On a morning in early May two middle-aged men met in Tulsa for a round of golf. The day was already warm at 8:30 as they stood high on the 1st tee looking down a tunnel of trees that is the 1st fairway. Five miles in the distance the white towers of downtown Tulsa rose like a modern Cadiz against the clear blue Oklahoma sky.
The talk on the tee was the friendly banter of weekend golfers, but this was to be no ordinary round. The course was Southern Hills, where the U.S. Open will be held next week, and the players were P. J. Boatwright Jr., executive director of the United States Golf Association, and Frank D. (Sandy) Tatum Jr., a San Francisco lawyer who is chairman of the USGA's Championship Committee.
These are the people who have set up Southern Hills for the Open. A year ago they produced a memorandum, addressed to the chairman of the club course committee, that gave hole-by-hole instructions for preparing the course. The round of golf was to be the last step in the process of readying the layout for the national championship.
To the USGA, setting up the Open course is an annual demonstration of its philosophy, which is, at bottom, If God Gave Us 14 Clubs He Must Have Meant Us to Use Them. To the players, if one can believe what one hears, four days on a course set up by the USGA is four days on the rack. If matters proceed according to schedule, one week from now the decisions that Tatum and Boatwright have made at Southern Hills will have earned them the undying enmity of at least some of "the best players in the world," as the PGA tour often refers to its collective self. At best, the USGA officials' motives will be impugned. At worst, their antecedents will be called into question. It happens every year; only the intensity of the criticism varies. Last June, at the Atlanta Athletic Club, the abuse directed at the USGA's striped-tie-and-blue-armband brigade was enough to make a Phillie fan blush.
This year the grumbling began even before anyone had seen the course. Bob Toski, who was a touring pro from 1948 to 1958 but now is known mainly as a teacher, wrote a column for the June issue of
about the way the USGA runs the Open. "What will confront the field at Southern Hills...is typical," he said. "By converting the 13th hole into a par-4 from a par-5 without an appreciable change in the yardage, the par has been reduced from 71 to 70.... You make a fool of the professional and demean his talent by chopping down par and tricking up the course."
Toski overlooked the fact that in 1970, when the PGA held its championship at Southern Hills and the USGA was nowhere near the premises, par was also 70 because the 13th had been changed from a 545-yard par-5 to a 470-yard par-4. Furthermore, the rough was so deep that Dave Stockton, the winner with a total score of 279, one under par, said recently, "I can still see Mason Rudolph on 10, standing in grass that was knee deep."
Toski concluded his column by saying, "I'm convinced that their objective is to build a monument to themselves."
The U.S. Open is, indeed, a monument to the USGA. It and the Amateur Championship are the oldest institutions in American golf, both dating to 1895. In golf's apostolic succession they are America's links to Old Tom Morris, John Ball and the sport's Scottish heritage.
Like the game, but a bit slower, the USGA has evolved into a mid-20th-century phenomenon. By common consent of the country's golf organizations, it interprets the rules, codifies the handicaps, defines amateurism, tests equipment and develops new grasses. It conducts 10 national championships a year and four international team competitions, and for all this nobody pays the USGA the slightest mind. But come June and Open time, when it presumes to tamper with the inalienable right of a pro to reach a par-5 in two, the USGA becomes everybody's whipping boy.
There are two schools of golf-course architecture. One holds that every shot should be to a target and that every target should be protected. The USGA leans toward this school. The other maintains that the putting area should be defended to the death, but how the golfer gets there does not matter so much. Augusta National, with its wide-open fairways and negligible rough, is an excellent example of this school.