Over almost all the years since the first U.S. Open in 1895, the championship has had two things going for it: golf courses hidden in weeds and a title big enough to choke a hippopotamus. And more often than not these two things have produced one result: the grandest of our tournaments has been lost rather than won. Lost in the snarling, argyle-high rough or lost on a linoleum-fast green. Lost in an evilly designed bunker or lost in an obtrusive creek. And sometimes lost in a combination of all this plus some poor soul's anger, passion and suffocating thoughts of immortality. But lost. Continually.
And lost even by men who knew how to win it. A Bobby Jones, a Ben Hogan, a Walter Hagen, a Harry Vardon, an Arnold Palmer and that steadiest of all Open losers, Sam Snead. A golfer hasn't lived who couldn't blow the Open.
All of which brings to mind the classic remark of Cary Middlecoff, always worth repeating on the eve of another championship. "Nobody wins the Open," said Middlecoff. "It wins you."
The Open won Middlecoff twice as he sat in the clubhouse and let others falter, which is how most men have won it. In 1949 at Medinah, Middlecoff began the last round with a six-stroke lead over Snead. Cary struggled to a 75, and sat down to twitch while Sam carved away at him. Snead got to the 71st hole needing two pars to tie. Alas, Sam missed the green and took a bogey 4. That was it. And once again Snead had added to the negative fame he has achieved come U.S. Open time.
In 1956 at Oak Hill, Middlecoff finished a good hour ahead of the men who could beat him. He watched on television, chewing hay-fever tablets, as Ben Hogan, needing three pars to tie, missed a 30-inch putt; as Julius Boros, needing a birdie over the final three, rimmed out two of them; and, finally, as Ted Kroll, needing four pars to win, made a bogey and then a triple bogey.
Such is the pressure of an Open.
A basic truth is that nobody—you can look it up—in the 79-year history of the championship has ever made a putt of any size to win the Open when he had to. In other words, no man has come to the final green, late in the day when all other challengers had finished, and rapped in a five-footer, a 10-footer, or something bigger, for birdie or par, to capture the Open by a single stroke. Men have holed long putts to tie or to win by two, four, five strokes. But never to win, under Open pressure, by the thinnest of margins—when the competition had finished and it was all up to them alone.
There is evidence that the Open started getting lost the very first time it was played. On Oct. 4, 1895, over 36 holes in Newport, R.I., exactly 11 players were entered in the first tournament. For 27 holes that day one W. Campbell dominated play. But on the final nine W. Campbell soared to a 48, and the bewildered winner turned out to be 19-year-old Horace Rawlins, who blazed around in 91-82—173 and became $150 richer for it.
Since then the bodies of a lot of W. Campbells have been stacked up in the Open. Undoubtedly, some more will be added next week at Winged Foot when, in contrast to Newport 79 years ago, there will be 150 qualified and exempt competitors out of more than 3,500 entries seeking a first prize of $35,000, and all of the fringe benefits an Open victory now generates. To get in the proper mood for the 1974 Open, let us review some classic case histories.
Bobby Jones practically owned the Open, but he lost it as often as he won it. He was second four times, as many as Snead. If Jones could have closed with anything less than a horrendous 78 at Oakland Hills in 1924, no one would ever have heard of Cyril Walker. But the one Jones really kicked away was the Open of '28 at Olympia Fields. Through the fifth hole of the last round Jones had a five-stroke lead. As he later wrote, "I made the fatal mistake of trying to play safe."