A tale of two Opens

By Martin DavisJune 10, 2012, 4:29 am

The story of golf at Olympic is a tale of two Opens – two of the very best U.S. Opens ever played.

In 1955 Ben Hogan, with 53 Tour wins, was still the major force in the game and  Olympic’s Lakeside Course appeared to be an ideal fit for his game as it required shaping shots on virtually every hole, Hogan’s forte as the game’s ultimate shotmaker.  But despite his age – Hogan was almost 43 – and the aftereffects of a horrific head-long crash with a bus in 1949 – Hogan was still the finest, most feared player in the game.  His ability to analyze a course, determine how to attack it and then practice the shots required was legendary.

This combination of swing mechanics and cerebral approach produced an incredible record, the best ever for a professional to this point. 

Consider since 1940 Hogan never finished out of the top 10 in the 11 U.S. Opens he played, winning five – including the “unofficial” war-time Open in 1942 which Hogan and his partisans considered his fifth Open win.  Without doubt, in the years after World War II, he won two Masters, two PGAs, one British Open and four “official” U.S. Opens.  And all this despite serving in the Army Air Corps during WWII and later being severely injured in the car wreck.

At 6,700 yards, the par-70 Lakeside Course (as the Lake Course was then widely referred to) was toughened up by Robert Trent Jones for the Open, much as he had done at Oakland Hills for the 1951 event.  Quite simply, San Francisco’s Open course was a brute, replete with copious quantities of 60- to 100-foot eucalyptus, pine and cypress trees lining the fairways of the course that Jones had lengthened by some 300 yards.   The considerable rough of perennial ryegrass grew to 8 inches in spots and proved more demanding than anyone realized.  And, to top it off, the rough was allowed to grow to the edges of the greens, thus making recovery shots problematic and the greens appear unusually small from the narrow fairways. 

But this tough, supremely demanding U.S. Open setup was right in Hogan’s wheelhouse, as it required – no, demanded  – hitting fairways and greens time and time and time again. 

Through the first two rounds, Hogan stayed around the lead, finally assuming control after 54 holes at 217, 7 over par.  It was a wonderful leaderboard, with Sam Snead and his mellifluous swing one stroke behind and Tommy Bolt and his terrible temper two strokes behind.  Then there was Jack Fleck, a little-known municipal course pro from Davenport, Iowa, three behind the leader at 220.

With an even-par 35 by Hogan on the first nine of the final round, it looked like a triumphant processional as he marched home in metronomic, Hogan-like fashion and an even-par round.  TV commentator Gene Sarazen, the first man to win the career Grand Slam as a professional, pronounced Hogan the winner of the Open as NBC went off the air with a few still out on the course.

As Hogan finished up on 18, word reached Fleck on the 14th hole that all he needed was one birdie and three pars to tie Hogan. 

Fleck quickly bogeyed 14. 

Now he needed two birdies and two pars to tie, a tall order over this tough course. 

Making a bird on 15, he still had hope. 

Parring 16 and 17, he still needed a birdie on the home hole to force a playoff. 

With a good drive on the short par-4 final hole to the uphill green, Fleck hit a knockdown 7-iron to 8 feet and canned the birdie putt to tie Hogan.  Playoff.

No one gave Fleck a dime’s chance to defeat Hogan.

As Bobby Jones feared, anything could happen in an 18-hole match.  And so it did.

In the Sunday playoff, Hogan fell three behind after 10 holes.  Playing steady, consistent golf, he was one behind upon reaching the 18th tee, but slipped on his tee shot.  The result: a ball in the deep left rough.  Fleck split the fairway, then hit a high 7-iron from 130 yards to 8 feet right of the hole. Hogan, mired in the deep rough, took five strokes to reach the green, making a 30-foot putt for a double-bogey 6 and a 72.  Fleck made his par and a 69, only the fourth below-par round in the entire championship.

On the strength of a hot putter, accurate driving and superb iron play, Jack Fleck had defeated the mighty Ben Hogan.

Billy Casper and Arnold Palmer

Similarly, the 1966 Open at Olympic proved equally as thrilling as 1955. 

Arnold Palmer, then at the height of his powers, came to the Lake Course seeking the big one he wanted above all else – a second national championship – so as to reestablish his dominance in the game, especially over the young upstart Jack Nicklaus.

With 47 PGA Tour wins since he had turned pro in 1955, including seven majors – four Masters, two British Opens and one U.S. Open – Palmer wanted this one badly to assuage his playoff defeats in the 1962 Open at Oakmont to Nicklaus and in the 1963 Open to Julius Boros at The Country Club.  In less than five years Nicklaus had established himself as Palmer’s chief rival, winning five majors and 21 Tour events, including a playoff win over Palmer in the 1962 Open for his first win as a professional.

