Last summer, a few weeks after his victory in the National Open, Dick Mayer was attempting to answer a group of old friends who had asked him why he thought he had been able to win at Inverness—to play four solid, controlled rounds under the most persistent pressure that weighs on any athlete; to come through with the birdie he needed on the 72nd and final hole despite knowing only too well that he had blown his chances in the 1954 Open at Baltusrol by taking a 7 on the 72nd; and finally, to re-knit his poise, his concentration, his swing and his purpose for the playoff round with Cary Middlecoff. "I think that my father put his finger on it best," Mayer replied slowly, especially for him. "He said I was able to win because I was 'physically, mentally and humorously prepared.' That's an odd phrase to use—humorously prepared—but it's the best description I've heard of what you need. In golf there are dozens of little things which the finest player can't control. They're both good and bad things—a really poor lie in the middle of the fairway after you've hit your best drive, a fine lie in the rough that lets you get away scot free when you rightfully should be penalized, a lucky kick into the pin when you've let an approach leak off a little, the approach you hit too good which sits down instantly and leaves you a longer and tougher putt than you would have had if the ball had had less bite—I could go on and on. And it's humorous, you know, all those little twists and turns of fortune being an inseparable part of a game a player has to approach so scientifically. Well, in the Open I was lucky enough to be in that frame of mind where I was amused rather than upset by my inability to control the uncontrollable."
The United States or National Open, inaugurated in 1895, has been the premier event in golf since some 30 years ago when it first began to edge ahead of the august British Open in world importance. Possessing a stable working philosophy during the tournament, such as Mayer did, is just as necessary as having all the shots, for the pressure on the player is enormous. It begins, of course, with his simple realization that he truly cannot think of the Open as "just another tournament," because it is anything but. It is the big one. Forgetting about the attendant prestige and money, if you have won a National Open, mister, you have scaled the heights of your profession and no one can ever take it away from you. The glory lasts a lifetime. Deservedly so, too, because the signal trademark of the championship is that it is played (with blessed few exceptions) on great and damnably demanding courses which are as different from the usual run of tournament layouts as a Da Vinci drawing is from a Chester Gould cartoon. In order to win—in order to come close to winning—you must play absolutely superb golf, the whole bag, for four rounds. The final two rounds you play on the Saturday. It is probably the most brutal one-day test in all of sport. If you only have to play 18 in a day and you are off form, you can sometimes savvy your way into the clubhouse without being destroyed and live to play better another day. But not on Open Saturday. It is designedly a test of endurance, among other things, for the idea is to find out who is the best golfer and only the soundest swings can stand up under the strain of 18 hard holes in the morning, an all-too-short respite for lunch, and then 18 harder holes. It is not unlike shining an overpoweringly bright light on a woman's skin; if there is a basic flaw in your game, it will show up brilliantly.
In the final analysis, to do well in the Open a man must not only be a first-class golfer but he must believe it firmly enough to weather some awful moments. On the punishing Open courses, somewhere along the route he will falter—he is bound to—and he generally won't be able to repair the damage immediately as he can on the altogether easier circuit courses. Open courses, to enumerate some of the differences which we will later go into in more detail, play appreciably longer, the fairways are much narrower, the rough is incomparably rougher, the green areas much more staunchly guarded and the surface of the greens far more undulant and much, much slicker. Especially when he is caught in the whirlpool of the final day's play, a player who momentarily loses his grip hardly has the time to consider his predicament when already it is his turn to play another shot, another tough shot. There is nothing else he can do but hang on and hit the ball the best he can. Some men who succeeded in winning the Open and were able to win nothing of consequence before or after—most notably Cyril Walker (1924), Sam Parks (1935) and Jack Fleck (1955)—have been labeled "fluke champions." This epithet is not only ungenerous but misleading: you can be sure they had it that week. I wasn't present at Oakland Hills when Walker won or at Oakmont when Parks did, the only players in their respective fields to break 300, but I watched a good bit of Fleck's play at Olympic, and you won't see better golf under pressure than Jack Fleck produced. In that Open, 70 was broken only six times by a great field, and Fleck did it two of those six times, then once again in his head-to-head playoff with Hogan. I think this is comment enough.
