Across a corner table of a Holiday Inn dining room late one night last week, two college guys, still wearing their pastel work shirts and wearied from a long day on the golf course, decided that it would be nice if the amateur title should pass from one to the other.
"I don't know what a man does after missing a cut," said the thin one. "Maybe I'll stick around and watch you win."
"Ah, you could carry my scorecard," answered the fat one. "Two under, two over—you know. I need someone for that. By the way, may I have the bread, please?"
And then, laughing, Bruce Fleisher, the defender who had missed the cut, did indeed hand over the bread and his title, too, please, to Steve Melnyk who easily won the 69th U.S. Amateur Championship at Oakmont, Pa.
At the time Melnyk was only midway through a tournament he was to dominate from start to finish. He grabbed the lead by two strokes with a first-round 70 and from then on alternately threatened to chew up the golf course and spit it back at the field—or, just as often, choke on his big lead.
The 240-pound University of Florida undergraduate from Brunswick, Ga. is called "Deity" at Gainesville and "Fluffy" by his Walker Cup teammates—"because, well, I guess I look like a Fluffy." He is balding on top, bulging all around and has a knee reduced to pudding from an old football injury. But he threw 70-73-73-70—286 at the other 149 amateurs last week and left them wondering whether bread, potatoes and ice cream pie aren't the best aids to a man's swing after all.
Melnyk won the tournament by five shots over Marvin (Vinnie) Giles III, whose numeral also indicates the number of times he has placed second in the amateur in the last three years, and by seven over Allen Miller.
The new champion, who is of Russian descent (his grandparents emigrated from Kiev in the Ukraine), is a friendly, easygoing drinking partner to several members of the young crowd who dominate amateur golf. They know his balloon face, which resembles the heavy in cartoons featuring furry animals, and recognize his golf game as that of a man who won five straight college tournaments at Florida this year (tying two NCAA records) as well as the Western Amateur. His closest companion on the golf course is the last Florida graduate to win the amateur, Bob Murphy. It was Murphy who after winning his first two pro tournaments last year flew to Georgia to console Fluffy as he lay in a hospital bed recovering from a knee operation. That hiatus, which came during the week of the 1968 amateur, undoubtedly was on his mind as Melnyk frolicked with his lead at Oakmont.
In a sense there were really two winners last week, Melnyk and the treacherous Oakmont course itself. More than a dozen national tournaments (including PGA and NCAA events) have been played at the club over the years, and this was the eighth USGA championship to be held there. Normally you have needed a name to win. Bobby Jones and Willie Turnesa captured national amateurs at Oakmont, while Tommy Armour, Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus (who beat Arnold Palmer in the famous 1962 playoff) won three of the club's four national Opens. But no one can mention Oakmont without recalling the 1935 Open, which gave to a startled golf world the name of Sam Parks Jr., a local pro who not only won the tournament but was the only man to break 300. And no one mentions Oakmont, either, without adding a moan and a groan for its sand bunkers and its greens.
Nestled snugly into the Allegheny hills, the plush club is a stronghold of what is referred to, sometimes not kindly, as the "Eastern Establishment." (Andrew Mellon once resigned his Oakmont membership, objecting when the dues were raised.) The 6,670-yard par-71 course is surrounded by woods that hardly ever come into play, and there is not a single water hazard anywhere. But some members will swear on a stack of their $100 bills that they would rather play out of a tree trunk or the bottom of a lake than hit out of Oakmont's traps. Take the one between the 3rd and 4th fairways, for instance, that huge thing with its "church pews"—eight parallel grass ridges that catch hooked drives off both tees very nicely, or the one around the 233-yard 8th hole, the par-3 made difficult by the sand that starts from well in front of the green and stretches left for—get this—130 yards. Yet the golfer is forced to aim over that way because if he hits too far right he will bounce down the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Harrisburg.
