The U.S. Open parades under more different colors than any other golf tournament in the world. It has been, is now and will often again be a pretty terrifying experience. Recall, for instance, Oakland Hills in 1951 and 1961, with its deep rough and its endless bunkers. Or Oakmont in 1962, with its immense, slick greens and furrowed traps. Or Brookline in 1963, a frightening combination of narrow fairways, tiny greens and gale winds. Or the heat at Congressional in 1964. Or the length and huge, rolling greens at Bellerive in 1965. But next week's U.S. Open is going to be different. It is being held on a course that is marvelously fair and yet exceptionally challenging. The Lower Course at Baltusrol, in Springfield, N.J., is a pure test of golf. It is one of the finest courses we have played the Open on in years, and I think both the field and the spectators will enjoy it very much.
No golfer wants to be frightened by a course. He does not want to take a look at a hole he is about to play and have his immediate reaction be fear, instead of splendor or beauty or challenge. In many Opens fear has been the dominant emotion. The rough has been very deep, the fairways narrow, and often, I think, the luck of a good or bad bounce has had a major influence on a player's score. That will not be the case at Baltusrol, because the course, while not easy by any means, has a good balance between the opportunities for success and the chances of getting into trouble.
The ball will have to be driven straight—that is true of any Open—but the fairways are slightly wider than usual, which means there will not be an excessive demand for straight tee shots. The greens are large enough to hit with reasonable regularity, but not so large that they will cause a high incidence of three-putting just because of their size. Three-putt greens will more likely follow an approach shot that has been played poorly onto the green. There are some long holes and some greens are going to be missed, but missed greens will require only very good chipping and sand play to salvage a par, not a series of miracles.
The essential character of Baltusrol is unlike that of any golf course we play on the tour, and only occasionally does it look like any other course in the northeastern United States. In fact, if someone put a blindfold on me and led me out to four or five holes on Baltusrol I would think I was at a Scottish links, or perhaps Royal Birkdale. This is especially true on many holes between the 7th and 16th, where there are stretches of flat, almost treeless land and the greens are surrounded by mounds and bunkers that have a rugged natural quality.
Baltusrol's strong British quality does introduce a factor that will be very important in the Open and may not be relished by some of the players next week. The beautiful British mounding and trapping has created a number of blind and partially blind shots off the tee and into the green. On 3, 10 and 14 it is impossible to see from the tee where your drive will land. On 1, 5, 7, 10, 11, 12, 16, 17 and 18 only the top part of the flag stick is visible from the fairway. As a result, you do not know for sure, just from looking at the green, whether the pin is in the front, middle or rear. When hitting to a green that is 30 to 35 yards deep you could be off by as much as the difference between a five-iron and a seven-iron. The caddie assigned to me better have good legs, because he is going to be out on the golf course every morning making a note of the pin positions. Anyone who does not make this kind of preparation will have a hard time getting the ball close to the hole.
Problems of this nature aside, most of us in the field are going to have a large number of favorite holes at Baltusrol, and not just because they are birdie holes. I have played the course only a few times, but already I have found several that I particularly like or that I think will have a significant effect on the scoring, four of which are shown below. Considering them will give you an idea of why Baltusrol is a fine course.
The first is No. 3, a par-4 of 438 yards that slopes downhill between two groves of trees, across a creek about 80 yards short of the green and to a fairly large, rolling green. I like this hole because it sets up such an interesting approach. The left side of the green slopes sharply to the left. A shot from the right side of the fairway—undoubtedly with one of the mid-irons—will tend to bounce left and may run right off the green. Ideally, then, the approach should be hit from the left side of the fairway so that it will land into the slope of the green. But the left side is by far the more dangerous off the tee. The hole doglegs slightly from right to left and a drive that misses the fairway to the left will be, as we say, in jail. In other words, a drive that strays too far to the right may end up in the rough, but at least from there a clear shot to the green is possible. I imagine the bulk of the Open field will drive down the right side of the fairway with right-to-left draw. This will result in maximum roll down the slope and, hopefully, bring the ball into position on the left side.
A great deal has been written in praise of the 4th at Baltusrol, the par-3 over a pond that is ranked as one of the best 18 holes in America (SI, Feb. 15, 1965). I like this hole very much. One of its most important features is the fact that the front of the green is faced with stone—like a seawall. Most water holes have greens that slope gently down to the water fronting them. This brings too strong an element of luck into play, a kind of it-depends-on-the-bounce situation. Not this hole. You know where the hazard ends and the green starts. You are either sunk in the water or nicely on the green. The green is wide and has two levels, a feature that sets up an interesting variety of tee shots, depending on where the flagstick is positioned and which tee is used. The hole will play at either 194 yards or 162 yards, this being one of the few times in an Open that the USGA has said it may use markedly different tees on different days. Any shot must be hit high to clear the water by a safe margin, but if the pin is located in the upper-left corner the shot should be hit toward the center of the green and "worked" up the slope with right-to-left draw. If the pin is in the lower-right portion, a cut shot with left-to-right trajectory will have to be played into a very tight position. There are three traps behind the green, not to mention some heavy rough, and a shot that flies directly into one of these traps produces what could be the most unnerving situation at Baltusrol, a downhill explosion right at a pond.