The rigors of the Open, besides making it so much easier for a front runner to wobble, also make it that much harder for the contenders to "move"—to pick up strokes on the leaders on their own initiative. You can't do it with just a sharp wedge and a hot putter. You must play absolutely first-class golf shots. Nothing less will suffice. In last year's championship—Inverness did not provide an outstanding Open test (particularly after the heavy rains had washed out several important back tees) but it nevertheless remained exacting enough—there were some memorable stretch drives which illustrate very well indeed the standard of shotmaking on which any rally must depend. At midafternoon on the final day, it seemed that the eventual winner might well be either Julius Boros or Jimmy Demaret, who were paired together. With six holes to go, Boros, the 1952 Open champion, held a two-shot lead over Demaret. That ancient war horse, the sentimental favorite, was trying to rouse himself into a spurt but the double round had obviously exhausted him. On the 13th and 14th, Demaret, though pushing himself for all he was worth, was able to hang on for his pars, but pars, of course, would do him little good, especially since Boros birdied the 13th. However, Demaret did get himself going on the 15th, a hard par 4, when he faded a three-iron into the stick, two feet from the hole. Boros, meanwhile, had run into trouble, and when Demaret on the 17th (or 71st) fired his approach 12 feet from the pin on that very touchy green and holed from three for another birdie, he moved out in front. Those are the kind of shots it takes to get going in the Open, and both Mayer and Middlecoff necessarily had to produce some of equal brilliance, and did, in their great finishing sprints which ultimately enabled them to shade Demaret's total by a stroke.
THE RIGORS OF OPEN COURSES
An excellent map can impart to a golf devotee a good deal of knowledge about a course, but a person must really see an Open course for himself in order to appreciate the true nature of the task it sets. Open courses, to be sure, vary quite a bit. Some of them, like lovely old Merion, undoubtedly the most classic of our classic courses, do not have an overpowering personality at first aspect. When you go out and walk Merion, however—and this same is true of several other Open courses, though to a somewhat lesser degree—you perceive with increasing clarity that nearly every tee shot must be pinpointed and nearly every approach must be played with more than a suspicion of finesse and that, in brief, the seemingly quiet course is just busting with severe, uncompromising and honest golf values.
Then there are some Open courses—Oakland Hills, Oakmont and Medinah come first to mind—which, when you first behold them in their Open battle dress, loom so gargantuan and so forbidding that they fill you with a feeling of terror. I have never forgotten my first impression of Oakland Hills as it stood on the eve of the 1951 championship. On the afternoon before the big event I like to make an easy tour around the course and get to know it a little. The 10th tee was hard by the clubhouse, so I thought I'd begin by taking a peek at that hole. Let me try to describe to you what the eye took in. Below the elevated tee the fairway dropped into a deep swale and then began to climb a rugged hill that reached its crown some 250 yards away; along the right side of the upslope the land pitched sharply down and to the right so that a slightly faded tee shot would be sent bounding into the rough below or into a wicked bunker gouged in the hillside; the left side of the fairway was somewhat safer, the ridge flattening out a little on that side, but bordering the pinched-in fairway there was a large trap, and the rough was exceedingly heavy and matted; in the distance—it seemed like 600 yards away but the marker proclaimed it to be only 448—a flag waved on a plateaued green that rose abruptly above a second deep dip in the fairway and which, if its natural setting didn't make it hard enough to hit, was additionally protected by stout traps at the left and right sides of what might humorously be called its entrance. I looked at this par 4 and, honestly, my knees began to quake. "Thank goodness," I said to myself, "Thank goodness I am not a professional golfer and do not have to face a beast like this."
A moment later a foursome of entrants, playing a warmup round, came to the 10th tee. They all hit drives which at their home clubs would have sent their witnesses into the usual buzzes of admiration. Two of these drives had a faint fade on them and they finished, after kicking down the hillside rough, in the deep trap at the right; all that these two fellows had to do now was play two fine shots and they would have their bogeys. As for the other tee shots, one of them, with a nice little draw on it, bounded into the trap at the left, and the fourth had just the necessary length to reach the rough. However, it should be added that on the fourth round of the Open, Ben Hogan, on his march to victory, played a beautiful birdie 3 on this unplayable hole; he hit and held the fairway with his long drive and then rifled a picture postcard three-iron just about a yard from the cup. Some two hours later, Bobby Locke, the one man who still had a chance to catch Hogan, began his chase by repeating this improbable procedure, although he had to sink a somewhat longer putt for his 3.
