SI Vault
E.M. Swift
June 25, 1990
Special invitee Hale Irwin became the oldest U.S, Open champion by beating Mike Donald on the 19th playoff hole
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June 25, 1990

Hail, Irwin!

Special invitee Hale Irwin became the oldest U.S, Open champion by beating Mike Donald on the 19th playoff hole

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Who needs compassion at a U.S. Open? When a player flies one into the weeds, the world wants to see him start hacking. We want to see beads of sweat around his corporate visor and hear his muffled curses about cows and cornfields. Medinah provided no such titillation.

After a heavy rain last Wednesday night—not exactly an unheard-of occurrence in June in Chicago—Thursday dawned without a puff of wind, and Medinah was left defenseless. The greens were putty-soft. The generously wide fairways accepted drives like a bellman taking tips, preventing balls from bounding into the rough. Balls that did find their way into the long grass were generally swung at with abandon. The pros slashed through the four-inch stand of thatch with ease, thereby effectively eliminating driving accuracy as a factor in the competition. Jeff Sluman hit only 18 of 28 fairways the first two days, but on Friday night he stood at eight under par. Norman missed 21 of 56 fairways during the tournament but wound up fifth, five under.

Meanwhile, poor Curtis Strange, who failed in his attempt to become the first man to win three straight U.S. Opens since Willie Anderson did so in 1903-05, missed only five of 56 fairways—he was the most accurate driver in the field—but finished tied for 21st at two under. "It is not playing like a U.S. Open course," said Norman, who compared the event's mood with that of the Anheuser-Busch Classic in Williamsburg, Va. "It's sad. The tournament really stopped on Wednesday night, when it rained. Everything's so soft that they're firing at the bottom of the flagstick. This week seems to be more of a putting contest than a striking contest."

"We had the course set up just perfect, then it rained," said Boatwright after Friday's assault on par. "Right now, this is not a championship test."

After 36 holes the leader board looked like something you might find at the A-B (a tournament which, not coincidentally, Donald won in 1989 for his first and only career victory). Tim (not Bart) Simpson led at—9, followed by Sluman (-8), Donald (-7), Mark Brooks (-6), and Irwin and Scott (not Homer) Simpson, who were tied at-5. Ian Woosnam, the 5'4" Welshman whose irons have the accuracy of tracer missiles, led a contingent at four under with names like John Huston, Jim Gallagher Jr. and Billy Ray Brown, the 27-year-old good ol' boy from Missouri City, Texas, who seemed to step into the U.S. Open off the pages of a Dan Jenkins novel and didn't leave until the 72nd hole, when a birdie putt that would have gotten him into the playoff failed to fall.

Missing the cut were half the members of the U.S. Ryder Cup team—Mark Calcavecchia, Fred Couples, Mark O'Meara, Payne Stewart, Tom Watson and captain Raymond Floyd—not to mention Ben Crenshaw, Sandy Lyle, Bernhard Langer, Hal Sutton and Peter Jacobsen, players one might expect to hang around for the final two rounds of a major championship. "I could not believe that two over did not make the cut," said Jack Nicklaus, who barely made it at one over. Nicklaus cited the wide landing areas in the fairways as one category in which the USGA slacked off. "Anybody who thinks he can play golf would rather have had the course play tougher," said Nicklaus.

Everyone kept waiting for the sun and wind to dry out the greens, so that approach shots out of the rough would stop holding, but that never happened. This was corn country, where the soil holds water. Finally nerves did what nature couldn't, bringing the unheralded leaders back to the pack of big names in time for Sunday. Sluman, who played the first 37 holes without a bogey, had seven in the next 17. Scott Simpson raced out to minus nine with a 32 on the front side on Saturday and seemed on track for a second U.S. Open title. Then he came home in 41, playing the last three holes in five over. Most of that damage was the result of a triple bogey on the par-3 17th, a quirky new 168-yard hole over Lake Kadijah that slopes severely from back to front. "What a [bottom of an outhouse] that is," said Jacobsen after bogeying 17 on Friday.

No one accurately recorded Woosnam's thoughts on the matter. He triple-bogeyed 17 on Friday and double-bogeyed it on Saturday, savaging his chances in a tournament in which he played the other 70 holes in seven under par. As for Scott Simpson on 17, he flew a seven-iron into the back bunker, took two to get out, hit a third sand wedge, this one from the rough, and missed a six-footer for five.

"I feel like Homer Simpson," he said afterward. "Beat down. It was getting ugly out there with that sand wedge. But it's kind of hard to have a downhill bunker lie to a downhill green with water on the other side. I didn't know what to do. But I'm sure Curtis isn't shedding any tears."

Strange, all of a sudden, found himself in ideal position after a third-round 68 had left him at five under, just two strokes behind the leaders, Brown and Donald, who had about as much chance of standing up under the pressure of being the final twosome on Sunday as, oh, Buster Douglas had of beating Mike Tyson. The only question was which of the luminaries breathing down their backs would step to the front. Larry Nelson, who had quietly moved to-6? Fuzzy Zoeller from-5? Masters champ Nick Faldo, contemplating a Grand Slam, from-4? Nicklaus, Ballesteros and Irwin, who were poised at-3? Norman from-2? All told, 25 players were within four shots of the two leaders going into the last round.

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