Achenbach: Dave Hill was unrestrained, true

Dave Hill during the 1970 U.S. Open

Dave Hill during the 1970 U.S. Open

There is an empty chair at golf’s roundtable of retired characters. Outspoken Dave Hill, 74, winner of 13 PGA Tour events and one Vardon Trophy, died Sept. 27 in his hometown of Jackson, Mich.

Losing his last great fight to emphysema, the cantankerous Hill was best-known for several major golf confrontations in his life.

In September 1969, he played on the U.S. Ryder Cup team and said pointblank that Jack Nicklaus should not have conceded Tony Jacklin’s missable putt on the final green. That concession, often praised as a prominent example of sportsmanship in golf, resulted in a 16-16 tie.

Less than a year later, in June 1970, Hill took on the U.S. Golf Association and Hazeltine National Golf Club, site of the 1970 U.S. Open.

Asked what he thought of Hazeltine, designed by Robert Trent Jones, he replied, “I’m still looking for it.”

Hill criticized Hazeltine’s many dogleg holes. He said the course was missing “only 80 acres of corn and a few cows to be a good farm.”

In the middle of the championship, before the third round, Hill was fined $150 by Joe Dey Jr., commissioner of the Tournament Players Division of the PGA of America, for “criticism that tends to ridicule and demean the club.”

Hill maintained he had reached a deal with a local farmer and would ride the man’s tractor to the awards ceremony if he won that U.S. Open. Alas, one of golf’s great photo opportunities disappeared when Hill finished second to Jacklin.

In May 1971, while playing in the Colonial National Invitation tournament, Hill picked up his ball and threw it out of a greenside bunker. He later was disqualified for signing an incorrect scorecard.

Fined for conduct unbecoming a professional golfer and placed on probation, Hill fired back at the PGA Tour with an antitrust lawsuit. Eventually the suit was settled and Hill’s probation was dropped.

He criticized fellow touring pros in a 1977 book, “Teed Off,” written with Nick Seitz.

“The average touring golf pro today is living off the fat of the land and thinks the world owes him $200,000 a year,” Hill said in the book. “Most pros couldn’t do anything else for a living, but they always have their hands out looking for a freebie. Instead of saying ‘thank you,’ they want to know what time the next plane is leaving.”

In October 1991, Hill traded a few punches with golfer J.C. Snead on the practice range at the Transamerica Senior Golf Championship.

Snead was hitting shots across the range, the balls rolling near a spot where Hill was practicing. Hill yelled at Snead, then grabbed a club and came after his much bigger adversary. After punching and wrestling their way to the ground, they were separated by other players and caddies.

Hill was one of a kind. He was not some unknown, itinerant touring pro jousting for his 15 minutes of fame. His lightning-rod comments and antics in the late 1960s and early ’70s came when he was unquestionably one of the best golfers in the world.

In 1969, he captured three Tour events, finished second on the money list (with $155,849) behind Frank Beard and won the Vardon Trophy for low stroke average (70.34). Ultimately he would play on three U.S. Ryder Cup teams.

Later, as a senior golfer, he won six times on what would become the Champions Tour. Always he would return to Jackson, where he was born and raised and learned to play golf.

Over the years, I played several rounds of golf with Hill. He was my kind of golfer – a bag filled with clubs from a mixture of manufacturers, irons covered with lead tape.

He would fiddle endlessly with that tape on the range. Swing weight be damned, he would add or peel off lead tape until he achieved the exact feel and trajectory he was seeking.

In the summer of 2011, I made a pilgrimage to Jackson before the U.S. Senior Open, which was being played a little more than an hour down the road at Inverness Country Club in Toledo, Ohio.

I played in the Mitchell Cup, a gathering of golf industry figures organized by Ed Mitchell, another Jackson native. Mitchell is widely known as founder and chairman of Mitchell Golf, a premier manufacturer of STEELCLUB loft and lie machines and other equipment for golf club makers.

Mitchell remembered the young Dave Hill as a feisty, opinionated perfectionist “in the mold of Ben Hogan.”

Watching Hill practice at The Country Club of Jackson was “one of the greatest experiences of my life,” Mitchell said. “He was a shotmaker. He analyzed each and every shot. He always had to figure out what kind of shot to make.”

If anything held him back, it was putting. As Lee Trevino told Sports Illustrated in 1971, “I’ve seen him knock a beautiful shot to within 10 feet of the pin and then three-putt for a bogey but not be bothered a bit because he’d hit a pretty shot.”

At The Country Club of Jackson, head professional Ron Beurmann proudly pointed to a scorecard on the wall. It showcased a 59 by Beurmann on his home course, breaking the course record of 60 set decades earlier by Hill.

“A few people just have a gift for playing the game,” Beurmann said, “and Dave was one of them.”

Mitchell said Hill was important to the Jackson golf community. “Say what you will,” Mitchell observed. “From my perspective, he inspired a lot of people to take up the game.”

This was Dave Hill territory. He and his brother Mike – who won three times on the PGA Tour and 18 times on the Champions Tour – loved telling the world they came from a little town called Jackson, Mich., where people didn’t sugarcoat the truth.

He had opinions on many subjects, and he never prefaced his remarks by saying, “This is off the record.”

He was Dave Hill, unrestrained and true.

As golfers, how shall we be judged? Hill surely would second the motion that golfers should let their clubs do the talking, unless, of course, their clubs are misbehaving, in which case it is left to their words to do the talking.

Hill always had the words. It is somewhat ironic that the 1970 U.S. Open – location of his most famous remarks – also became the site of his best finish in a major championship. Jacklin won the event by seven strokes, but Hill was solo second. That week, 41 years ago, his clubs and his words shared the spotlight.

For a man who believed in straightforward talk, there was no greater stage. It just so happened that while others saw a U.S. Open, Hill saw a cornfield.

And he said what he thought. His brain and his mouth were connected by a superhighway. While others often remained silent, he spoke his mind. And his heart.

Those who treasure honesty and candor have lost a hero in Dave Hill.

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