When the Open was held on this course in 1954 the hardest hole was the 7th. A par-4, it was played in an average of 4.5 strokes. It is not only 470 yards long, it doglegs to the right, with an out-of-bounds fence on one side and trees on the other. In addition, the green, though wide, is not very deep and has a nasty tendency to kick the ball over the entire back edge. A long drive must be hit here, of course, but hooking the ball could be very dangerous. The trees on the right are very much in play from the tee, and too much hook will carry the ball clear across the fairway and into the rough on the left. The approach shot will be partially blind because of a large, mounded bunker about 50 yards short of the green and must be worked toward the pin from the front portion of the green. This shot should be faded in if the pin is on the right and hooked or drawn if the pin is placed to the left. There will be a lot of bogeys here again this year.
Once through 7, the pressure on the player eases up somewhat, but the character of the course continues. I like the 8th (par 4, 365 yards), which has a tight area for the drive and an interesting little pitch shot over a bunker, and the 9th (par 3, 206 yards), which is one of the most British-looking holes on the course, featuring a green with a very narrow opening between two traps, a crescent-shaped bunker circling around the rear and demanding a variety of shots that alter radically as the pin position is changed. The 15th (par 4, 419 yards) is a beautiful, modern-style hole with an upswept green and possibly the tightest driving area on the course; the 16th (par 3, 214 yards) is ruggedly bunkered, and the 18th (par 5, 542 yards) is a fine finishing hole. It will provide the player who needs a birdie to win the tournament an opportunity to get on in two shots if he is also willing to risk a bogey or worse by driving into the woods or creek along the left side or burying an approach in the bunker guarding the front of the elevated green.
And, naturally, I have a very favorite hole, one that may come as a surprise. It is the 13th, a par-4 of 383 yards. When you stand on the tee you see a bunker on the left side of the fairway. It is about 240 yards out, where the fairway turns slightly to the right and up toward the green. A creek cuts diagonally across the fairway angling toward the hole and forces the tee shot to carry from 170 to 225 yards. Well down the right side of the fairway there is a large and threatening clump of trees. The problem is obvious. You must keep the ball away from the trees on the right. You must also keep it away from the bunker on the left. The player who likes to hook his tee shots is faced with an almost impossible situation. The way to play the hole is to drive toward the left-hand bunker with a left-to-right fade that will carry the ball away from the trouble. This hole will yield a number of birdies to those who handle it properly. But it is extremely deceptive. I think a lot of us are going to be standing on the 14th tee saying, "How did I ever get a bogey there?"
That, in fact, may be the story of this Open. Baltusrol does not have real disaster holes, but it can nibble at you with bogeys that you do not really understand how you got. You don't leave in a state of shock, but you leave defeated nonetheless. The 1st hole is an example of a trouble spot. A 465-yard par-4, it has a creek on the right, an out-of-bounds on the left. Three fairway traps play follow-the-leader down the left side. Being one over par before you reach the second tee is a discouraging thought, but it is going to happen to a lot of us. The 6th (par 4, 470 yards) is not only long but the fairway is a hogback sloping sharply down on both sides and will be hard to hold with a drive. The 15th hole is tightly bunkered on both sides of the landing area off the tee, making it troublesome. The 17th, a 623-yard par-5, has achieved notoriety as the longest hole ever used in an Open. The problem will be caused by a drive that winds up in the rough. It could require a layup shot short of the six cross bunkers in the middle of the fairway. During my first practice round I dropped four balls on the fairway just short of these bunkers, and it was not until my fourth try with a three-wood that I reached the green. But if the drive is on the fairway, the hole should play as two woods and a short iron.
I think more players than usual will have a chance to win this Open. One reason for this is the essential fairness of the Baltusrol course. The other is a sort of psychological change that has taken place on the pro tour. We have been playing under the pressure of high stakes—$1,00,000, $200,000, $250,000 events—with ever-increasing frequency. The result is that more and more pros are learning how to compete under great pressure, even U.S. Open pressure. More players than ever can stay close to the top, and when they get a chance to win they are starting to snatch at it instead of throwing it away.
Whoever the winner is, given reasonably normal playing conditions, he will probably shoot a score somewhere around the Lower Course's 72-hole par of 280, which would be four strokes better than Ed Furgol's winning total in 1954. In general, the course sets up for a player who can fade the ball off the tee. We have many fine right-to-left players who are by no means eliminated, but because of its tight fairways the Open is usually easier to play with a soft fade, and this year as usual the fader will have an edge.
And I have one last thought. There is a chance that in spite of its length—7,015 yards—someone could shoot a very, very low score at Baltusrol, well below what anyone might expect. If this happens, it won't be because the course is easy; it will be because it is in fine condition and completely fair. A record score would be a fitting compliment to Baltusrol. It is a superb 18 holes.
THE 3RD: A 438-YARD PAR-4
A hooked drive (solid line) aimed at the right will keep the ball from trouble on the left yet achieve maximum distance and set up a good angle of approach. The second shot should be hit with a fade that will stop quickly on a green that slopes left.
THE 13TH: A 383-YARD PAR-4
Here a hooked drive (broken line) is dangerous because the target becomes so small. To stay in the fairway and avoid the trap at left a hook has to be aimed almost directly at the trees. A fade (solid line) is a must to open up this very tricky hole.
THE 17TH: A 623-YARD PAR-5
This is the longest hole in Open history, but simple if the ball is kept in play (solid line). A hook (broken line) and a bad lie in the rough or trap would demand a layup short of the bunkers and all but eliminate any chance of reaching the green in three.
THE 18TH: A 542-YARD PAR-5
The fairway is downhill from the tee, but nothing less than a very long drive will permit reaching the green in two. A safe second shot played short leaves a little pitch to a tabled green, no easy stroke if the Open is at stake and you need a birdie.