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The final day of the National Open is the most grueling day in American golf and may be, as some assert, the most grueling in American sport. Whereas just about all 72-hole strokes-play tournaments are set up nowadays so that the contestants play one round of 18 holes on each of four days, our Open (along with its British equivalent) still remains a three-day affair, calling for 18 holes on the first day, another 18 on the second and 36 on the third and climactic day. The U.S. Golf Association, which has operated the championship since its inception in 1895, doesn't harbor the slightest idea of changing the tournament's structure. The USGA leaders feel, as they always have, that endurance should be one of the requisites of a true national champion. There is no doubt that they are right, for it requires a golfer with a game of the first fiber to stand up to the immense physical demands and the accumulative nervous strain of so important an event and to finish the day with his swing, his timing, his touch and his concentration still intact.
A golfer's endurance, as every devotee of the game knows, depends largely on how well he is playing. When he is not hitting the ball, six holes can be fatiguing and 18 is like working on the railroad. Conversely, when he is playing well, golf is a relatively unbushing game, and the old legs can feel even lighter at the finish than they did at the start. This old golfer's law undoubtedly had a great deal to do with Dr. Cary Middlecoff's splendid victory last week in the 56th National Open at the Oak Hill club in Rochester, N.Y. Throughout the arduous final day, the slim, high-strung Tennessean, who has never felt that stamina was one of his prize possessions, managed to avoid any sustained patches of mediocre play until the very end, and from time to time lifted himself with streaks of real brilliance. In putting together two par-equaling finishing rounds of 70 to go with his opening 71 and 70, Cary was aided by another of golf's celebrated physio-psychological axioms: on Saturday, the final day, he was the first of the contending players to finish and so enjoyed the considerable advantage of being able to wrap his paws around a cool glass in the clubhouse while his rivals fought their way home with his total, 281, always staring them in the eye.
Middlecoff's winning total—a shot lower than Ben Hogan and Julius Boros were able to manage—amounted to excellent golf on Oak Hill. At first glance the course looked to be much less demanding than those on which the Open has recently been held. It was not a backbreaker. The fairways were comparatively roomy. The greens were devoid of sharp contours. The rough was neither matted nor stalky nor overly high. For the first time in the memory of man, the entire roster of entrants pronounced the Open course an eminently fair test. This era of good feeling continued even when it later became apparent that the "flat" greens were filled with subtle, hard-to-read cants and breaks, that the rough was a good deal rougher than it seemed, and that, furthermore, there was only one hole, the 327-yard 14th, that could be classified as an "easy par." Robert Trent Jones, the golf architect who has readied a number of courses for national championships and who was in charge of the remodeling, turned in at Oak Hill one of his most tasteful jobs. Among other things, the numerous fairway and green traps which Jones added or reshaped had just the proper degree of severity. These traps, incidentally, were filled with fine, gleaming silicon sand, purchased as rejected material from glass mills, and they shone like Merion's famous "White Faces."
For certain, Oak Hill is one of the prettiest courses on which the Open has been held in recent years. Green and crisp, it tumbles over softly undulating land, with clusters of red and white oaks, maples, lindens and evergreens lining the fairways. Enhancing this natural, old-fashioned aspect is a rippling brook, a canal-fed branch of Allen's Creek, which meanders hither and yon around the layout. On the first two days of the tournament, when the temperature hovered around 90 and the humidity was just what the laundry ordered, the setting and the sweating conjured up the feeling of the heavy, old American summers when people sat on their front porches and watched the Hupmobiles go by. One group of spectators who obviously felt the heat was a quartet who mistakenly wandered from the 14th hole not to the 15th but onto the adjacent Irondequoit course. They had watched a couple of foursomes of weekend 90-shooters go by (and had commented haughtily that they could do as well as those pros) before they began to get hep.
On the first two days Middlecoff—and, mind you, he has probably been the world's best golfer since his victory in the 1955 Masters—never looked more impressive. His lead-off 71 was accomplished despite a 7 on the 4th where he took five shots to get down after hitting two good woods on that par 5. He collected himself instantly with a birdie. His 70 on the second round likewise contained a 7, this one incurred on the 17th, a 463-yard par 5 converted into a superb par 4 for the tournament. Here Cary dumped his approach into one of the two traps which flank the narrow entrance to the green. He fluffed his first recovery, hit a so-so second and then 3-putted. This triple bogey came as something of a shock to Middlecoff's gallery, for up to that point the only significant mistake he had made was missing a short putt on the 8th for his only bogey of the round. Listing heavily to starboard as is his style, he had arched one masterful approach after another within easy birdie distance of the cup, dropping the ball on the green as softly as Vardon ever did. Had he been putting, he could well have been around in 65.
Cary's halfway total of 141 placed him two shots behind the leader, Peter Thomson of Australia. On the last day he caught Thomson, with whom he happened to be paired, on the 42nd hole and kept on rolling despite a tendency in the morning to push his drives off line and a continuing affinity for the rough in the afternoon. He missed shots here and there but never the critical ones. He kept getting his figures. He faltered, however, down the stretch, going one over par on both the 70th and the 71st but pulled himself together just in the nick of time on the home hole, a 449-yard par 4 that doglegs to the right to an abruptly plateaued green. After hooking his drive into the rough and under-hitting his second into the rough short and to the left of the green, Cary played a very fine runup with his pitching wedge four feet from the pin. He holed the putt for his 4. The stroke he saved on the 72nd, as much as any one stroke, was the stroke that represented his margin of victory.
One man who had no chance to catch Middlecoff was Sam Snead, who again played a most disappointing Open. Sam digested his opening round of 75 with admirable equanimity, and on the second day was on the verge of catching fire when he birdied the 9th and 10th to go one under par. He halted his rush, typically, by 3-putting the 11th, failing to tap a two-footer up to the cup. He came back with another bird on the 12th and then his surge expired when he reverted to his old habits and 3-putted the long 13th. Though he stood only seven strokes off Thomson's pace with 36 to go, Sam was never a threat on the final day, for he was irked by the fact that he was given the last starting time which also meant playing in the day's only threesome. He went to the first tee in a petulant mood and never recovered his purpose.
Five men had a chance to catch Middlecoff on the final day—Peter Thomson, Wesley Ellis, Ben Hogan, Julius Boros and Ted Kroll. How they tried and how they failed constituted the real drama of the tournament.
Thomson, the intelligent and appealing young Australian who had won the last two British Opens, lost his opportunity when his game suddenly went sour on the last three holes of the morning round and he tossed away four strokes to par. If there was any one hole that did it, it was the 16th, a 441-yard par 4, on which he took a 6. If there was any one shot that did it, it was his third. Completely mis-hitting what appeared to be a routine wedge shot from a shallow trap at the left edge of the green, Peter skulled the ball over the green and into the trap off the right edge. He came out nicely, this time 10 feet from the hole, but then he missed the putt that would have saved his 5 and which, had he been able to hole it, would surely have gone a long way toward erasing from his mind the sting and the memory of that first mis-hit trap shot. We shall be seeing a lot more of Thomson, who could easily develop into the outstanding player of the next decade.