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On this the comparative eve of another National Open, the air in all good golfing circles is being filled with the usual blithe speculations as to whether the course (Winged Foot) will prove to be too easy for the boys (or possibly too rigorous after the USGA's annual march against the fairways) and by such concomitant predictions as what the winning four-round total will be and who will be posting it in this 59th edition of the game's most important championship. There cannot be interest without conversation—one-third of the pleasure of any event lies in anticipating it just as one-third of its pleasure lies in remembering it—and certainly no man worth his alpaca sweater should be expected to stand quietly by as the Open field assembles and not announce whom he is picking to win. At the same time—and I think I am speaking for temperate listeners throughout the country—it would be a decided boon if the predictors forwent their usual assumption of rare powers of analysis and divination and simply stated, as they reached for the nearest swizzle stick, why they hope a certain golfer will win and why they think he may be able to. This is as far as anyone can reasonably go. As regards forecasting the winning total, a ploy which has gained increasing favor because it shows the forecaster is really close to the game and may have possibly played the course or at least driven past it, the fewer the prognostications the better unless the seer is also able to foretell weather conditions and their effect on the course, for certainly these factors can push an estimate for 72 holes 10 strokes or more either way.
These thoughts occur with a special meaningfulness these days, for the 1959 Open looms as one of those really open Opens. Any one of 40 golfers can win it. They have the game in them, that many and maybe more. (Among the top 10 finishers in the 1958 Open, for example, were such players as Dick Metz, Don January and Tommy Jacobs, who, capable as they are, would not ordinarily be rated among the serious contenders for the title.) Like all other athletes involved in games which call for extremely exact timing, golfers have their hot and cold stretches, and the winning of the championship will in the end depend on who happens to be right on his game the three days of the tournament and has the poise and courage (and that little bit of necessary luck) to make the most of his opportunity. Until play actually starts, there is really no knowing who will be in top form. Some players will come to the Open riding hot streaks and others will act in the practice rounds as if the course was designed for them by their local Department of Parks, but these advance showings seldom bear any relationship to what the golfer produces when the bell rings. The reverse is as likely to happen. While admitting that Walter Hagen was no average man and that his highs and lows were abnormally mercurial, certainly no one would have looked for Walter to win the 1928 British Open (which he did) a week after he had been pasted 18 and 17 by Archie Compston in a special 72-hole match, or to win the 1929 British Open (which he also did) on an unpredictable rebound from a 10 and 8 defeat in the Ryder Cup matches by George Duncan. There just is no reliable pre-tournament gauge. After the first two rounds of the Open are completed but not any sooner, old hands may have a few honest glimmerings as to who has a fair chance to win. However, it is only a little before noon on the third day, Open Saturday when the last 36 holes are played, that the picture really begins to develop sufficiently so that that uncommon person, the truly prescient golf observer, can begin to sense who among the golfers in a position to win looks as if he can go on and actually do it.
There are two main reasons why American golf fans tend to think of championship form as more predictable than it is, and they are Jones and Hogan. Between 1923 and 1930, Bob (forgetting about his records in the other major tournaments) won the National Open four times in eight attempts and two other times lost only after a playoff. He was a genius, of course, both as a golfer and a competitor. Where most men under pressure invariably find a way to lose, Jones, once in the battle, stumble as he might here and there, generally found a way to win. The same is equally true of Hogan. You have to have outright genius to capture four Opens in five consecutive starts, as Ben did between 1948 and 1953, and then barely miss a fifth as he did in 1955 when he lost that dramatic playoff at Olympic. Notwithstanding Ben's stirring comeback victory in the Colonial Invitational a month or so ago, today he is well past his golfing prime, as he would be the first to declare. At the same time, he still has the game, if his putting holds up, to win another Open: let him get off with good rounds on Thursday and Friday and on Saturday's exhausting merry-go-round this indestructible warrior will carry his years like a feather. But the main point is that Hogan is not quite the player of the early 1950s when it was virtually Hogan versus the field, and since he isn't, in American golf there is presently no all-commanding superstar. Instead, what we have at the moment is a vast array of prodigiously talented players. Never before have so many been so good on the championship level. This abundance of talent is reflected in the record entry of 2,388 players for this Open and, indirectly, in the institution this year of both local and sectional qualifying rounds to determine the 131 players who with the 19 exempt players will comprise the starting Open field.
