- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
As most of the world's best golfers begin to gather in Denver for the 1960 National Open, one fact seems clear. Never before in the long history of golf has there been such an abundance, so wide a range of truly accomplished players. There are those marvels of longevity, Hogan and Snead, now in their late 40s. There is the old Middle Guard, Boros, Middlecoff, Bolt, Burke and company, followed by a sizable maverick contingent, Art Wall and Doug Ford among them. There is that whole pride of young lions who, in their late 20s or early 30s, have suddenly come of age, epitomized by the three men on the cover, Arnold Palmer, Ken Venturi and Dow Finsterwald. And lastly, there are the kids—Gary Player of South Africa, at 25 the British Open champion, and Jack Nicklaus, the National Amateur champion, who is barely out of his teens. Nicklaus and Player, separately, also serve to remind us that the current amateur stars comprise an extremely strong group and that there is today a fairly large number of foreign golfers who must be considered valid threats in the U.S. championship tournament.
If there was a previous moment offering an almost comparable wealth of high talent, it came exactly 40 years ago in the 1920 Open at Inverness. Harry Vardon, then over 50, was there, a quarter of a century after winning his first British Open, and so was Ted Ray, the eventual victor, at 43 the oldest man ever to win the Open as well as the last successful invader from abroad. At the other extreme, Jones (18), Sarazen (18), Diegel (21) and a number of other youngsters who were to be forces in international golf were making their debuts in the championship. Those two days at Inverness—in that rugged era the field played 36 holes two days running—were marked by sudden bursts of hot scoring by many players which took them out of the ruck and into the fight, momentarily anyhow, and we might be seeing just such another slam-bang tournament at Cherry Hills Country Club in Denver next week.
As the accompanying map indicates, Cherry Hills differs from most of the recent Open tests (and is exactly the reverse of Winged Foot) in that the first four holes constitute a relatively easy start. Any player who gets fired up with a quick birdie or two is going to be in an attacking frame of mind, which is one reason why—given good weather—we might see the eclipse of Hogan's record Open total of 276 set at Riviera in 1948. Another reason is the fact that Cherry Hills, a mile above sea level, will play a lot shorter than its score-card length of 7,004 yards—closer to 6,600 yards, in the opinion of the resident professional, Rip Arnold, who estimates that the thinness of the air increases the flight of the ball by about 6%.
On the other hand, as every competitor realizes, if nobody else does, every Open layout somehow looks much less vulnerable on the morning play actually begins. Moreover, though scoring standards have changed appreciably since Cherry Hills was host to the Open in 1938, it is not irrelevant to note that the only player in the field who broke 290 that year was the winner, Ralph Guldahl. The course's fairways, then as now, were uncommonly narrow, and on his decisive final round of 69, Guldahl placed accuracy above all else and used his driver off only two tees. This year's players could be equally intimidated by the course.
Sam Snead, who finished 25 strokes behind Guldahl's pace in 1938, and Ben Hogan, who did not survive the halfway cut, will be teeing it up at Cherry Hills, and as usual they will be among the heavy favorites. So, of course, will be Palmer, Finsterwald and Venturi.
Palmer, as it need hardly be pointed out, apparently has the gift of the champions, that ability to summon his full powers and raise his game to its top pitch on most of the important occasions. Venturi is more of a streak player, sort of a latter-day edition of George Duncan, Jock Hutchison and Leo Diegel; he can go sprinting off on patches of the most purple stuff imaginable or not get going at all. As for Finsterwald, he is much more on the pin with his irons now that he is hitting the ball from right to left instead of from left to right. His tempo and timing at Augusta were really exquisite. Even on his fullest shots he never seemed to be trying to hit the ball more than a hundred yards—just pitch it over the clothesline in the backyard.
In tournament golf, previous form counts for a good deal, but it cannot be repeated too often that the finest golf swings are not scientific instruments. They necessarily vary from week to week, in fact from day to day, as does a player's touch on and around the greens. Appreciate this, and you will understand why the fine line that has always separated the great champions from the players of superlative skill is, in truth, a very broad line. The great champions somehow manage to respond to the challenge of the major events, frequently on days when their game is decidedly off, manufacturing satisfactory rounds on pure strength of will alone.
There is no better commentary on the truth of this last thesis than a review of the Open championships of the past decade. Three golfers compiled outstanding records in the 10 Opens of the 1950s: Hogan, Boros and Snead. Snead finished in the first 12 eight times. Apart from his victory in the 1952 Open, Boros was within striking distance of winning in five different tournaments, 1951, '55, '56, '57 and '58. Hogan's record, of course, was incomparable. After this, a few surprises crop up. Because he has not figured in any of the last five championships we are apt to forget, for example, that Lloyd Mangrum, that hardy competitor, was a force in every Open between 1950 and 1954 and that during this period George Fazio finished in the top five three times. Five other golfers—as the chart on page 20 shows—stood out from the crowd: Cary Middlecoff, Tommy Bolt, Bob Rosburg, Gene Littler and among the amateurs that old will-o'-the-wisp, Billy Joe Patton.
Looking back at these 10 national championships from a different aspect, what an astonishing sequence of genuinely heart-stirring tournaments came our way! For all the color and diversity of the present field, we shall be very lucky indeed if the '60s dump a similar cornucopia of excitement in our laps. Five of the last 10 Opens—those held in 1950, '51, '55, '56 and '57—produced improbably high drama in their final gaunt hours.
In four of these five dramas Ben Hogan played a prominent part. He won at Merion in 1950 after a playoff with Mangrum and Fazio. He won again the next June at Oakland Hills where, curiously, he acted as if he regarded the course as his principal opposition. Four years later at the Olympic Club in San Francisco, all that stood between him and a record-breaking fifth victory in the Open was the word that the one challenger still out on the course, Jack Fleck, had been unable to make up his deficit. That word, of course, never came. Fleck came ghosting down the stretch with a birdie on the 69th and the tying birdie on the home green and then went out the next day, cool and unshakeable, and took the playoff by three shots. At Oak Hill in Rochester the following year, Ben was one of the three men—Ted Kroll and Boros were the others—who came to the four closing holes with a reasonable chance of tying the total of 281 Middlecoff had earlier posted. On the 71st Ben missed the cup (to the right) from two and a half feet, and his bid was over. An attack of neuralgia in the wall of his chest forced him to withdraw at the last moment the next year at Inverness.