This trap—which is 30 yards wide—is billed, probably correctly, as the "world's largest," but another, protecting the right side of Oakmont's showcase hole, the 435-yard 15th, is a close second. This one measures 95 yards long.
Oakmont's sand is no longer furrowed into deep trenches the way it used to be, but its greens—manufactured and cut to the quick by a complicated scientific process best explained in a single word, "sadism"—are still as slick and mean as ever.
Actually Oakmont doesn't have greens so much as it has 18 rolling, swaying billiard tables. One golfer claimed he marked his ball with a nickel, and the nickel slid off the green. Another charged Melnyk had warmed up for Oakmont by putting on concrete. And many were the occasions all week when a man came in after four-putting relieved because it might have been five.
All of this explained why throughout the entire tournament only four rounds—Melnyk's two 70s, Miller's second-day 69 and Bob Zender's closing-round 70 were completed under par—this from a field that included the U.S. and British Walker Cup teams, as well as two local golfers who were out to show the others a thing or two about tough old Oakmont.
Much of the tournament's early talk centered around the Walker Cup matches a week earlier in Milwaukee where the American team had struggled to victory. Cuppers Melnyk, Miller, Michael Bonallack, the British captain, and Giles—who at 26 was surely the youngest "sentimental favorite" in all of sport—were among the top choices at Oakmont along with Fleisher, who shouldn't have been.
This has been a hard summer for the handsome idol of the teen set. After playing well in the Masters, Fleisher became ill in May and spent the better part of three weeks in bed, losing 15 pounds. Later on he played poorly in both the U.S. and British Opens and had not sufficiently recovered his weight when he won the Maccabiah Games tournament in Israel and when he was thrashed by Bonallack in the Walker Cup.
At Oakmont, in addition to the normal pressure of being defending champion, Fleisher was unduly concerned that the whole USGA was down on him for skipping a celebration dinner in Milwaukee where Bonallack had presented ties to the American team. His 78-81—159, which missed the cut by three shots was not, therefore, so surprising to his teammates. "He looks thin and he isn't swinging right," said Giles.
After 36 holes, fortune had also turned for the once-proud local entry of John Birmingham and Jim Simons. Birmingham is a wealthy young dairyman who plays out of Oakmont, wins every tournament in Pennsylvania that the 19-year-old prodigy Simons doesn't and, according to friends, "does only three things—reads the Wall Street Journal, hits golf balls and drinks his company's milk."
His pairing with Simons, who is transferring from the University of Houston to Wake Forest this month, was a gallery's delight, and the two of them out-drew even Fleisher's miniboppers, Giles' sentimentalists and Melnyk's calorie convoys. Unfortunately, neither Birmingham nor Simons survived the cut, and the two of them exited, presumably to go have a few milks.
Just down the street from the Birmingham household, Melnyk and Fleisher, who were both houseguests of the Ken Elias family, came in from their dinner Thursday night. "You, Fleisher, are going out to the garage tonight," said Elias. "You, Melnyk, are moving upstairs." That afternoon burly Steve had threatened to blow open the tournament when he made the turn in two under par and led the field by six strokes. But he got lazy and lost four strokes in the next five holes, only to come back with a birdie at the fearsome 18th, one of the most beautiful finishing holes in golf.
On Friday, paired with Miller, the University of Georgia ace who was his Walker Cup roommate, Melnyk, buoyed by a chip-in from deep rough at the 6th, again surged to a six-stroke lead after nine holes. But again he lost most of it, until the 18th, where Giles and Miller bogeyed and Steve birdied.
Melnyk, by now muttering to himself about a back nine that he had played in seven over par the last two days and calling himself an idiot, was at three-over 216 and still had his three-stroke lead. Then on the next and last day he removed all doubts by shooting 32 on the front nine (to go eight shots ahead of the field) and coasting to victory. Fluffy had his title.
Trying to find the line, Melnyk prepares to putt on one of Oakmont's notorious billiard tables.