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Mister X marked the spot
John Papanek
July 19, 1982
Miller Barber blazed to the Senior Open title with his final round of 65
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July 19, 1982

Mister X Marked The Spot

Miller Barber blazed to the Senior Open title with his final round of 65

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For three days the sun-washed fir-and spruce-covered Portland (Ore.) Golf Club resembled nothing so much as the rolling green gardens of a sleepy retirement home. The deeply tanned elders strolling the grounds might have been playing croquet instead of competing in the most significant sports event in the world for men over 50, the third U.S. Senior Open Championship. Then, on the fourth day, when seven august oldtimers had bunched themselves and a load of over-par numbers at the top of the leader board, a relative kid broke the tournament open. The quiet, semi-invisible man they call Mr. X, Miller Barber, at 51 one of the youngest players in the 150-man field, relieved the seniors of some mild embarrassment by playing the kind of golf they insist they can still play, and became $28,648 richer for it. It was important to the seniors that the tournament be won with the kind of golf Barber played, and Mr. X greeted his victory with something approaching reverence.

"I just played one of the best rounds of golf in one of the biggest tournaments of my life," he said. "Truly. If you're an amateur you want to win the U.S. Amateur. If you're a professional you want to win the U.S. Open. If you're a senior you want to win the Senior Open. As far as I'm concerned, I've just won my second major championship." (He won the Senior PGA last year.)

Of course, for all but Arnold Palmer and a handful of others, senior golf means a new lease on life. Said Bob Goalby, 53, "You compete for 30 years, then they put you out to pasture. You feel like you want to die. Now they got us watching our weight, staying in shape, beating balls—it's fantastic." Said Peter Thomson, the 52-year-old Australian who won five British Opens, "We older fellows could play, but it's very lucky we can play for money, isn't it?"

What one sees when watching the seniors are a lot of funny putting styles and out-of-fashion golf clothes, and somehow it's comforting. Ken Towns, a 54-year-old pro from Graeagle, Calif., who was in contention all the way, wore a pair of threadbare blue pants with little red golfers all over them. There wasn't a blond head of hair to be found out there—on many heads there was no hair at all. Often one would hear a player mutter, "Where'd it go?" after a tee shot. But there were a lot of beautiful, slow swings to watch, too. Many players left their drivers in their bags, the better to stay in the tight fairways and also to prove that slow and easy works very nearly as well as hard and powerful.

Still, until Sunday, the Senior Open was more like a company outing than a serious competition. Finally, Barber sparked life into a desultory tournament in which, during the first three days, subpar rounds were almost nonexistent. Only three players were able to better par 71 over Portland's 6,439 yards. On Sunday, Barber's brilliant 65 was one of four sub-par rounds. It gave him a 72-hole total of two-under 282, four shots better than Gene Littler and Dan Sikes, nine better than defending champion Arnold Palmer, 52, who disappointed everybody with his final-round 74.

Throughout the week in Portland, the most frequently asked question was, "What time does Arnie tee off?" After that, it was mostly, "Why isn't Arnie shooting 64s?" To be sure, although Ben Hogan won the 1945 Portland Open at the same site with the incredibly low score of 27 under, the course played inexplicably tough—so tough that most of the pros, old and older, were at a loss to explain why, and were more than a little bit uncomfortable about their showing.

Part of the problem, of course, was the tight fairways and the standard deep Open-style rough, which presents much greater difficulty to the soft-swinging seniors than to the kids on the regular tour. But the greatest obstacle seemed to be the baking sun, which kept the grass dry and the temperatures near 90�. For players who had been accustomed to riding in carts—even the pros who regularly play the 17-event senior circuit—this was a hardship, and a few of them weren't too proud to deny it.

"Shoot," said Sikes after his second-round 69 put him two strokes behind Littler, "I haven't walked a course in about a year."

For the first three days, the last six holes were the real killers. Going into Sunday's final 18, the seven leaders were a total of 29 over par. "I don't know what it is," said a bemused Palmer on Saturday afternoon, while insisting that the heat and the walking didn't bother him. "In fact, I could go out and play another 18 holes right now." The most bothersome hole was 15, a 460-yard par-4, which is normally played by members as a-485-yard par-5. Littler bogeyed it three times, Sikes and Gay Brewer bogeyed it twice, Goalby made two bogeys and a double. Only Barber had played those killer holes in even par.

"I just don't understand it," said Goalby, unabashedly embarrassed for himself and his brethren after not a single player broke par during Saturday's third round. "I knew I was going to shoot under 70 today," he said. "Man, this course is eating us up alive. I guess it's intimidating. It's long and narrow; you get to worrying about out of bounds here, bunkers there; you squeeze the club, pinch it, try to guide the ball, steer it, instead of just grabbing your driver and letting it rip like the kids do."

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