If the three holes of Augusta National's Amen Corner are the
recognized holy trinity of professional golf, a new unholy
trinity may have emerged at Shinnecock Hills last week. As
relentless a test as Shinnecock proved to be, it was the three
finishing holes that defined this national championship.
Sixteen, 17 and 18 were the site of so much carnage, so many
stirring finishes, blown opportunities, decisive swings and
appalling hacks that they seemed part of a links-land drama
scripted by Shakespeare but brought to life by Quentin
Tarantino. After four eventful rounds this trio earned its own
nickname. Call it Aw Man Corner.
"Those holes will make you crazy," said Bill Glasson, who played
the trio in even par for the week. "They're nasty and they're
fun, and that's how it's supposed to be."
"It's like getting hit with a wild flurry of punches right at
the bell," said Bill Murchison, who would certainly know. A bout
with 18 KO'd his tournament hopes.
It's not that the closing holes are necessarily Shinnecock's
hardest, they just come at a bad time. Windblown, worn-out and
wound too tight, the Open competitors often staggered like
drunken sailors into the finish. Those who regained their
equilibrium in time contended for the trophy. For the rest, the
last three holes were where their chances at victory went to
die. Corey Pavin's win will no doubt be remembered for his
heroic four-wood approach to the 72nd hole, but for the week he
played the finishing holes in one under. Important? "Huge,"
Pavin said Sunday night. Yes, it was. Had Phil Mickelson played
those holes at even par, he would have won the Open by four
strokes. Instead he finished in a six-way tie for fourth, four
off the pace. On Sunday, Tom Lehman's tournament chances ended
with an unsightly double bogey on the 16th. He finished third.
"Down the stretch," said Lehman afterward, "you're nervous, the
wind is blowing, and all you're hoping to do is survive. Not
The two nines at the Shinnecock Hills Golf Club are actually
reversed for the U.S. Open, meaning the 18th hole last week is
what the members play as the 9th hole. The flip-flop is done
because the club's number 18 has no room for grandstands and is
less telegenic than the adjacent 9th. The change also creates a
stouter road home.
The 16th is a sinuous par-5 of 544 yards, with a green fronted
by a rash of bunkers and, on the left, a meadow of fescue. It
was the decisive hole at the '86 Open, the place where Ray Floyd
left the rest of the field behind with a 10-foot birdie putt.
This year it played straight into the wind the final three
rounds, making it a tricky three shots to the green. Still, most
players considered 16 a good birdie opportunity -- excepting
those times when they were making bogey.
Because 16 is one of only two par-5s at Shinnecock, "you feel
like you are losing ground if you don't come away with a
birdie," said Jeff Maggert. Never mind that the wind and the
rough add about another 100 yards in distance. The hole also has
some of the riskiest pin placements at the Open, which is what
nabbed Mickelson. "I haven't played the approach at 16 very
smart," he said after a third-round bogey. "I should just shoot
for the middle, but I keep thinking that the hole owes me, so I
go for the birdie." He finished the week six over on 16.
The par-3 17th has added a new tee box since the '86 Open,
growing 17 yards to 186. The new tee also creates a more extreme
approach angle, as players now have to carry three bunkers yet
stop the ball on a shallow green.
Like 16, the 17th also suckers players into mistakes. All the
trouble at 17 is on the left side, so naturally that is where
the pin was placed three of the four days. Play it safe to the
right, and you're left with a downhill 30-footer. Go pin-seeking
and you have to contend with the sand. "How hard is getting at
the pin on 17?" asked Glasson. "Way too hard."
Eighteen is a brute, a fishhook-shaped par-4 of 450 yards, all
uphill. The green is one of Shinnecock's most severe, pitching
steeply from back to front. It's a little like putting in a
bathtub and trying to stop the ball before it gets to the drain.
"Leaving yourself a downhill putt on that green is the ultimate
sin," Glasson said. "That is one of the toughest putts I've ever
seen." Just as it was in 1986, 18 was statistically the hardest
hole on the course, costing an average of 4.5 strokes.
If there was any question as to what kind of anguish these holes
could produce, Paul Azinger answered it during the first round.
After struggling his way to a bogey on 16 and a par on 17, he
uncorked a duck hook deep into the weeds on the 18th. Thus
shafted, Zinger snapped the offending graphite pole over his
knee and marched down the fairway, with half his driver in each
hand. He made a 6 and ultimately missed the cut.
The closing holes did see some rousing golf in the opening two
rounds. They were at the heart of Nick Price's smokin' 66 on
Thursday. Two under after 15 holes, Price got up-and-down from
the greenside rough for a birdie on 16, then on the 17th rolled
in a gorgeous 25-footer for another bird. Price had a chance to
tie the course record with a downhill four-foot birdie putt on
18, but his ball trickled by the cup. That he kept a stiff upper
lip may have been a sign of submission.
