2006: Major memories

A h, the memories. At the 1984 U.S. Open, I was part of a rat pack of reporters, running to keep up with Greg Norman in the final round at Winged Foot.

The Australian moved quickly. On the back nine, he closed a three-shot deficit to draw even with Fuzzy Zoeller. One hole remained. Norman looked confident.

After launching a drive, he stood in the middle of the fairway, 6-iron in hand. I dropped to the ground, allowing spectators to see over me. I had an unimpeded view of the critical shot.

I will never forget that moment. Even in the best of times, Norman’s aggressive swing was characterized by something of a herky-jerky appearance. This time, he herked more than he jerked and the ball squirted high right.

It headed directly at a huge grandstand, located at least 30 yards right of the green. Thousands watched in horror.

Norman took a drop away from the grandstand. He could not see the elevated putting surface. His pitch shot rolled across the green, stopping on the fringe.

But then, he drained a seemingly impossible putt – 40 feet or so, breaking 3 or 4 feet to the right, cascading downhill for the final 10 or 12 feet. He left the flagstick in the hole; the ball hit it squarely in the middle.

Back down the fairway, Zoeller was watching the drama unfold. Because he thought Norman had made the putt for birdie, he waved a white towel in surrender. Even Zoeller seemed to be rooting for Norman, who had emerged as the most charismatic player in the game.

Then a USGA official told Zoeller it was a par. The Fuzz would live to buzz another day.

In the 18-hole playoff, Zoeller shot 67 to defeat Norman by eight strokes. It remains the largest margin of victory in an 18-hole U.S. Open playoff.

On the second hole of the playoff, Zoeller made a birdie 3 when a 65-foot lag putt toppled into the cup. Meanwhile, Norman fell on his face with a no-penalty 6. The three-shot swing would prove insurmountable.

Four U.S. Opens have been played at Winged Foot, and I have seen two of them.

No, I wasn’t there in 1929 when Bobby Jones clobbered Al Espinosa by 23 strokes in a 36-hole playoff. What led to that lopsided playoff, however, made it one of the most dramatic championships ever.

Jones, who was near the height of his career and would win the Grand Slam the next year, held a four-stroke lead with four holes to play in regulation. Espinosa already had finished.

Uncharacteristically, Jones came unraveled. He triple bogeyed the 15th hole, then three-putted the 16th for a bogey. Suddenly he was tied.

Jones parred 17, then missed the final green with his second shot. He pitched 12 feet short of the hole. The putt broke about 11⁄2 feet to the right, and Jones had to make it to stay tied with Espinosa.

He did, of course, and would go on to gather his third U.S. Open title the next day. What a glorious start for Winged Foot as a host of the national championship.

Jones and Espinosa finished regulation play with 294 totals. The two players took such punishment in stride, gladly returning for a 36-hole playoff the next day.

I wasn’t there in 1959, either, when Billy Casper shot 282 to edge Bob Rosburg by one shot.

In 1974, I saw Hale Irwin triumph with a 7-over 287 total. With an average winning score of almost 288 for its first three U.S. Opens, it was no secret that Winged Foot was born tough.

In the fourth and most recent Open held there, Zoeller and Norman shot 276. Although nobody else broke 280, some Winged Foot members must have felt like assault victims.

The course was easier in 1984, almost as if the USGA decided to stage a makeup for ’74, widely regarded as the toughest Open setup of all time.

In defense of the USGA, weather came to the aid of the players in ’84. Persistent rainfall softened the greens, removing the first line of defense against lower scores.

What is the scoring outlook for this year?

With history as a guide, it is reasonable to expect high scores at Winged Foot. However, there is another lesson here: Soft greens mean lower scores, no matter how long or treacherous the course. As the greens go, so goes the scoring.

What I remember most from the 1984 U.S. Open:

Norman’s courageous par on the 72nd hole. I am sad he never won a U.S. Open title to go with his two British Open crowns.

Norman’s 6 on the second hole of the playoff. How did he do that? Seve Ballesteros might answer this way: “I chop, I chop, I chop, I putt, I putt, I putt.”

Zoeller bought champagne for everyone in the media center. The only other major winner I ever saw do this was Dave Stockton at the 1976 PGA Championship.

Except when he was on the course, Zoeller spent the entire week with an electrical stimulation device on his ailing back. Today, 22 years later, he still is plagued with back problems.

And 1974?

Winner Hale Irwin had a 16-year-old caddie, who drew his name from a hat. Irwin’s first-place check? A mere $35,000.

In the first round, 44 players failed to break 80. In the second round, the number was 43. A score of 153 made the 36-hole cut.

The rough was higher than I have ever seen for a U.S. Open. The USGA said it was 6 inches, but clearly it was higher in some spots.

My desire for 2006?

A return to traditional values – high rough, high scores and high hopes that the greens will run as fast as a mythical foot with wings.








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