As the Open neared, Palmer made an adjustment in his swing, changing from his lifelong right-to-left draw off the tee to a slight fade to meet the predominant left-to-right requirement of the Lake Course. 

Palmer went out on Thursday with a loose 38 on the first nine and came back in 33, good for a 71, four behind the first-round leader.  On Friday, Palmer shot 32-34–66 on the strength of five birdies and one bogey.  Billy Casper, recently slimmed down on a somewhat exotic diet of buffalo and bear meat and still one of the game’s best putters, shot a 1-under 69 in the first round and a 2-under 68 in the second to fall into a tie with Palmer. Playing together on Saturday, Palmer shot an even-par 70 as Casper fell behind by three with a 73.

Still the low two finishers through three rounds, Palmer and Casper were paired in the final tilt.  And what pyrotechnics they produced.

With a 32 on the front – six below his first nine in the opening round – Palmer was seven up on Casper, in second place and nine up on his young rival Nicklaus.  Seven strokes up with nine to play, Palmer thought he had the Open won and decided to go after Hogan’s 1948 Open scoring record of 276.  Besides, all he had to do was shoot a 1 over par of 36 on the final nine.  Simple, or so it seemed.

Palmer bogeyed the 10th as Casper parred. He came back to even par on the back with a birdie on the 12th, but Casper birdied as well.  Now six up on Casper with six to play, Palmer still had Hogan’s record in sight.  With a bogey-4 on the par-3 13th to Casper’s par, Palmer felt he was still safe and merely needed to par in to tie Hogan’s record. 

Both made par at the 14th.  From Palmer’s perspective, so far so good.

The 15th proved pivotal, as Palmer hit into the front bunker going for the pin on the 150-yard par 3, making 4 as Casper made birdie to cut Palmer’s lead to three with three to play.

Palmer woke up and decided to forget about the Hogan record and play what was essentially match play against Casper.

On the 16th, a big sweeping right-to-left par 5 then played at a whopping 604 yards, Palmer decided to go back to his original draw swing to follow the direction of the fairway. With a mighty Palmer-esque swing at his tee shot, his drive, rather than move gently from right to left, became a quick duck hook ending in the deep left rough.  A 3-iron sent the ball running across the fairway into even deeper rough on the right.  Now some 300 yards from the green, all Palmer could do was to wedge it back to the fairway.  From there he hit a mighty 3-wood into the front greenside bunker.  Although he was fortunate to make a bogey, Casper, continuing his superlative putting, birdied.

Palmer’s seemingly insurmountable lead of seven strokes on the 10th hole was now only one with two to play. 

Hooking his drive off the 17th, the toughest hole on the course, Palmer once again bogeyed as Casper parred.  

Incredibly, Casper had made up seven strokes in eight holes to tie Palmer.  Both parred the 18th, but Palmer had to make a difficult 6-footer for his par, as Casper two-putted for his.

Lost in all the talk of Palmer’s historic collapse was Casper’s superlative play over the back nine as he shot 32, never missing a fairway and missing only one green in regulation, the 17th.  But it was his putting that stood out in stark relief, as he took only 117 putts over the four rounds – an amazing 27 putts under a “regulation” two putts per hole – and never three-putted over the fast, subtly undulating Olympic greens.

The 18-hole playoff mirrored the fourth round as Palmer jumped to a two-stroke lead over the first nine holes.  On the 11th, Casper pulled even as he birdied and Palmer bogeyed.  Casper picked up another stroke on the par-3 13th with a 50-foot birdie putt and one more on 14 to take the lead for the first time as Palmer bogeyed.  Casper expanded his lead with a par on 15 as Palmer bogeyed.  Casper played the next three holes in 1 over par as Palmer played them in 2 over.  Casper won his second Open by four as he shot a 1-under-par 69 to Pamer’s 3-over 73.

Meanwhile, Ben Hogan – a special invitee to the 1966 Open – finished in 12th place.  He was 54 years old.  And the young Jack Nicklaus, on 291, finished third. 

In retrospect, for Jack Fleck and and Billy Casper it was the best of times as they won the biggest prize in the game.

But ultimately, for Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer it was the worst of times as they lost the one they wanted most, our national championship.

(With apologies to Charles Dickens)

Martin Davis is Golf Channel’s historian and the author or editor of some 25 books on golf.


