U.S. Open Goes to North After Chen Goes South
Can a golfer start the final round of the U.S. Open two strokes behind, shoot a four-over-par 74 and still win?
Yes, if the golfer is Andy North.
Can a player take only 278 strokes during 72 holes of the U.S. Open and lose to a player who takes 279 strokes?
Yes, if the golfer is Denis Watson.
Can a player hit the ball twice on the same shot, shoot a seven-over-par 77 and still win the U.S. Open?
No, not if the golfer is Tze-Chung Chen. But he can miss by only one shot.
Those are some of the more mystifying situations that arose during the 85th Open that concluded Sunday at Oakland Hills Country Club in much the same manner as the 1978 Open concluded at Cherry Hills in Denver.
Andy North won them both. He shot a final-round 74 both times, and he bogeyed the final hole both times but won by a single stroke.
North, a plodding journeyman from Madison, Wis., made only eight birdies in 72 holes, but his 70-65-70-74--279 was worth $103,000 and ended a drought in which he had not won a tournament since the 1978 Open.
Tied for second, one stroke back at even-par 280, were three foreign players--T.C. Chen of Taiwan, whose hopes were plundered by a quadruple-bogey 8 on the par-4 fifth hole; Denis Watson of South Africa, who was assessed a two-stroke penalty Thursday for waiting too long for a putt to fall in the cup, and Dave Barr of Canada, who was tied for the lead before he bogeyed the final two holes.
Chen, the slender Taiwanese who had led through three rounds, appeared ready to run away with the championship when he birdied the second hole after North and Barr had bogeyed the first. This put Chen eight-under par and four strokes to the good.
Disaster struck when least expected. Chen, a deceptively long hitter for his 140-pound frame, split the fairway with his drive on No. 5, a 457-yard par-4 hole. He took a 4-iron for his second shot and pushed it far to the right, into thick rough.
“I had a good drive, a good lie, but I tried to cut the ball against the wind (on the second shot) and I pushed it,” Chen explained. When he tried to wedge the ball out on his third shot, he didn’t hit it hard enough and it stuck in the rough, close to the green.
Using a sand wedge, he attempted to pop the ball up and land it softly on the green. The ball popped up, but his club hit the ball in the air as he followed through. The double-hit counted as two strokes and also deflected the ball away from the green. Jittery over the suddenness of the situation, Chen tried to get one stroke back with a bold chip. As so often happens, it rolled by the hole about seven feet and and he missed his putt coming back.
It added up to eight strokes, four over par, and he had dropped into a tie with North for the lead, with Barr only one stroke back.
“T.C. opened the door for a lot of us right there,” North said. “It was a freaky thing, but it’s happened to a lot of us. I know he had a sickening feeling at the time.”
Chen, whose confident touch around the greens had produced some remarkable scrambling during the first three rounds, suddenly lost it all. He bogeyed the next three holes, taking three putts on No. 6, failing to get out of the rough on No. 7 and hitting a weak 3-wood shot from the rough on No. 8.
“When I arrived today, I didn’t feel what you call the Open pressure,” Chen said. “I was confident until the fifth hole. After that, all my confidence was gone.”
After Chen’s collapse, no one stepped forward to capture the Open, the most prestigious prize in international golf. North, who inherited the lead, responded by making three bogeys in four holes. This advanced Barr to the front. His reaction was to bogey three of the last six holes.
Even Chen was given a reprieve. When he rallied with a birdie on the 12th hole, it put him back in a first-place tie with North and Barr. So he made a bogey on the next hole.
Watson, meanwhile, was struggling along, saving pars with a succession of one-putt greens. When he finished his 72 holes at even par, he was only in fourth place but eventually found himself tied for second when Barr and Chen both stumbled at No. 17.
If a single hole--other than Chen’s fifth--held the key to the championship, it was the 17th, a 201-yard par 3 with a severely undulating green.
Barr played it first, hitting a 3-iron over the green onto the short rough. He tried to hit a “flop-shot” up over the hump in the middle of the green but didn’t hit it far enough. When the ball landed, instead of rolling toward the hole, it veered to the right and down an incline, leaving Barr with a 35-foot putt for his par. He missed.
North was next. He hit a 4-iron and put it in a bunker well to the right and short of the green. He hit an absolutely perfect bunker shot that stopped less than a foot from the hole. A par for North.
Chen, playing with North, hit the green with his shot, but the ball came to rest about 65 feet left of the hole--on the wrong side of the big hump that had frustrated Barr. Chen’s putt, like Barr’s wedge shot, didn’t go far enough and fell off down the hill to the right. Also like Barr, Chen missed his par putt.
North was in front to stay.
“I knew I had a 3-to-1 better chance than T.C. to get down in par,” North said. “My only thought when I was on the tee was keep it to the right. I knew I’d rather be in a bunker than over there on the left.”
A bitterly disappointed Chen tried to be philosophical over his misfortune.
“I finished second, and that is not too bad for my first time in the U. S. Open, and I made a lot of friends here,” he said. “But I just played bad, pitiful golf today. After the fifth hole, the double hit was on my mind most of the way around.”
North, too, admitted he played some ugly golf, but felt he earned the championship by playing the last seven holes even par when everyone else was falling apart. His one-under-par 279 was the only sub-par finish in the tournament.
“I never felt right standing over the ball until the 12th hole,” North said. “I couldn’t find any rhythm, but after the sand wedge at No. 12 I started to feel good about my shots.”
North had been in nine bunkers and missed the fairway on 10 of his first 12 holes.
“I didn’t know there were any fairways out there,” he said. “But sometimes when he hit a shot exactly the way you want, like that sand wedge, it puts you back on track.”
The sand wedge helped him save par, and North made his only birdie of the long day on the next hole. He hit a 3-iron on the 172-yard par-3 hole and sank a 10-foot putt.
North made only eight birdies during the entire tournament. Rex Caldwell made seven birdies Thursday and missed the cut on Friday.
“You’ve got to keep struggling for pars in a tournament like the Open, on a course like Oakland Hills,” North said. “I struggled through the middle holes but I hit solid shots coming in.
“It reminded me a lot of Cherry Hills. There I played poorly in the middle of the last round. I think I bogeyed eight, nine and 10 before I limped in.”
The win completed a turnabout for North, who won only $22,131 last year and was having second thoughts about staying on the tour.
“It’s a tough life when you make $20,000 and your expenses run $100,000,” he said. “The difference between this year and last is in feeling good. I have been healthy this year for the first time in eight years, and it has helped my mental attitude as well as my physical well-being.”
North had a bone spur removed from his right elbow in the fall of 1983 and spent most of 1984 recuperating.
Chen’s final round of 77 will go down with other great Open collapses.
The most famous, of course, was Arnold Palmer’s 39 on the back nine in 1966 at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. He lost seven strokes to Billy Casper and then lost in a playoff the following day.
In 1967, an amateur, Marty Fleckman, led Palmer by a stroke going into the final round but skied to an 80. It was Bert Yancey’s turn in 1968 when he led Lee Trevino by one stroke and shot 76.
Last year, Hale Irwin had a two stroke lead only to stumble to a 79 while Fuzzy Zoeller and Greg Norman were forging to the front at Winged Foot. Defending champion Zoeller finished at 71--283 and tied for ninth.
North’s two final-round 74s--here Sunday and in 1978 at Cherry Hills--missed by one shot of being the highest final 18 holes by a winner in modern history. Cary Middlecoff won with a 75 in 1949, as did Irwin in 1979 at Inverness.