The U.S. Open golf championship won a young fellow named Andy North last week. It won him the way so many Opens have won other strangers, by throwing him into a daze and then letting him stagger home amid the immense pressures that accompany a final round, especially the last few holes when a guy is out there alone fighting himself and the elements and all of the uproar that goes with a major title. In the case of this Open, there is perhaps no tougher stretch of golf than the last five holes of the Cherry Hills course on the outskirts of Denver. And there is certainly no 18th hole as demanding as the one Andy North had to conquer in the earlier rounds and then survive at the very end.
For certain, North's victory brought to mind the old saying: nobody wins the Open, it wins you. The way it happened to North is that on the last day he played four-over-par golf on those last five holes, from the 14th in, which at Cherry Hills have a different character from the rest of the layout. The holes require laying up, letting out, thinking, with a long par 4, a medium par 3, a short par 4, a risky par 5, and then the swooping par-4 18th that combines such length and danger it should have been the place where all of those movie companies went looking for King Kong.
After four full days of splendid excitement and utter bewilderment, what 28-year-old Andy North needed on the 18th was to make a bogey 5 to outlast Dave Stockton and J. C. Snead and avoid the Open's first three-way playoff since 1963. From the 14th hole North had been frittering away a lead he had gained with his putting stroke. For those uninitiated to Open drama, North's four-stroke lead over Stockton with five holes to play may have seemed insurmountable. So may it have seemed to those who thought the Cherry Hills finishing stretch was nothing but numbers with a little water here and there.
But that was just where North confronted the golf course, the real golf course. When he bogeyed the 14th, no undue harm was done, because Stockton bogeyed it as well. But for the first time, North appeared to have lost his composure. After Stockton had birdied 15, North double bogeyed it by leaving.) a sand shot in the bunker, and you had to know he might fly apart in every direction.
Over and over, throughout the tournament, North had rescued himself with his putter and a putting style—hunched over, hands creeping down the shaft—that would dismay any instruction-book illustrator. North one-putted the first four greens of Sunday's final round, for example, and it immediately became clear that this Open was going to be his for the winning or losing.
North gathered himself together to save par at the 16th and he played to a steady par at 17. Stockton was one stroke back, Snead two. But finally he had to face the monstrous 18th, the hole that had thoroughly dominated the championship. It is a golf hole with absolutely no room off the tee. Anything left goes into a lake. Anything right goes out of bounds or into the rough. Essentially, you are aiming at a 15-yard-wide landing area whether you are hitting a driver or a two-iron. Next comes a long second shot up a hill and over a couple of yawning bunkers and onto a firm green where three-putting was commonplace and birdies were almost as rare as an Andy North victory on the regular tour.
However, North had been winning last week's Open on the 18th hole even before Sunday. Somehow, he birdied it twice. In the 432 times the hole was played there were only 11 birdies. The hole played so much over par on every single round, people could only joke about it. Tom Weiskopf, who incredibly wound up being a contender with a last-round 68 after coming within one shot of missing the 36-hole cut, might have made the best joke. When he was asked how he would play the 18th if he needed a life-or-death par 4, he said, "I'd make a 6."
Now about North's historic bogey. He drove into the upper right rough at the 18th, which meant he couldn't possibly reach the green in two. But at least he didn't flirt with the lake on his left and have to call on the gods to skip his ball across the water as Snead's tee shot had a few minutes earlier. From the rough, the best North could do was dig the ball and get it up the hill behind the bunker to the left of the green and directly between himself and the pin. By this time, of course, he knew that J.C. had missed his putt for a birdie and that Stockton had missed his putt for a par. In other words, North knew a bogey 5 was golden.
What he then did, naturally, was pitch daintily into the bunker. From there, he could make almost anything, having already demonstrated back on the 15th that he could leave it in the sand, this being the Open. One had to remember what Lee Trevino had said about the 18th hole: "A man could be standing on the 18th tee with a two-shot lead on Sunday and finish fourth."
North hit a splendid bunker shot in full view of the day's 25,000 spectators and a television audience that had seen as many promos as it had seen crucial golf shots. Now, at last, North faced a four-foot putt to win the Open. And if it wasn't suspenseful enough at this point, North added to the moment by twice stepping away from the putt as if he fully expected it to turn into a demon before his very eyes.