A lot of people were shocked 30 years ago when I won the U.S. Open, at Champions Golf Club in Houston. I can't blame them. I didn't join the PGA Tour until I was 34, after 14 years in the Army, where I had played only about three tournaments a year. The '69 Open, the only Tour event I ever won, was the first Open I'd ever qualified for, and I'd only been playing professional golf for one year. Besides, I was the worst putter you ever saw.
But I figured I had a better chance at winning the Open than any other tournament. My putting was a liability at regular Tour events, in which 12 or 14 under usually won, but the Open was different. Par could win, and I could shoot par. I was always a good ball striker and hit fairways, and after growing up in Oklahoma and Texas I was comfortable playing golf in Houston in the middle of the summer, in 105� temperatures.
I shot a one-over 71 in the first round but putted so poorly that my playing partners, Tony Jacklin and Dale Douglass, took me out to the practice green afterward. I started to putt while looking at my hands, and it worked just well enough. I only made six birdies and an eagle all week, but I never made worse than a bogey—nine of them. Coming into 18, I knew I had a one-shot lead and that another par would win. I hit an eight-iron to about 15 feet, missed another birdie putt and tapped in to win.
I was in the Champions locker room when I got a phone call from President Nixon. He said, "Not many people come out of the Army and win the U.S. Open." I said, "No, sir. I'm the only one." As happy as I was to win my national championship, I think it was a bigger accomplishment just to make it on Tour. I'm not sure where that '69 Open trophy is. It might be in my garage. But I'm still out here on the Senior tour, making my living playing golf. That's the biggest surprise of all.