The man whose career is defined by the U.S. Open may have played
his final one last week. Andy North has won only three events in
his 23 years on the PGA Tour, but two of them were U.S. Opens.
Still, there will probably be no special exemption extended to
him next year at Oakland Hills, even though that was the site of
his second Open championship.
"I'll be sending my entry in, trying to qualify for next year,"
North said as he unwrapped a bandage from his knee in the locker
room after missing the cut last Friday afternoon. "I'd like to
play in as many more of these as I can. Just because the
exemption ran out doesn't mean you can't figure out a way to get
North's 10-year exemption for winning in 1985 at Oakland Hills
expired this year. He was hoping to finish in the top 15 at
Shinnecock and thereby earn a spot in next year's field, but
with rounds of 75-75 he missed the cut by four shots, and on
Friday he headed home to Madison, Wis., disappointed.
For now North has a promising television career as an ESPN
commentator and a course-design business to keep him busy, and
that's good because his prospects for making the Senior tour
five years from now aren't bright. The top 31 career money
winners get exemptions, and North was ranked 142nd going into
North's birth certificate says he's 45, but some days his body
feels like 75. His career has been savaged by injuries. He has
endured 12 operations -- six on his knees, one on his elbow, one
on his neck and four for skin cancer. His hair is so gray he
could be a poster boy for Just For Men.
"A lot of times Oakland Hills seems like it was 30 years ago,
the way my body has been the last 10 years," says North. "What's
hard to believe is that Cherry Hills [the site of his first Open
title] was 17 years ago. You look at the pictures, and there was
some color in my hair, so it must have been."
His knees give him the most trouble. Downhill lies are
especially painful, and sometimes his left knee simply locks up.
He has ruled out replacement surgery because there is still hope
that he can play competitive golf. His swing, once powered by
strong legs, is now all upper body.
"What's really frustrating is that my nerves are good, my mind
works, I can do almost everything I want to do other than try to
hit a golf ball," North says. "I can get on a bike and ride for
100 miles. It's just frustrating that I can't seem to get my
knees to work. One day I'm O.K. Then I get a little bit cocky
and start trying to swing at the ball a little bit harder and do
the things I want to do, and the next day I feel terrible. I get
excited and hit two buckets of balls instead of half a bucket,
and I can't even walk the next day. And that's why it's
frustrating. I feel like I can still compete out here. I'd just
like to be able to try it one more time."
North's first Open victory came in a dramatic shoot-out in 1978.
He had one Tour victory to his credit -- it had come the
previous year at the American Express-Westchester Classic -- but
there he stood over a four-foot putt on the 72nd hole at Cherry
Hills, trying to avoid an 18-hole playoff with Dave Stockton and
J.C. Snead. Up by four strokes with five holes to play, North
had staggered to the 18th green, and twice he had to back off
that putt before ramming the ball in the cup for the bogey and a
74 that won the Open.
Seven years later North arrived at Oakland Hills with a chip on
his shoulder. He had won only $51,695 coming into the Open and
had missed cuts in three of the previous four tournaments. In
the press room after the first two rounds his reputation for
being a "fluke" champion was brought up. North bristled. "Who
says it's a fluke?" he demanded.
Thanks to a memorable double-hit chip by T.C. Chen and closing
bogeys at the 17th and 18th holes by Dave Barr, North was once
again able to shoot 74 in the final round of an Open and win.
Asked what won it for him, North said, "Guts."
Guts are what North never lost. His physical courage was obvious
at Shinnecock, where he had to walk backward up the steep
inclines at the 9th, 14th and 15th holes to ease the pain in his
knees. The grudge he once carried is gone; he seems to have
accepted his place in golf history as the man who never received
the respect he deserved for winning two U.S. Opens.
"You get kind of tired having to justify winning an Open," he
says. "Hey, I'd love to have won 30 or 40 tournaments. If I had
been healthy, I would have won a whole bunch. But I don't think
I need to feel badly that I won three events on the Tour, and
two of them happened to be Opens. I'm proud of it."
Jack Nicklaus, who played the first two days at Shinnecock Hills
with North, had to agree. "You watch the way he manipulates the
ball around the green and the things he can do," Nicklaus said.
"He played some wonderful shots. I think he would have won a lot
more golf tournaments had he been healthier. But to have won two
Opens, and have that on your record, is pretty darn good."
COLOR PHOTO:JACQUELINE DUVOISIN The Open may soon be closed to a player whose injury-plagued career includes two championship titles. [Andy North]