TOLEDO, Ohio – The chairman of the greens committee, Doug Spencer, motors up in his golf cart. He knows all about the history of the Inverness Club. He knows where the bones are buried or, in this case, where the tree is planted.
Here at the U.S. Senior Open, Spencer is about to escort me to the most famous landmark at Inverness.
Ah, there it is: a gaunt, unimposing tree that could use some extra muscle, a bony-maroni little thing that is overwhelmed by several trees around it.
This is the Hinkle Tree.
“It is one of our two best-known historical landmarks,” says Spencer, noting that the other is a cathedral clock in the clubhouse. At the 1920 U.S. Open, that clock was presented to the membership by grateful touring pros, who pooled their money after being invited into the clubhouse.
Before the 1920 U.S. Open, pros were prohibited from entering clubhouses at America’s top private clubs.
Despite the importance of that gesture, the Hinkle Tree is hands-down more famous than the clock. Modern golfers are fascinated by the tree and what it stands for in U.S. Golf Association lore.
I was here at the 1979 U.S. Open when the USGA, alarmed by the creativity of golfer Lon Hinkle, planted a 15-foot-high tree after dark between the first and second rounds.
Standing to the left of the eighth tee, it was intended to be a barrier, preventing Hinkle and Chi Chi Rodriquez from launching their tee shots into the adjoining 17th fairway and dramatically shortening the par-5 hole.
The tree, a Norway spruce, is difficult to find today because Inverness has planted additional trees to separate the two holes.
The club has considered placing a plaque at the base of the Hinkle tree, and many golfers (including Hinkle) think it would be a fitting commemoration of an event that helped define the modern U.S. Open.
Hinkle qualified for the 2003 U.S. Senior Open at Inverness, arriving like a long-lost king. Everybody wanted to know about the Hinkle Tree, and he spent much of his time relating the story from 24 years earlier. He missed the cut.
“When I first got there, I couldn’t find it, either,” says the 62-year-old Hinkle, contacted by phone. “They extended the tee back, so the tree didn’t quite look right.”
Now it has been 32 years, and the tree is nothing but a bit player in a larger USGA drama. It is perhaps 30 feet tall, although nobody will mistake it for a giant sequoia. It is more like a broomstick.
Still, the tree is believed to represent the only time a major-championship course was toughened with an outside agent in the middle of a competition. Not so fast, scolded the USGA and its president at the time, Frank “Sandy” Tatum.
Tatum, it might be said, became the only USGA president to seduce Mother Nature by adding an instantaneous – albeit completely natural – obstacle to the golf course.
Back in 1979, Hinkle was one of best three or four golfers in the world. He won the Bing Crosby tournament and the World Series of Golf that year, finishing third on the PGA Tour money list.
In the first round of the U.S. Open, Hinkle, playing with Rodriguez, was waiting on the eighth tee. With nothing better to do, he surveyed the landscape. Suddenly, he saw it: an alternate path to the green.
Hinkle and his caddie decided on a 220-yard shot through a hole in the sparse collection of trees. He hit a 2-iron and found the 17th fairway. Then he hit another 2-iron to the green and two-putted for birdie. He finished the round with a 70 and shared the lead with Andy Bean, Keith Fergus and Tom Purtzer.
Rodriquez took the same route as Hinkle. Up went the tree, although it was little more than a meager scarecrow in the wind.
In the second round, Rodriguez had the honor on the eighth hole. He teed his ball on top of a pencil, used a driver and lofted his ball over the tree. Hinkle did the same, following up with a 6-iron shot to the green and another birdie.
In the midst of this great tree escapade, Hinkle lost his concentration. He had given himself an hour to warm up for the second round, but ended up talking with reporters for most of that time. He hit 10 warm-up shots, then hurried to the first tee. But by the time he reached No. 8, he was 4 over par.
He never recovered, shooting 77 for the day and ultimately finishing with 81 in the final round for a 304 total. Hale Irwin won with a 284 score. Gary Player and Jerry Pate were at 286.
Today, Hinkle is resigned to his fate. “People may not remember the name Lon Hinkle,” he says, “but they know the Hinkle Tree. I don’t really want to be remembered because of a tree, but I guess it could be worse.”
Hinkle lives in Bigfork, Mont., and teaches golf at nearby Eagle Bend Golf Club. He hopes to join the Jim McLean Golf School in La Quinta, Calif., for the winter season.
Always a big hitter, Hinkle won the World Long Drive Championship in 1981. Does he still hit it long?
“I still give it a ride,” he says. “I was playing with (talk-show host) Maury Povich the other day. We were on a 380-yard hole, and I hit my drive pretty good.
“I said to Maury, ‘Yeah, I hit it a little bit in the neck, but it’ll do.’ I ended up 43 steps from the hole.”
The memories, if not the distance, tend to fade. Lon Hinkle has become a name associated mostly with a tree.
When Hinkle tried recently to obtain a complimentary set of clubs from a major manufacturer, he was turned down. He even offered to publicize the brand, but it didn’t make any difference.
So he went to a golf shop and bought a set. “I’ve got the bug again,” he said. “I really want to be deeply involved in golf.”
If trees could talk, I have a feeling this one right in front of me would endorse Hinkle. Something like: “I know he’s my father, but besides that he’s one hell of a good guy. Don’t forget him, OK?”