The United States Open golf championship can no more dodge making history than it can avoid criticism or mysterious happenings. The one staged last week at the old Inverness Club in Toledo will mostly be remembered for a spruce tree, an impostor, a clown and, finally, the first Open winner with braces on his teeth. Where the sainted Harry Vardon had once walked, Hale Irwin invented the underlapping overbite.
A truly fine player who deserved to win another Open—one more than Arnold Palmer and Gary Player, two more than Sam Snead—Irwin actually won this one on Saturday, when he fired a 67 into the antagonistic little old-fashioned greens and humping, curving fairways of Inverness. He may even have won it with a single shot that day, a career two-iron for a gimme eagle on the 13th hole. All he really had to do in Sunday's final round was not lose, and he is too reliable and accomplished a player for that.
Irwin began the last 18 with a three-stroke lead on Tom Weiskopf, his closest competitor, with whom he was paired. After four holes, silent Tom Purtzer was second, only two strokes behind. Purtzer had started five back but he birdied three of the first four holes. Twenty minutes later, however, Irwin held a four-stroke lead over Purtzer and Jerry Pate.
Irwin is not only a splendid shotmaker with every club in the bag, but he is also a tenacious golfer. As Weiskopf had said on Saturday evening, "Hale is about as tough a guy to catch as anybody you'd have to chase." Weiskopf tried—but too hard. He bogeyed the first two holes on Sunday and kept missing fairways and greens on his way to a five-over-par 76.
Irwin lost a shot to par through the first seven holes, but he birdied the 8th—the spruce tree hole—playing the par-5 the conventional way instead of what had come to be known as the Lon Hinkle way. Irwin bogeyed the 11th, he birdied the 12th. He went on making those tough pars, and toward the end of the round only cardiac arrest could have stopped him. Double-bogey/ bogey on 17 and 18 certainly didn't. After all, with only the two holes to play, he was five strokes up on Weiskopf and Player. Gary was already in the clubhouse, having closed with a 68, as had Jack Nicklaus. Those two rounds finally made the crowds realize the two giants had been on the grounds during the week. But Player's final round put him in at 286, two over par, and he wound up tied with Pate for second place. Nicklaus' redeeming three-under gave him a tie for ninth. He was out of this Open after the first seven holes on Friday, when he three-putted five times. Still, that was better than what befell the favorite, Tom Watson.
Watson saved his worst driving week of the year for Inverness; he seldom saw a fairway up close. With rounds of 75 and 77, he missed the 36-hole cut for the first time since March of last year. "I tried to tell everybody I was driving poorly, but nobody would listen," he said. "I want to win an Open so badly, I must be trying to guide the ball or something. I've got to rethink my Open preparation."
Irwin, of course, knew how to win an Open. He had won at Winged Foot in 1974, when he became the first bespectacled Open champion. Winged Foot is a brutal course with problems comparable to those at Inverness. Inverness' greens are much smaller than Winged Foot's—they seem smaller than most card tables—but they offered some of the same agony. They were speedy and they had swells in them. They were torturous to recover on if you missed them in regulation, or to hit into if you missed the fairway off the tee.
Irwin is a notably straight hitter who rarely misses a fairway by much, and he's a great bunker player. When he is going good, as on Saturday when he nailed Inverness with that 67, he simply does everything well. Weiskopf had shot a 67 of his own the same day, but Irwin's was more impressive because he had to look at Weiskopf just ahead and then match him.
The most special moment of the championship came during that round. Weiskopf, who has been so close so many times in major championships, was making a deadly run at this one. On the 523-yard par-5 13th, he had a chance to reach the green in two. With Irwin watching, he sailed a four-iron onto the green, and then holed an eight-foot eagle putt.
Now came Irwin with the pressure on him. Giving up would be easy, but a man who decides to straighten out his teeth with braces at the age of 34 is a determined son of a gun. He had the braces put on two weeks earlier to correct his bite and narrow some spaces. Now it was time to put the bite on Weiskopf or anyone else in contention.