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The United States Golf Association's annual shrub-judging and weed-stomping contest, more commonly known as the U.S. Open, will be renewed for the 68th time next week at another of those historic old country clubs—Baltus Oak, or something like that—and it will disappoint a great many of us if the Open's usual array of stars, or their counterparts, are not among the fungus and fern of the setting. You know the gang: Bob Gajda, Lee Mackey, Bobby Brue, Rives McBee, Les Kennedy, Al Brosch, all of those fellows who either lead the first round or shoot a course record in the second and then return to their club jobs back in Willoughby, Ohio. You can't take the unknowns out of the Open any more than you can take the oak out of the USGA.
Actually, the course is Oak Hill this time, a fine layout in Rochester, N.Y. that hosted the Open once before, in 1956, but it is not to be confused with Oakland Hills near Detroit or Oakmont near Pittsburgh, a couple of exalted venues that have combined to stage eight Opens in the past. Oak Hill will nevertheless require the usual USGA quota of Mackeys and Brues and Gajdas to fill out the field of 150 persevering souls who must struggle with the botanical wonders that every Open layout presents. The unknowns rarely win, of course. In fact, nobody ever really wins an Open, except possibly Jack Nicklaus (see cover). Normally, the champion turns out to be the man who has lost it more discreetly than the others.
Precisely because of all this, and much more, the Open has developed a special kind of personality among tournaments. The mere setting of the Open is enough to overwhelm the unsuspecting. The course gets dressed up to resemble the Argonne Forest, and these old courses nearly always have a clubhouse that looks as if Wuthering Heights has been nailed onto the side of Jay Gatsby's cottage in West Egg. And wandering all over the premises will be scores of aristocratic gentlemen in striped ties, button-down shirts and blue blazers pointing out drop areas. If you scooped up a Southampton lawn party, put it on a Scottish moor and ran up a flag, you, too, could hold an Open.
The thing that makes the Open work, however, is that for all of its crusty tradition, imposed dignity, and calf-high rough it remains the biggest, most important championship in golf. The Masters comes close, right to the lip of the cup, but the British Open and the PGA, the other tournaments comprising the game's Big Four, are not really in the same bag. The Open is the title that stays with a man longer than any other, like forever, and this aspect of it has caused as many mis-hit shots as the prize money. Record books can do that. The Open is simply the Kentucky Derby, the Indy 500 and the Rose Bowl of its sport, and so it is only natural that it has often been a sort of combined twilight zone and laugh-in.
Just look back at some of the more obvious moments for proof. There was a limping Ben Hogan winning four times on the monsters of Oakland Hills, Oakmont, Merion Oaks and Riviera Oaks. Over the same period there was a robust Sam Snead never winning. There was Ken Venturi, back from the forgotten, surviving the heat of Congressional. There was Julius Boros, his game unfit for the elements, surviving the storm winds of Brookline. There was Billy Casper, trying only to be second, surviving Arnold Palmer at Olympic. And then there was that "Open coma" group, the unsaliva-tested Sam Parks, Tony Manero and Jack Fleck, three winners who succeeded in making the headlines read like garbled type.
Understandably enough, the sports fan is jolted year after year by the tournament's quaint surprises. This is mainly because he is more familiar with the history of Joe Namath's knee than he is with that of the USGA. All he knows about any Open course is that it's tougher than the one he loses his Maxflis on every Saturday, but, heck, he figures Arnold Palmer can handle it easily enough. So if the baseball game isn't too interesting on this particular Sunday afternoon every June, he tunes in on the Open to see how many old Arnie will win by this time. And then comes the shock. Either Casper, Boros or Nicklaus, who have won five of the last nine, will come wading through a gangsome of Monty Kasers to do it again.
Meanwhile there is a slightly more knowledgeable observer who has learned to accept the mischief of the Open as willingly as he accepts heel prints in all of the bunkers at his club. And he would not be stunned at all if the drama of Oak Hill next week unfolded in the manner of the following news bulletins, which have been only faintly exaggerated:
ROCHESTER, N.Y., June 12—A glittering field on the eve of the 68th U.S. Open agreed today that there is so much exotic plant life bordering the fairways of Oak Hill that only a malnourished hippie could walk down the middle of them without snagging his britches.
Gardner Dickinson, chairman of the PGA Tournament Committee, said he was withdrawing because he had never learned how to hit golf shots out of asparagus.