About four years ago, in the last stages of the Age of Hogan, it was conventional to group tournament golfers in three categories depending roughly on their age and experience. As you may remember, Hogan and his contemporaries, who were called the Old Guard, were past 40 and appearing in fewer and fewer circuit tournaments. When the major events came around, though, they still took the play away from the promising young men who were kindling new fires on the tour, the Young Guard, the boys in their middle and late 20s. And when the Old Guard didn't dominate the big ones, the so-called Middle Guard did. This was the group of players in their mid-30s, among them Middlecoff, Boros, Burke and Bolt. There is some question, when one looks back, as to the suitableness of these names we all attached to the various groups. (Certainly the term Middle Guard is about as inspired as the cognomens of the trios and quartets which are grinding out the rockabilly melodies that later historians, I am afraid, are bound to view as the chosen music of our age.) In any event, the time has perhaps come to dismiss all the Guards and to view the scene with a fresh eye, but before we do, using the old groupings can serve to bring out the ways in which things have changed and the ways they haven't over the past four years.
In 1955, as we were saying, everyone was wondering when the Young Guard would finally break the hold of the older players in the prestige affairs. Over the last two years they have. Lionel Hebert, 29 at the time, took the 1957 PGA, defeating Dow Finsterwald, then 28, in the final. Finsterwald came back and won the 1958 PGA. Arnold Palmer, 28 at the time, broke through in the Masters in 1958, less than four years after he had won the Amateur.
Although Peter Thomson, the 29-year-old Australian internationalist, has whipped the field in four British Opens, no member of the Young Guard (several of whom are now in their 30s, by the way) has as yet managed to win our Open. There is every reason why they should, and every reason also why the members of the old Middle Guard and the old Old Guard should. The successes in the past few years of Middlecoff, Burke and the other Middle Guardsmen and their subsequent partial retirement from the week-after-week circuit pace (which their age suggested and their affluence made possible) seem to have taken nothing away from their skill. In fact, they seem to have strengthened the point, which Jones made in the '20s and Hogan in the '50s, that girding your energies for the big ones is a sensible approach to the arduous business of tournament golf. As for the old Old Guard, the years barely seem to have touched them. Maybe they are not winning so frequently—they cannot muster as many airtight fourth rounds as they once could—but they remain extraordinary players. Sam Snead, for instance, who on the basis of his weekly performances on All-Star Golf has become a national living-room idol of the same dimensions as Paladin, Wyatt Earp and the other stars of our early outdoor legal system, is now, as he turns 47, as capable of winning the Open as he was the day he took his first crack at it in 1937 when the coconut straw industry had hardly been mobilized. In short then, the Old Guard is still with us, the Middle Guard certainly is, the Young Guard has quietly arrived, and additionally there are many, many other splendid golfers—some like Venturi and Player are even younger than the old Young Guard, others like Art Wall, Stan Leonard and Jay Hebert do not fit into the old categories—and all must be reckoned with at Winged Foot as men who can fit the slipper.
The famous West Course at Winged Foot in Mamaroneck, N.Y. should present the best Open test since Oak Hill (in Rochester) in 1956. It was at Oak Hill, you may recall, that a minor millennium was reached: the officials of the USGA, braced to receive the annual complaints that they had stifled the course with their ministrations, were accosted by one player after another and brazenly complimented on its fairness and appeal. There were good reasons for this. First, the rough at Oak Hill had not been brought in, as it usually is for the Open, to that point where, as Mr. Sam Snead has described it, "you can jump clean across the fairway in one spring." Furthermore, the rough was playable to the degree that it should be. There is a sound school of golfers which holds that a golfer should be able to play a four-iron from an average lie in the rough, and at Oak Hill four-iron rough did obtain. Inverness, the venue of the 1957 Open, was nowhere nearly as popular with the players, nor was Southern Hills in Tulsa, where Tommy Bolt put together his four brilliant rounds last June. The chief trouble with Inverness was that this fine old course was no longer lengthy enough or stiff enough to challenge the modern professional. In trying to make it so, the USGA went back to string-bean fairways and to astrakhan collars of rough around the green, a treatment that indeed made Inverness more difficult but in an artificial way which depreciated its worth. Last year at Tulsa the Bermuda grass rough was allowed to grow to the height of northern grasses. Since no one could then get out of it with any club except a wedge, this upset the proportions of a course which, with its hard, baked-out greens, would have been amply testing anyway.
