's about gremlins.
Oakland Hills is where Sam Snead's run of U.S. Open frustration began. It's the bad-luck bastion where a nicely saved par-4 cost one player a major championship and a restless tree denied glory to another. At Oakland Hills victory charges are foiled by shutterbugs, portable Johns and other misfortunes not covered in a standard insurance rider. "Luck plays a huge part in what happens here," Brad Bryant said last Saturday after playing the par-4 18th with a magnificent drive, a sterling five-iron, a splendid sand shot, an exquisite four-foot putt, a disbelieving examination of the green and a tap-in for bogey. "If it were my golf course, I'd eliminate 80 percent of the traps and lower the rough a little."
Since bad luck comes in two flavors—immediate and lasting—historians may quarrel over the reach of the Oakland Hills whammy. Some think it a stretch, for instance, to blame the golf course for the sad demise of Cyril Walker, who won the first major championship played there, the 1924 U.S. Open. Walker subsequently lost all his money in a Florida land scam, turned to caddying and died a pauper. It's undeniable, though, that the great Snead first wound his bad-luck clock at Oakland Hills. At the 1937 Open, Snead shot a final-round 71 and was in the clubhouse the apparent winner until Ralph Guldahl stormed in with a 69 and a then tournament-record 281 to win by two strokes. Snead would spend the rest of his career trying to win the one major championship that would elude his grasp.
More typically, Oakland Hills grief comes and goes quickly, like a stab of pain. Many remember Gary Player's winning the 1972 PGA Championship there with a heroic nine-iron over trees and water on the 16th hole. Few remember that he had missed a 15-inch putt on 15, allegedly because someone slammed the door on a portable outhouse while he was putting. At the 1961 U.S. Open, Mike Souchak birdied three of the first four holes in the final round to take the lead. On the 5th, after flying the green with his approach, he settled over his delicate pitch, only to muff the shot when a camera clicked during his swing. His concentration broken, the angry Souchak made double bogey and finished with a 73, three shots back of winner Gene Littler.
The most memorable microburst of bad luck, of course, involved T.C. Chen, the former sailor in the Taiwanese Navy who should have won the 1985 U.S. Open. Chen led Andy North by four after four holes of the final round, but then a pushed four-iron approach on the par-4 5th left him in deep grass, 30 yards to the right of the green. Chen's first pitch fell short. His second made history. Chopping down with a wedge, Chen somehow popped the ball into the flight path of his follow-through, where he struck it again in midair. In an instant the horrified leader had acquired a nickname—Two Chip—and probably a neurosis, as well. Chen made 8 on the 5th, bogeyed the next three holes and finished a stroke behind winner North and an eyelash from being immortalized as the first Asian to win a major.
A fluke? Try telling that to Jack Nicklaus, who swears that a malicious elm tree robbed him of victory at the 1961 Open. "I remember it like it was yesterday," he says. Trailing leader Littler by two shots in the final round, the 21-year-old Nicklaus, then an amateur, tried to smack his second shot, a three-wood, onto the green of the par-5 12th when—well, let Nicklaus tell it—"I nailed it, right at the pin...and suddenly I saw hats blowing in the air and paper going up and this little whirlwind came through and hit this little elm tree...."
And, yes, a branch whipped out and swatted his ball to the ground. Nicklaus didn't bogey but birdied the hole. "Then I bogeyed 17 and lost by three shots," he says. "But I remember Oakland Hills for that."
Denis Watson, the pro from South Africa, is another who dreams of what might have been at Oakland Hills. In the opening round of the '85 Open, Watson thought he saved par on the par-4 8th, but his ball hung on the lip, defying gravity. Hoping to catch the attention of the golf gods, Watson stood near the hole—forgetting Rule 16-1H, which gave him only 10 seconds to wait for the putt to drop. After some 35 seconds the ball toppled in.