Sound familiar? Lamenting the lost art of working the ball and courses that favor the bomber who can get home with a wedge from the grill room? Only this quote did not come from a moderate-hitting touring professional from 2006. The above quote is from Lee Trevino only weeks before the 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foots West Course. No doubt, his call for more accuracy off the tee was answered in that climatic week in New York.
The 1974 U.S. Open at Winged Foot has been called many things, but foremost above them and with due merit, it has been called the hardest U.S. Open in the history of the event. However, it was also a moment of incredible convergence, a bridge from one era to the next and certainly, by every measure, a defining moment.
It helps to start with a little historic perspective. The year 1974 was deep in the throes of the Nicklaus era. He was the most dominating player of the age and with his lethal combination of power and an exceptional mind, he was the player to beat every time he teed it up. To borrow from a similar quote by J.C. Snead; Nicklaus knew it, the competition knew it, and Nicklaus knew the competition knew it. This is not to suggest that he was without formidable competition as players like Trevino and Johnny Miller led a mob eager to knock him off his pedestal. In addition, the games grand and noble royalty from the previous decade still had the ability to work their magic, as evidenced by Gary Players victory at the 1974 Masters (his second) and Arnold Palmers resurgence. Equally as fascinating was the emergence of those that would become the next level of the games elite, such as Tom Watson, Hale Irwin and an amateur named Jay Haas, among others.
There are those that claim that the brutal course set up at Winged Foot was not a reaction to the birdie-fest setups of the week by week Tour events, rather the genesis dated back one year earlier to the 1973 U.S. Open at Oakmont. It was there that Johnny Miller shot a final round 63 to overcome a six-shot deficit and win the tournament. Sandy Tatum, who was the chairman of the USGAs championship committee in 1974, has denied that Oakmont had any influence on his set up of Winged Foot. One thing that cannot be denied was that the course was tough, very tough. Hale Irwin has called it the most difficult golf course he had ever seen.
In 1974, the course measured 6,961 yards (it will play to 7,264 yards this year), which during the days of persimmon and balata was a formidable distance, indeed. Whats more, in a defining moment, the fairways were sharply narrowed, the rough was very deep and unforgiving and the sloped and undulated greens were rolling around a 12 (at least).
As evidence of this latter point, an incident on the first green deserves mention. In the first round, Jack Nicklaus placed his approach shot pin high, some 30 feet to the left of the pin. Nicklaus stuck his birdie putt and watched with growing concern as the putt gained speed as it approached, then rushed past the hole. The ball would keep rolling too, eventually rolling off the green and settling approximately 35 feet from the hole, farther than from where it had begun. Nicklaus would bogey the first four holes, but would end up rallying by the end of the weekend (he shot a 69 on Sunday) to finish tied for 10th place.
The first round lead would rest in the 38 year-old hands of Gary Player, who shot an even par round of 70, despite hitting only 12 greens in regulation. It was a solid round none-the-less as the scoring average of the field was a 78 and only 23 players shot less than 75.
The grumbling that could be heard through the competitors clenched teeth made the media sense a storm was brewing and demanded to know of Tatum, Is the USGA trying to embarrass the best players in the world? Tatum replied succinctly, No, we are trying to identify them.
As great courses tend to produce great champions, the leaders at the end of the second day made for a star-studded leaderboard. Player shared the lead with Palmer (whos last Major win had come 10 years prior), Raymond Floyd and the journeyman, 29 year-old Irwin.
After the third round the leaderboard was equally as intriguing as a winless 24-year-old named Tom Watson, who had shot a 69, held a one-stroke lead over Irwin and two shots over Arnold Palmer.
If Watsons third round foretold of the greatness that was yet to come, a final-round score of 79 would insure that his breakthrough victory would not be at the U.S. Open (he would win two weeks later at the Western Open). Following the round, while consoling himself with a beverage in the clubhouse, Watson was approached by a man who was impressed with the young golfers poise and talent. The older man told Watson that he liked the way Watson handled himself and that, If you ever need any help with you game, give me a call. The man was Byron Nelson. From there a friendship flourished that helped define Watson as a major champion and as a man.
Palmer would miss his chance at renewed glory with a final-round 76, finishing a very respectable fifth place. Gary Player would follow his third round 77 with a 73 to finished tied for eighth place with Tom Kite (Player would win the Open Championship later that year and finished seventh in the PGA Championship).
So the championship would come down to Irwin and an obscure golfer named Forrest Fezler. Fezler trailed Watson by six shots at the beginning of the day but he steadily made up ground as his round progressed, working himself back to 8 over par through 17 holes and within striking distance. Meanwhile, Irwin, was cruising at 5 over par with nine holes to go, only to lose two more strokes to par over the next seven holes and cut his lead over Fezler to merely one stroke. The situation did not get better for Irwin when his drive at the 444-yard, 17th hole landed in the impossible left rough, taking away the option to go for the green from the mangled grass. Irwin could advance the ball only 100 yards, leaving him 100 yards to the green. Meanwhile, Fezler, who had driven his tee shot into the left rough on the 18th hole could do no better than make bogey, finish at 9 over par, and give Irwin a two-shot cushion. A two-shot lead may be comfortable at any other event, but not here, not at the U.S. Open at Winged Foot. Back at 17, Irwin hit his third shot 10 feet from the pin and sunk the ensuing putt to secure an unlikely par and demonstrate his own steely-eyed determination. Irwin played the 18th hole brilliantly. His drive safely found the fairway and a laser-like 2-iron that Watson called the most pure he had ever seen, set up a two-putt par that secured Irwins first of three victories in the U.S. Open.
Irwins final score was 287, 7 over par, the second highest winning score in the last half century (tied with Merion in 1950, Oakland Hills in 1951 and Olympic in 1955). Only Brookline in 1963 had a higher winning total when Julius Boros finished at 9 over in a weather plagued event.
If the events of 1974 are any indication of Winged Foots ability to defend par at this years U.S. Open, then we are in for a very special Open, just maybe, the hardest of all time.
Copyright 2006 Matthew E. Adams Fairways of Life
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Editor's Note: Matt Adams is a reporter for The Golf Channel, equipment expert, twenty-year veteran of the golf industry and speaker. In addition, he is a New York Times and USAToday bestselling coauthor of the Chicken Soup for the Soul series and author of Fairways of Life, Wisdom and Inspiration from the Greatest Game. Fairways of Life uses golf as a metaphor for life and features a Foreword by Arnold Palmer. To sign up for Adams Golf Wisdom email quotes or for more information, go to www.FairwaysofLife.com.