In this day and age, when many courses that formerly were of championship quality have been rendered obsolescent because of the tremendous length the modern golfer has acquired (through advances in equipment and ball construction and the accompanying advances in power-hitting techniques which the new equipment has made possible), it isn't the easiest thing in the world to find an authentic championship course for the Open. What usually transpires is that a course is selected which, to begin with, is a very good course, lengthy enough and strong in terrain features, and this course is then remodeled and reconditioned specifically for the Open—all this under the direction, sometimes oblique and sometimes frontal, of the United States Golf Association, this country's ruling golf body, which founded the Open in '95 and has conducted it ever since. (Even a Merion must be tightened up in some respects.) Preparing a course for a championship generally begins about two years before the event is held over it, when the club calls in an architect well acquainted with Open standards to superintend the face-lifting job. New back tees will almost certainly be built on a number of holes which would otherwise play too short. Old fairway-flanking traps, which the pros would carry without any trouble, will frequently be filled in, and new flanking traps cut some 20 yards further down the fairway. The trapping around many of the greens will be revised: some existing traps will be extended and some new traps introduced to fortify the probable pin positions on the green. Short par 5s, holes measuring in the neighborhood of 475 yards, which would be birdied too regularly by the Open field, will be transformed into long par 4s. These former 5s often emerge as the most brutal holes on the course.
In the spring before the June of the Open, a second type of course preparation gets under way. The rough is allowed to grow tall. The grass along both sides of the fairways is allowed to grow into rough. For the tournament, extremely narrow fairways are sculpted, and in the "landing area" or "drive zone" their width rarely exceeds 35 yards. To put additional premium on accuracy off the tees, these tight fairways are bordered by tough "graduated rough": first by a belt (some six to 10 feet wide) of shortish rough, maybe two inches high; beyond this belt by taller rough, four inches high or higher. (The actual height of the rough, determined the week before the tournament, depends on the type and condition of the grass.) The grass around the greens is also allowed to grow much higher than normally. For the tournament, in order to place the ultimate premium on hitting the greens, the putting surfaces are bordered by a strip of fairway-type apron only about a yard (or one width of the mower) in its brief extent; beyond this strip the "fringe rough" begins, its height depending on the type and the condition of the grass. The greens themselves are kept firm. That is, they are watered only moderately. The green mower is usually set for a cut of 3/16th of an inch, though this figure, too, has to be somewhat flexible. Open greens can be mighty fast. At Oakmont in 1953, though oldtimers claimed the course's famous slippery greens to be a much slower type of glass than they had been for the 1935 Open, a man could tap a mild sidehill putt so gently you wondered if it would reach the cup, and do you know where the ball would end up if it missed the hole?—five feet past!
THE NEED FOR FLEXIBILITY
It might be fairly remarked in passing—taking into consideration the lack of "natural" Open tests and the consequent need for real toughening-up measures—that many of us feel that right now is a good time for the USGA to take stock of some aspects of its Open-course philosophy. Hewing too closely to a set handbook for preparing a course can result in an approach that is more mechanical and arithmetic than is proper for golf, and some recent Open tests, though exacting indeed, were not exacting in the traditionally best respects. For illustration, since the playing values of every hole and every green area will vary, it has struck many of us for quite some time that the width of the apron around the greens should not be formularistically prescribed but should be treated to bring out the individual strategy and demands of each hole, the individual contours and character of each green area—the fringe rough pulled in close at certain holes, pushed back a little on others, entirely omitted around certain greens and, all in all, handled with a certain elasticity. The "chop stroke," which one must play from the rough fringing the greens, borders on being a synthetic golf shot. The players acquired it at Olympic, where the greens were small and the fringe rough exceedingly thick, and the traditional strokes just wouldn't work.
Now all this takes us, I trust, to several related points about scoring and the Open. To begin with, the general sports public, it is fair to say, has never fully understood why Open scores run so high. There are, for example, many golf fans who, on reading that some hopeful has started with a 76, jump to the incorrect conclusion that the pressure of the event was purely and simply too much for the lad. This widely held misconception is one of the several reasons why the pros, on arriving at the scene of the Open, almost annually kick up a storm that the course in some ways is unfair. They foresee that the scores will run high, and it is no fun to play your heart out—and play damn well to boot—and then return home to be met by some would-be comforter who drapes an arm over your shoulder and softly purrs, "Tell me, Vern, how come you took the gas?" Here the players are somewhat the victims of professional golf's double-edged sword: the long and calculated efforts to attract crowds by making scoring as low as possible, frequently by softening courses expressly for this purpose. The result is that today a 69, whether scored over a Brackenridge Park or an Oak Hill, has the ring of a so-so round.