Monday Scramble: For money and love

By Ryan LavnerNovember 20, 2017, 3:00 pm

Lexi Thompson falters, Jon Rahm impresses, Justin Rose stuns, Austin Cook breaks through and more in this week's edition of Monday Scramble:

It’ll be a long two months for Lexi Thompson.

She’ll have plenty to think about this offseason after a strong 2017 season that could have been spectacular.

She won twice, led the LPGA in scoring average and took home the $1 million first-place prize … but she also finished second six times – none more excruciating than the careless spotting in the first major of the year and the 2-foot miss in the season finale – and dealt with the crushing off-course distraction of her mother, Judy, battling cancer.

Thompson said all the right things after the CME Group Tour Championship, that those types of short misses happen in golf, that she’s overcome adversity before.

“It didn’t stop me,” she said, “and this won’t either.”

But at 22, she has already accumulated an incredible amount of scar tissue, especially for a player with world-beater talent.

What will 2018 bring? For Lexi’s sake, hopefully it’s more wins, not heartbreak. 

1. The Thompson miss was plenty awkward. So was the end to the LPGA season.

In a fitting result for a year in which no dominant player emerged, So Yeon Ryu and Sung Hyun Park shared the Player of the Year award, after both players finished with 162 points. It’s the first time that’s happened since 1966.

Can’t there be some way to break the tie? Low scoring average? Best finishes in the majors? A chip-off content? Rock-paper-scissors?

2. Some of the other awards ...

Vare Trophy: Thompson, who finished the year with a 69.114 average. Maybe the players this year were just really good, but it’s a bit of a head-scratcher than 12 players finished with a sub-70 average, besting the previous best total of, gulp, five. Easier setups?

Money title: Park, with $2.336 in earnings.

No. 1 ranking: Shanshan Feng, though Thompson had a chance to take over the top spot. Alas, that final green … 

3. Oh, and there was also the tournament winner: Ariya Jutanugarn, who capped a bizarre year with a satisfying title.

Perhaps only Thompson boasts as much talent as Jutanugarn, and yet the Thai star showed her vulnerability this year. After reaching No. 1 in the world, she struggled through a shoulder injury and then missed five cuts and withdrew from another event in a seven-start span.

Here’s hoping she learned how to deal with that spotlight, because she’s going to be challenging for the No. 1 ranking for a while.

4. Of course, we wrote that about Lydia Ko, too, and she just wrapped up her first winless season on tour since she was 15.

She had 11 top-10s, including three runners-up, but failing to earn a victory was a massive disappointment for a player who was No. 1 in the world for 85 weeks. Perhaps next year she’ll get back on track, but you never know – she changed swings, coaches, equipment and caddies. That's a lot of turnover.

5. So much for that “controversial” Rookie of the Year award.

Jon Rahm, named Europe’s top newcomer despite playing only four regular-season events, left little doubt about who was the breakout star of the year with a comeback victory at the DP World Tour Championship.

Though it wasn’t enough to claim the Race to Dubai title – he finished third – it should serve as a warning to the rest of the European Tour that the 23-year-old Rahm be the man to beat for the next, oh, decade or so.

6. Ranked fourth in the world, particularly impressive because he hasn’t yet hit the minimum divisor in the rankings, Rahm wrapped up a season in which he won in California, Ireland and Dubai.

Just imagine how good he’ll be when he’s not seeing all of these courses for the first time. 

7. The biggest stunner on the final day was the play of Justin Rose, who entered the final round with a one-shot lead.

He seemed to be on cruise control, going out in 4 under, but he encountered all sorts of trouble on the back nine, making three bogeys a variety of ways – wayward drives, flared approaches into the water and missed shorties.

Not only did it cost him the DP World Tour Championship title, but it allowed Tommy Fleetwood – even with a closing 74 – to take the end-of-season Race to Dubai title.

8. Austin Cook is now a PGA Tour winner – and what a circuitous journey it has been.

After turning pro in 2014, he played the mini-tours, racking up five top-10s in nine starts on the Adams Tour. A year later, with a chance to earn his Web.com card, he finished bogey-bogey-quad-double. And then last year, Hurricane Matthew forced officials to cancel the Web.com Tour Championship. That left Cook without his card – by $425.

He made it to the big leagues this fall, after finishing 20th on the money list, and then won in just his 14th career Tour start.  

“I’ve been close on the Web a couple times but haven’t been able to get the job done, and to be able to do it on the biggest stage in the world, it definitely boosts my confidence and lets me know that I can play with these guys,” he said. 

