The Citizens of Des Moines will be the first to tell you that living in Iowa is life in the slow lane, so when the 20th Senior U.S. Open rolled into town last week, they admitted it was the biggest thing to hit the state since Pope John Paul II's visit 20 years ago. Even the great flood of '93 paled in comparison to a sighting of Arnold Palmer, whose arrival made Page One of the Register. (The newspaper reported that as Palmer checked in with tournament officials, a starstruck volunteer called him Mr. Nicklaus. "The only thing Nicklaus has that I want is 10 more years," Palmer shot back.)
No one cared that the King, a few months shy of 70, missed the cut by 15 strokes. All that mattered was that he had showed up at Des Moines Country Club. Then again, who hadn't? Everyone in the state seemed to show up at one time or another last week. More than 25,000 graced the practice rounds, and double that came on both Saturday and Sunday. Said Bob Duval, "They were cheering for chips on the practice green if you got 'em in the air."
Even Iowa governor Tom Vilsack was smitten. He attended last Thursday's opening round and found himself face-to-face with Palmer as Arnie waited to hit on the 9th tee. "I used to practice your putting style," the governor said.
"You can take my place," said Palmer, who had putted miserably all day.
Palmer will probably want to forget the 81-84 he shot in Des Moines, but for Iowans, there was much to remember. There were the shuttle buses so laden with fans that they destroyed the asphalt parking lots. There were the wavy greens that left some of the Seniors woozy and unamused. There were great shots galore, many of them played by two journeymen. Dave Eichelberger and Ed Dougherty are not Arnie and Jack. They're not even Hale and Gil. But, hey, Des Moines is used to summer stock.
Eichelberger, a silver-haired Texan whose drives are as long as his drawls, was the underdog who won this Open because he started the final round a stroke off the lead, made seven birdies and had the day's low round, a four-under 68. That gave him a four-round total of seven-under 281. "I've been trying to get my name on a USGA trophy for 30 years," Eichelberger said. "I've finally done it." Before this, his best moments had been a couple of wins in Milwaukee and one at Bay Hill on the regular Tour and three victories in his first six seasons as a Senior. Just when he figured to start winding down—he'll be 56 in September—he won the big one, which has been the story of his golfing life. "My career has been a couple weeks of great play followed by a couple years of mediocrity," said Eichelberger, who once missed 22 straight cuts on the big Tour.
Dougherty was an even bigger underdog. He's not exempt on the Senior tour, and even though he won $185,000 for coming in second at the Open, three shots back, he'll still have to Monday-qualify to get into events. His only win in 22 years on the regular Tour came at the low-rent Deposit Guaranty Classic in 1995, when he was 47 and wielding a long putter. Dougherty won over fans in Des Moines with his gutsy play, his self-deprecating comments and his honesty. " Dave Eichelberger won this tournament. I didn't blow it," said Dougherty. "I didn't accomplish what I wanted, but I played pretty damn good. This has to be the highlight of my career. It's a feather in my cap to say I led the Open for three days." He paused. "This is probably the only Senior event that's not a three-day tournament. I'm going to have to talk to the USGA about that."
The close call typified Dougherty's career. He's Mr. Almost. Heck, he's One-Foot-in-the-Rough Ed. He still gets Christmas cards that begin, "Hey, One-Foot..." The nickname is from his days on the PGA Tour when, during practice rounds, a player would have to pay everyone in the group whenever he missed a fairway. Dougherty had an uncanny knack for missing by a foot.
Same thing in high school. In the American Legion district baseball final one summer back home in Philadelphia, Dougherty, the pitcher, was working on a one-hitter in the 11th inning. His opponent, future major leaguer Jon Matlack, had allowed just three hits and drew a two-out walk off Dougherty. The next batter hit a high pop fly to center. "My centerfielder tried to make a basket catch, like Willie Mays," Dougherty said. "It bounced off his chest and we lose 1-0. Matlack got $75,000 to sign and I got 'Nice game, kid.' "
Nice-Game-Kid Ed nevertheless hoped for a career in baseball and planned to try out with the Pittsburgh Pirates in the spring of 1968. He wound up in a different camp, though, when he was drafted into the U.S. Army and was subsequently sent to Vietnam. Bad timing. His one-year tour of duty fell during a leap year, so he served an extra day. That kept him in Nam during the Tet Offensive. One night a few weeks into the offensive, Dougherty's unit, the 196th light infantry, came under attack and was overrun by the enemy. Dougherty, a sergeant, was thrown by a mortar explosion, caught shrapnel in his right hand and broke a bone in his wrist. He heard something that night he'll never forget, a line he uses whenever he hears anyone whining. "I'm there moaning with blood all over," he says, "and the medic says, 'It's a long way from your heart, kid. You'll be all right.' "