A 75 or a 76 on an average Open course, I would guess, is about the equivalent of a 71 or 70 or a 69 over an average State Open course. However, mere arithmetic transposition cannot do justice to the great Open rounds—for example, to the 67 which Hogan (after cutting his scores progressively from 76 to 73 to 71) produced on his final round at Oakland Hills, undoubtedly the most difficult course on which the Open has ever been played. Suffice it to say that Hogan's 67 represents the most remarkable exhibition of golf shotmaking many of us have ever seen.
Finally, simply because it is the national championship, it is splendidly right that the Open should constitute a test of skill which is appreciably harder than any other which the country's best players face. It is a wonderful thing that in the Open, as in so few other tournaments, a round in par still signifies what it was intended to—first-class golf—and that four rounds in an average of par figures represent nothing less than a performance in which the player successfully stood up to the whole gamut of golf at its most demanding, at its best.
THE SITE OF THE 58TH U.S. OPEN
The eastern part of Oklahoma, contrary to the outsider's belief that all the state is plains, actually is heavily timbered and fairly undulating country. The clubhouse of the Southern Hills Country Club, on the outskirts of Tulsa, sits atop a considerable rise, and the club's 18 stalwart holes are laid out over gently rolling hills wooded with oak, pecan and elm. Designed in 1933-34 by the late Perry Maxwell and revised for the upcoming championship by the ubiquitous Robert Trent Jones, Southern Hills will provide the Open field with a fair, demanding and interesting test in the best Open tradition. It is long—6,907 yards—and what with the lushness of its Bermuda-grass fairways, it will play all of that length. No less than five of its par 4 holes measure 450 yards or more, and these and other holes will place tremendous importance on accurate long-iron play. This is one of the reasons why many observers believe that that synonym for accuracy, Ben Hogan, who will be seeking a record-making fifth Open title, stands a very good chance this June.
The rough at Southern Hills is Bermuda grass and will be tough. The greens are of creeping bent. The contouring of these greens is quite severe, and since the creeping bent will play very fast, a good deal of attention will have to be given to the placement of the cups. Trent Jones's seasoned estimate is that the winner will not shoot lower than 283 or higher than 287.
CARY MIDDLECOFF, 1956 VICTOR, DRIVES DOWN A CHARACTERISTICALLY TOUGH OPEN PAR 5, THE 602-YARD 13TH AT OAK HILL
58TH U.S. OPEN
PLACE—Southern Hills Country Club, Tulsa
TYPE OF TOURNAMENT—72 holes, stroke play
PURSE—total $35,000; first place, $8,000
DEFENDING CHAMPION—Richard Mayer
TELEVISION COVERAGE—Saturday, June 14 (NBC, 4:30-7:30 p.m. E.D.T.)
THREE GOLFERS WITH EXCELLENT OPEN RECORDS
Julius Boros, in addition to winning the title in 1952, has once tied for 2nd (1956), twice tied for 4th (1951, 1957), once tied for 5th and, all in all compiled in the last decade an Open record second only to Ben Hogan's. Julius' celebrated coolness, which verges on downright nonchalance, is an invaluable asset under the heavy pressures of tournament play. Although not an outstanding putter, he is a steady driver and a superb iron player.
Ken Venturi, in the two Opens he has played since coming of golfing age, finished 8th in '56 at Oak Hill, where he was low amateur, tied for 6th last June at Inverness. Ken gets the ball out a long distance off the tee, but his real forte is the irons. With them he is a true virtuoso and may well be the finest iron player that this country has ever produced. His putting stroke could be a bit sounder but has shown sharp improvement since last year.
Billy Joe Patton, despite his chronic aversion to the peaceful life of the fairways, has played three strong Opens in a row—a tie for 6th, 13th and a tie for 8th. Two of these times he was low amateur. At Southern Hills he will be using a driver which Ben Hogan gave him last winter at Seminole and with which Billy Joe hit all but three fairways during his four rounds at the Masters. He has a great flair for golf as well as for competition.