9. Sam Horsfield, who in 2016 was the NCAA Freshman of the Year, routed the field at European Tour Q-School to earn his card for next year. He shot 27 under (!) during the five-round event to win by eight.

Expectations have been high for the 21-year-old ever since he received a public endorsement from Ian Poulter. His mentor chimed in again after Horsfield got his card:

Another great story to come out of Q-School was Jigger Thomson, who is interesting not just because of his incredible height – he’s 6-foot-9 – but his back story, after battling leukemia as a kid.

10. A limited fall schedule hasn’t cost Brooks Koepka any of his stellar form.

The U.S. Open champion defended his title at the Dunlop Phoenix, shooting 20 under par – one off his own scoring mark – and winning by a record nine shots. The margin of victory was one shot better than Tiger Woods’ romp there in 2004.

This was only Koepka’s second start since the Tour Championship (tied for second at the WGC-HSBC Champions).

Xander Schauffele tied for second while Hideki Matsuyama finished fifth. This is the time last year, remember, in which the Japanese star was the hottest player in the world, taking four titles in six starts, but he admitted of going up against Koepka right now: “I feel there’s a huge gap between us.” 

Um, has this ever happened before?

I.K. Kim had a WILD third round at the CME Tour Championship, making only seven pars and recording everything from a 1 to a 7 en route to a ho-hum 71. 

This week's award winners ... 

Back Under the Knife: Davis Love III. Set to undergo replacement surgery on his left hip, Love is looking at another extended layoff, likely about four months.  

Underrated Fall Performances: J.J. Spaun and Brian Harman. Spaun, who held the 54-hole lead at the Shriners, earned his first runner-up finish at the RSM, his third consecutive top-15. Harman, who won the Wells Fargo in May, had three top-8s. 

Fill-In Duty: Cameron McCormick. Jordan Spieth’s swing coach will be on the bag for Spieth this week in Australia with his regular caddie, Michael Greller, at home with his wife and new baby.  

Get Well Soon: Luke Donald. He withdrew from the RSM because of chest pain. He spent the night in the hospital, undergoing seven hours of tests, but was given the all-clear sign. 

All the Best: Webb Simpson. Wishing the best to the Simpson family, after Webb chose to WD from Sea Island after rounds of 67-68 so he could spend time with his father, Sam, who, Simpson tweeted is “sick and living his last days.” 

Blown Fantasy Pick of the Week: Charles Howell III. Red-hot to open the season, with three consecutive top-10s, Howell missed the cut at Sea Island where he was 7-for-7 with three top-10s and a tie for 13th. Sigh. 

Love to undergo hip replacement surgery

By Rex HoggardNovember 20, 2017, 1:08 pm

ST. SIMONS ISLAND, Ga. – Two days removed from arguably the most hectic week of his year, Davis Love III will undergo replacement surgery on his left hip.

Love, who hosted and played in last week’s RSM Classic, said he tried to avoid the surgery, but the pain became too much and he will undergo the procedure on Tuesday at the Andrews Sports Medicine and Orthopedic Center in Birmingham, Ala.

“I had a hip problem the last few years, and I had a hip resurfacing trying to avoid hip surgery because I’m a chicken, but after playing [the CIMB Classic and Sanderson Farms Championship] I realized it was an uphill battle,” Love said.

RSM Classic: Articles, photos and videos

Full-field scores from the RSM Classic

Love said doctors have told him recovery from the procedure will take between three to four months, but he should be able to start work on his chipping and putting within a few weeks.

Love, who missed the cut at the RSM Classic, said earlier in the week that his goal is to become the oldest PGA Tour winner and that the only way to achieve that was by having the surgery.

“Now I’m excited that I’ve crossed that bridge,” said Love, who will turn 54 next April. “Once I get over that I can go right back to the Tour. I won after a spine fusion [2015 Wyndham Championship] and now I’d like to win with a new hip. That’s the reason I’m doing it so I can get back to golf and keep up.”

LPGA awards: Ryu, S.H. Park tie for POY

By Randall MellNovember 20, 2017, 1:56 am

NAPLES, Fla. – In the end, the CME Group Tour Championship played out a lot like the entire 2017 season did.

Parity reigned.

Nobody dominated the game’s big season-ending awards, though Lexi Thompson and Sung Hyun Park came close.

Thompson walked away with the CME Globe’s $1 million jackpot and the Vare Trophy for low scoring average. If she had made that last 2-foot putt at the 72nd hole Sunday, she might also have walked away with the Rolex Player of the Year Award and the Rolex world No. 1 ranking.