These excesses will probably be avoided at Winged Foot—at least they should be. There is already plenty of course out there without inventing one, now that two weak par-5s (the 9th and 16th) have been transformed into long par-4s, new back tees built on the 4th and 12th which alter these holes drastically, and substantial length added to many of the other holes by extending the tee to the rear. On 10 of the 12 par-4 holes, a rather long iron (nothing less than a five) will ordinarily be required on the approach. It will have to be a very accurate shot to hit and hold the greens, for they are an ornery breed. Designed by A. W. Tillinghast in 1922, they are for the most part raised slightly above the level of the fairways and are pear"-shaped. That is, the front opening is narrow, they are pinched in a bit near the center, and most of the room lies to the back. Along both sides of the greens hugging the putting surface closely, one finds, with few exceptions, that old Tillinghast trademark: the kidney-shaped trap with an abrupt pitch to the high sidewalk Even the most accomplished long-iron player is going to hit a few of those traps every round, and this being the case, Claude Harmon, the Winged Foot professional, is convinced that the winner will have to be a player who can execute the soft trap shot, wafting the ball gently over the sidewall so that there is very little run on it when it lands on tight greens whose contours make them racy.
Because of the relatively small targets the greens present and the sticky little shots a player must handle if he misses them, Winged Foot is a course on which a man can quickly sour his score if he lets his concentration desert him even for a moment. Two vivid illustrations of this took place on Bob Jones's final round in 1929, the one time previous that the Open has been held at Winged Foot. On the 8tk, then as now a long and severe par-4, Bob hit his second into the bunker on the front left side of the green. He scaled his third over the green into the trap beyond. He continued this costly game of ping-pong by hitting his fourth back over the green and into that first bunker. Then he got on, at length, and down in two putts for a 7. Fortunately for Jones, he had entered the fourth round with a comfortable lead and his principal challengers had been running into trouble too, so he remained in no appreciable danger until he came to the 15th, a medium-length par-4 to a well-trapped green seated at the crest of a slope. Here again Bob played a most uncharacteristic series of shots after his second had left him well short of the green on the up-slope. Wanting to pitch firmly to the flag, he punched his third yards too strong, over the back apron and into the rough behind a clumpy hassock. His fourth, which he tried to cut over the hassock, hit it. His fifth was on, and with two putts he had another inglorious 7. Shaken by this performance, Bob staggered down the stretch and only just resurrected a tie for the top with Al Espinosa by holing that famous curling 12-footer for his par on the home green. In the playoff he returned to his best Jonesian form with a vengeance, but the playoff was at least as remarkable for the never-ending troubles that befell poor Espinosa. He failed to break 80 on either round and finished 23 shots behind, a grim illustration of how unrelenting Winged Foot can be when a golfer loses his grip on himself.
One other facet of Jones' play at Winged Foot is worth commenting on in the light of the approaching Open. Bob got off with a 69, but few 69s have been begun with poorer auspices. On the first hole, then as now a very long par-4 slightly uphill all the way and into the prevailing wind, he went two over with a 6. On the second, now a drive and a five-iron but in 1929 a drive and a pitch, Bob got his par. On the third, however, he went two over again, which is not a hard thing to do on a par-3 about 220 yards long to a heaving green with only the suspicion of an entrance. Four over par after three holes, Bob regrouped his forces, turned in 38 and, pouring it on, came home in 31. The point, though, for our purpose is this: the first three holes at Winged Foot, in 1959 no less than in 1929, comprise one of the toughest opening stretches in golf. There will surely be lots of 5-5-4 starts against the par of 4-4-3, and the player who gets by these holes in one over par will be in comparatively good shape.