Olympia Fields was opened in 1923 and is typical of old Ice Belt courses: The putting surfaces are pitched severely from back to front so water will drain during the long winters. The already devilish greens were slicked up for the Open, and the USGA didn't help matters with a series of pin placements that Dave Eichelberger, who also tied for fifth, called goofy. Bob Murphy said the USGA went overboard. "You want to be entertained? Go watch guys try to putt on number 3," Murphy said last Friday. "You know what, I'll bet you 100 bucks you'll see a four-putt on 18 today."
Murphy could have gone one better: David Graham five-putted the final hole from 18 feet. "Quite frankly, I don't know what the hell happened out there," said Graham. Defending champ Dave Stockton did. "These greens are so severe, if you get above the hole you'll take a beating," said Stockton, who in an unrelated incident hurt his back on the eve of the tournament, struggled to a 77-75 and missed the cut.
By the weekend both Marsh and Bland had found their touch on the greens. (Eichelberger was the only other player in the red after three rounds, and that didn't last long come Sunday.) On Saturday evening Marsh looked ahead by looking back. "Tomorrow is probably the most important day of my golfing life," he said before drifting into a reverie about missed opportunities. "I certainly have regrets. I was basically limiting myself to one major a year," he said, referring to the British Open, in which he was often a factor. Marsh's closest call came in 1983, at Royal Birkdale. He went off early on the final day and played what he considers the finest round of his career, a 64 despite the fact that it was "blowing a gale." Marsh was still the leader in the clubhouse when the other contenders made the turn in the afternoon. Then, he said, "the flags atop the clubhouse simply died. The wind vanished." Watson wound up winning his fifth British Open, with Marsh falling two shots short.
It was obvious from the very beginning of the final round of the Senior Open that Marsh didn't have another 64 in him. He three-putted the 1st green for bogey and then hit weak iron shots on 2 and 3 and failed both times to get up and down. The three straight bogeys put Marsh one shot behind Bland. At the short and tricky par-4 5th, Marsh finally found himself. He stuck a wedge shot eight feet from the hole and made birdie, while Bland failed to salvage par after driving into the rough. Marsh was again up by one stroke, and he never lost the lead. He sank two huge putts on the back nine, a 12-footer for par at the 14th to remain tied, and an eight-footer to match Bland's birdie on the 17th and set up the climactic 18th. "That wasn't very friendly of him, was it, holing that putt right on top of mine?" Bland said.
Marsh showed little compassion between the ropes but plenty once things had been decided, embracing Bland on the 18th green. Said Marsh, "I would dearly love for John to win this title and experience the elation that I'm experiencing now." Not to mention the validation.
You'll have to excuse Bland if he seems a little impatient for his day to come. On the eve of the final round he was remembering a duel from the old days, at the 1976 Benson & Hedges International, one of the European tour's most prestigious tournaments. He and Marsh were tied for the lead heading into the 72nd hole, a short par-4. From the fairway Bland, hitting first, put his approach to within 12 feet of the cup. Marsh proceeded to hole his wedge shot and win the tournament. "I've been annoyed about that ever since," Bland says.
Imagine how he feels now.