Luckily, there was one American who could play this game. In this strangest of U.S. Open golf championships, one of big hits and little misses, one which forever will be remembered for the Blunder on the Orient Express, Andy North, a Big Ten assistant football coach, a man once so far over the hill that most people figured he would need a map to come back, a player whose last victory had been in the 1978 U.S. Open, stood in a bunker on the 17th hole Sunday contemplating the shot that could win him the '85 championship.
It had been a horrible day for North. Starting two strokes behind leader T.C. Chen, he had scattered shots all over the Oakland Hills Country Club in Birmingham, Mich. He had missed all but three fairways and been in eight bunkers, and were it not for the uncharacteristically sparse rough, he might not have been on the leader board. But miraculously, after the collapse of almost everyone else, including the remarkable Chen, North was leading by a stroke. Later, asked to sum up his round, he would say, "Guts."
Now, North was marooned in the bunker facing an explosion of perhaps 20 yards to a cup that he couldn't see. His feet were above the ball and the pin was cut about 12 feet from the edge of the green, a setup for disaster. North blasted away. Instantly, he knew the shot was perfect. He started out of the bunker as the ball dropped near the edge of the green and then bounced forward and skidded to within inches of the cup. North knew the ball was close, and he clenched his fists in triumph.
That gesture was straight from the football sidelines. So deep is North's affection for his native state and the University of Wisconsin, that he spends each fall as a volunteer coach with the Badgers, working with the offense. And so after winning luxuriously with a final-hole bogey, with no goal posts to tear down, North settled for the flag from the pin at the 18th hole and stuffed it into his pocket for a souvenir.
This 85th Open was a tournament with the pacing of a good book: a fantastic beginning, some remarkable action in the middle and a trick ending. North had rounds of 70-65-70-74—279, one under par, to take the title and $103,000 by a shot over three foreigners: Chen of Taiwan, Denis Watson of South Africa and Dave Barr of Canada.
The number two appeared throughout the Open script: a double eagle, a two-stroke penalty, a double hit, North's second Open victory, and the two-days-and-out showing of some of the biggest names in the game.
It was on Thursday that the improbable Chen, playing the Open for the first time, made history and introduced himself by sinking a three-wood shot for a double-eagle 2 on the 2nd hole. That began a run in which Chen would delight almost everyone with his charming naiveté and his remarkable candor—"I lucky," he kept saying. He owned the tournament for three rounds and 4½ holes, until, with a four-stroke lead in his pocket, he made an eight, flubbing a pitch and double-hitting a chip shot on the 5th hole Sunday. Just that quickly, Chen was off on an odyssey of disaster, three-putting, shanking, visiting trees and bunkers.
It was his second shot on the fifth hole, a 457-yard par-4, that started Chen's undoing. At that point he led North by four strokes. Instead of playing safely at the fat of the green, Chen, a gambling man who won $5,000 at blackjack in one session in Las Vegas this year, aimed a four-iron at the pin, which was tucked behind a bunker on the right. There is a fine line between being bold and being foolish at a major championship—just ask Curtis Strange, who blew this year's Masters with a four-wood into the water at the 13th hole and a four-iron into the water at 15. Chen's shot sailed to the right. He was short out of the rough with his next pitch, then tried to cut a sand wedge onto the green. The club hit behind its target, then accelerated, catching the ball twice. It was like pinball.
With everyone counting on his fingers, Chen—for the first time in the tournament he wasn't smiling—then chipped eight feet past the cup. He missed that putt. Eight. The Open was open.
Shaken, Chen bogeyed the next three holes and eventually finished with a 77. He three-putted the 17th hole, but just missed a last-gasp bunker shot on the final hole that nestled within inches of the cup. Later, he said of his longest day, "I just play pitiful golf. But second not bad for U.S. Open, and I make lot of friends." Who wouldn't pull for a 145-pound former caddie with a hitch in his backswing, the son of a greenskeeper, who didn't take up the game until he was 17? He wears a hat endorsing a Japanese company that makes automotive glue. Chen claims he is only the third-best player in Taiwan after his brother Tze-Ming Chen and "Mr. Lu"—Lu Liang Huan, who finished second to Lee Trevino in the 1971 British Open. If this is the case, the USGA ought to consider holding local qualifying in Taipei next year.