Park shared the Rolex Player of the Year Award with So Yeon Ryu. By doing so, Park joined Nancy Lopez as the only players in LPGA history to win the Player of the Year and Rookie of the Year titles in the same season. Lopez did it in 1978. Park also won the LPGA money-winning title.

Here’s a summary of the big prizes:

Rolex Player of the Year
Ryu and Park both ended up with 162 points in the points-based competition. Park started the week five points behind Ryu but made the up the difference with the five points she won for tying for sixth.

It marks the first time the award has been shared since its inception in 1966.

Ryu and Park join Inbee Park as the only South Koreans to win the award. Park won it in 2013.

Vare Trophy
Thompson won the award with a scoring average of 69.114. Sung Hyun Park finished second at 69.247. Park needed to finish at least nine shots ahead of Thompson at the CME Group Tour Championship to win the trophy.

There were a record 12 players with scoring averages under 70.0 this year, besting the previous record of five, set last year.

CME Globe $1 million prize
Thompson entered the week first in the CME points reset, but it played out as a two-woman race on the final day. Park needed to finish ahead of Thompson in the CME Group Tour Championship to overtake her for the big money haul. Thompson tied for second in the tournament while Park tied for sixth.

By winning the CME Group Tour Championship, Jutanugarn had a shot at the $1 million, but she needed Park to finish the tournament eighth or worse and Thompson to finish ninth or worse.

LPGA money-winning title
Park claimed the title with $2,335,883 in earnings. Ryu was second, with $1,981,593 in earnings.

The tour saw a tour-record 17 players win $1 million or more this season, two more than did so last year.

Ryu came into the week as the only player who could pass Park for the title, but Ryu needed to win to do so.

Rolex world No. 1 ranking
The top ranking was up for grabs at CME, with No. 1 Feng, No. 2 Sung Hyun Park and No. 3 So Yeon Ryu all within three hundredths of a ranking point. Even No. 4 Lexi Thompson had a chance to grab the top spot if she won, but in the end nobody could overtake Feng. Her reign will extend to a second straight week.

Rolex Rookie of the Year
Park ran away with the award with her U.S. Women’s Open and Canadian Pacific Women’s Open victories among her 11 top-10 finishes. She had the award locked up long before she arrived for the season-ending CME Group Tour Championship.

Ko ends first winless season with T-16 at CME

By Randall MellNovember 20, 2017, 1:07 am

NAPLES, Fla. – Lydia Ko carved a hybrid 3-iron to 15 feet and ended the most intensely scrutinized year of her young career with a birdie Sunday at the CME Group Tour Championship.

“Nice to finish the season on a high note,” Ko said after posting a 3-under-par 69, good for a tie for 16th. “Obviously, not a top-10 finish, but I played really solid. I feel like I finished the season off pretty strong.”

Ko posted two second-place finishes, a third-place finish and a tie for fifth in her last eight starts.

“Ever since Indy [in early September], I played really good and put myself in good positions,” Ko said. “I felt like the confidence factor was definitely higher than during the middle of the year. I had some opportunities, looks for wins.”

Sunday marked the end of Ko’s first winless season since she began playing LPGA events at 15 years old.

Let the record show, she left with a smile, eager to travel to South Korea to spend the next month with family after playing a charity event in Bradenton, Fla., on Monday.

CME Group Tour Championship: Articles, photos and videos

Full-field scores from the CME Group Tour Championship

Much was made of Ko beginning the year with sweeping changes, with new equipment (PXG), a new coach (Gary Gilchrist) and a new caddie (Peter Godfrey).

In the final summary, it wasn’t a Ko-like year, not by the crazy high standards she has set.

She saw her run of 85 consecutive weeks at No. 1 end in June. She arrived in Naples holding on to the No. 8 ranking. She ends the year 13th on the LPGA money list with $1,177,450 in earnings. It’s the first time she hasn’t finished among the top three in money in her four full years on tour. She did log 11 top-10 finishes overall, three second-place finishes.

How did she evaluate her season?

“I feel like it was a better year than everyone else thinks, like `Lydia is in a slump,’” Ko said. “I feel like I played solid.

“It's a season that, obviously, I learned a lot from ... the mental aspect of saying, `Hey, get over the bads and kind of move on.’”

Ko said she learned a lot watching Stacy Lewis deal with her run of second-place finishes after winning so much.

“Winning a championship is a huge deal, but, sometimes, it's overrated when you haven't won,” Ko said. “Like, you're still playing well, but just haven't won. I kind of feel like it's been that kind of year.

“I think everybody has little ups and downs.”