The stretch run was just as important during the second round.
Price had given away four strokes to par when he arrived at 16,
leaving him even for the tournament. But he played the hole in
textbook fashion, rapping in an eight-foot birdie putt to get
back in red numbers and then parring the final two holes to stay
there. Friday evening he looked back at the significance of the
closing holes. "If I'm in contention on the weekend, one of the
biggest factors will be how I've finished off my rounds so
far," he said. "It's been a saving grace."
Jumbo Ozaki's surge up the leader board on Friday was punctuated
by a 20-foot birdie putt on 18 and the little jig he did to
celebrate it. Greg Norman surged to the lead of the Open on
Friday with a 67, including a velvety chip-in from the fringe
for a bird on 18. "A strong finish gives your entire game a
charge," Norman said.
A number of contenders who would ultimately fall just short
sabotaged their chances with weak finishes in the opening
rounds. Mickelson was leading the tournament on Thursday at five
under when he came to the 16th. He promptly smacked an errant
drive, chopped his way in and out of the rough on both sides of
the fairway, hit an indifferent approach and then three-jacked
for a double-bogey 7. Waiting on the 17th tee, Mickelson sat
dejectedly on his bag before getting up to hit a poor iron shot
past the green. He then left a hairy chip 15 feet short,
resulting in a bogey. "This course is brutal," he said. "It's
very draining, especially mentally. If you let up just the
slightest bit at the end of the round, it costs you dearly."
When Saturday turned into a last-one-standing-wins,
bare-knuckles brawl, it was inevitable that the closing holes
would get in a few knockout blows -- even on a bunch of wily
veterans. Floyd, Fuzzy Zoeller and Tom Kite were a combined nine
over par there while finishing miserable rounds that took them
out of contention. Ozaki, who a day earlier was doing that
little victory dance on 18, crashed and burned down the stretch,
finishing 7, 4, 5 to shoot an 80 and expunge his name
permanently from the leader board.
But if there was any one figure who captured the true essence of
the cruelty of the finish at Shinnecock it was Murchison. He is
one of pro golf's most intriguing characters, a deeply religious
man who supports his wife and eight children by grinding it out
on the Nike Tour. He had gotten into the field with a gutsy
performance at sectional qualifying. And he spent a good part of
the first round atop the leader board, dipping as low as two
under par, and winning over the gallery with fine play and the
presence of his Punky Brewster-like, 14-year-old daughter,
Jennifer, who was carrying his bag. Murchison arrived at the
18th two strokes above par and looking for a birdie to close out
a stellar round.
His troubles began when he drove his ball through the dogleg
into the right rough. Hell-bent on going for the green,
Murchison shanked a five-iron dead right into the weeds. From
there he produced one of the most memorable shots of the
tournament. He took a mighty cut with a midiron and nearly
whiffed, digging under the ball and popping it straight up in
the air some six inches before it settled into his freshly
excavated divot. "I was shocked, in a state of total disbelief,"
Murchison says. With the stunned look of a deer caught in the
headlights, he reloaded and duffed his fourth shot forward about
25 yards. Finally he landed an approach on the back of the green
and three-putted for the frostiest of snowmen and a final score
of 76. Murchison may be a devoted family man, but surely he
didn't have to take a stroke for each kid.
At the 18th on Friday, Murchison nearly holed a 50-footer for
birdie before tapping in his last Open stroke. As he walked off
the green, with a 153 that missed the cut by seven shots, he
handed his ball to a young woman sitting in a wheelchair, an act
of a suitably humbled man. Moments later he was asked if there
was any satisfaction in parring the 18th. "None whatsoever," he
said. "The only satisfaction is knowing I don't have to play
these holes again for a long time."
The rest of the competitors at this year's National Open would
surely have something to say to that.
COLOR PHOTO:JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Home was clearly in view, but the welcome mat was not out at 17, as Norman and others discovered. [Greg Norman golfing with the Shinnecock Hills club house in the background]
COLOR PHOTO:JACQUELINE DUVOISIN Mickelson's miseries at 16 (below) cost him the Open and left him a little down at the mouth. [Phil Mickelson hitting ball out of rough grass]
COLOR PHOTO:JOHN BIEVER [see caption above--Phil Mickelson seated on his golf bag]
COLOR PHOTO:JOHN BIEVER Eduardo Romero was one of the few happy finishers on 18 after he chipped in for a par on Friday. [Eduardo Romero celebrating with onlookers]