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At a golf tournament many years ago, I was inspired to make the brilliant joke in a Texas newspaper that if Tommy Bolt had not become a touring pro, he would, in all probability, have been married to Bonnie Parker. The following day when I saw Bolt at Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth, he asked me who Bonnie Parker was. I guess I got about two sentences deep into the history of Clyde Barrow and Bonnie Parker—ever smiling, naturally, alert for the orbiting wedge—when Bolt said, "Well, son, why don't you just go out and round up them two, and old Tom'll play their low ball."
I loved Tommy Bolt. As a journalist I rated him right up there next to a used, fast-action Royal standard with a new ribbon. And as a golfer I admired his stylish shotmaking more than anyone's but Ben Hogan's. Those of us who knew him and watched him compete in his prime recognized that when Thomas Henry Bolt was right—confident, calm and not blaming Arnold Palmer or the Lord for any short putts that curled away from the cup—no other human being could strike a prettier variety of shots, or land them more softly on the targets, including Ben Hogan.
On the subject of Hogan, whom Tommy always credited with "weakening" his grip, or, in other words, curing what he suspected was a terminal hook, Bolt once said, "Now lookie here at all these baby-faced young mullets on the tour. They come out here dressed up in their Ben Hogan blues and grays. They ought to come to old Tom, and let him show 'em how to match their reds with their pinks and their fuchsias."
This week old Tom is in the news again because the U.S. Open has returned to Southern Hills in Tulsa, where Bolt strung together some of his—and history's—finest golf. It was such a feat that the crusty old USGA has brought Tommy back to this 77th Open as a special entrant. Good for the USGA for remembering that it was in the 1958 Open that Bolt finessed his way through a collection of fairways as narrow as his four-wood and consistently avoided a Bermuda rough more gnarled than his temper could be. He led all the way and won laughing, by what seemed like a whopping four strokes, with a smite-your-forehead score of 283.
I must tell you how good that was. Of the game's other big stars in that era, only Julius Boros and Gene Littler were heard from at Southern Hills. And Boros and Littler finished six and seven strokes behind Bolt. It was left to a thoroughgoing unknown named Gary Player to be second. Sam Snead missed the cut. Jimmy Demaret withdrew. Cary Middlecoff shot 300. Ken Venturi shot 302. And Ben Hogan, his wrist slightly sprained after a bout with the rough, was hurtled into a tie for 10th.
Bolt's four rounds were 71-71-69-72. That only sounds routine until you consider that his highest single round, the 72, was at least three shots better than any other competitor's worst round. No one else in the '58 Open escaped without at least one score of 75 or higher.
Another item. The most dangerous and torturous hole at Southern Hills is the par-4 12th: tight driver, long-to-medium iron, trees, water. Hogan selected it on his "All-American golf course." Tommy Bolt birdied 12 the first three rounds and parred it on the last 18, which amounted to more of a triumphant stroll than a round of competitive golf.
This was the Open that furnished Tommy Bolt Story No. 1,032. When he entered the press tent after the second round as the sole owner of the Open lead, he pretended to be angry with a Tulsa reporter because of a misprint in the morning paper. Old Tom was 40 years old at the time, but the paper had said he was 49. The Tulsa writer apologized for the typographical error.
"Typographical error, hell," said Bolt. "It was a perfect four and a perfect nine."
None of us who were privileged to be near him inside the ropes can ever forget old Tom as he closed in on those last few holes of his Southern Hills victory. He did not seem to mind two or three reporters chatting with him among the Open leader's customary entourage of striped ties and USGA armbands.