RETURN TO THE SCENE OF THE CRIME
Here we are at Winged Foot, the scene of the crime, you might say. All right, after 23 years, the evidence is getting a little stale, but what happened at Winged Foot in the 1974 U.S. Open is not something that is easily forgotten.
Beginning today, the 79th PGA Championship will be played at the historic, tree-lined course designed in 1921 by the ubiquitous A.W. Tillinghast, one of America’s greatest golf course architects, a dabbler in Broadway musical productions, an acquaintance of Leon Trotsky and the man who invented the term birdie.
But the way Winged Foot played those four days in June 1974, more than a few wondered if Tillinghast had created something else, something more like torture than golf.
In 1959, Billy Casper won the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, which became longer and tougher 15 years later. The par-70 course played to 6,873 yards in 1959 and 6,961 yards in 1974. Three holes were significantly lengthened: No. 4 was made 25 yards longer, No. 14 became 59 yards longer and No. 18 was 24 yards longer.
For the 1974 Open, the Winged Foot fairways were narrowed, the rough grown nearly tall enough to hide a caddie and the greens, with more undulations than a belly dancer, made rock-hard.
Of course, it wasn’t Tillinghast who did this. It was the United States Golf Assn., which may or may not have seen fit to toughen up the course after witnessing Johnny Miller lay waste to Oakmont the year before when he closed with a 63.
That wasn’t going to happen this time, and it didn’t. Hale Irwin won with a score of seven-over-par 287.
Irwin, then a 28-year-old in his sixth full year as a pro, somehow survived the rough and negotiated the concrete-like greens that caused John Mahaffey to joke he was going to take a pane of glass back to his hotel room to practice putting.
Not a single player broke par in the first round, and the USGA heard many complaints that the course had been tricked up.
This led to one of the most famous quotations in U.S. Open history, delivered by Sandy Tatum, head of the USGA’s championship committee.
Tatum was asked if the USGA was trying to embarrass the best players in the world.
“No,” Tatum said. “We’re trying to identify them.”
A police lineup would have done. The way almost everyone played was criminal. Of the 427 rounds played in the tournament, eight were under par. Since World War II, only one other winning score was higher in relation to par--nine over by Julius Boros in 1963.
Sportswriter Dick Schaap wrote in his book, “Massacre at Winged Foot”: “Perhaps if A.W. Tillinghast had designed the Alamo and the USGA had toughened it up, the Mexican siege would have failed.”
Five former Open champions missed the cut--Casper, Gene Littler, Tony Jacklin, Lee Trevino and Ken Venturi. Four former Masters champions also missed the cut--Bob Goalby, Tommy Aaron, Charles Coody and Doug Ford.
Tom Watson had a two-shot lead to start the last round, but finished with a nine-over 79.
Three shots behind Watson as the fourth round began, Arnold Palmer finished with a 76 and tied for fifth. Irwin’s closing 73 won by two shots over Forrest Fezler.
For this week’s PGA Championship, it isn’t the same Winged Foot that Irwin saw in 1974, when he won the first of his three U.S. Open titles.
“We’ve come a long way,” Irwin said. “We’ve really got a lot more great players now than we did then. I tend to think the golf course this year will be difficult, but not anything like 1974.
“That one was one of a kind,” he said.
A look back at the ’74 Open, in the words of some who were there:
THE WINNER / Hale Irwin
“That was the benchmark, in my book, on how to prepare a golf course as hard as you can get it. Even the USGA admitted they got carried away with the difficulty of the rough.
“There were areas of the rough where it was just so long and sort of laid down, sort of gnarly. And the fairways weren’t overly generous. If you were wild off the tee, the trees would get you. So the problem was you had a long golf course with narrow fairways and heavy rough and you were hitting long second shots into extremely firm greens with steep bunkers everywhere.
“It was quite a challenge to get next to the pins on those greens. And there was a lot of blood-letting.
“Any U.S. Open is played under tough conditions, but Winged Foot just on its own is a pretty good golf course. I remember after the first day [when the average score was 77.8], I didn’t really feel like I had survived something. What I felt, more than anything else, is like I had just been beat up. [Irwin had a 73.]
“All of us were just searching for a way to play the holes. I mean, we didn’t know. There was lot of that kind of guessing. You couldn’t commit to any single formula because there wasn’t one.
“Let me back up a little bit. When I first got to Winged Foot and saw it and heard the complaints, I wasn’t upset. I felt like that was fine. That was how I made my mark. I preferred those kinds of courses.
“It kind of went back to my football days at Colorado. I was always the slowest, the shortest on the field. I built on those kind of situations. I always seemed to get it done, though. At that time, it was also a description of my golf game. So I didn’t think of Winged Foot in a negative way. I made a pledge with myself--make a lot of pars and go for it when I could.
“I don’t know how fast the greens were. I seem to remember watching somebody mark his ball and seeing the quarter slide off the green, though.
“There has been no U.S. Open that I have ever seen that was anything like 1974. As far as setting up the course, the USGA achieved what they wanted to achieve, but they let it get away from them. It could have been a response for what Johnny Miller did at Oakmont, a knee-jerk response, but I don’t really know.
“What I do know is that Jack Nicklaus putted off the green on the first hole on the first day. The thing was, you would rather chip the ball with your third shot instead of putting downhill. Winged Foot had players on their back feet.
“It was a very trying time for the psyches of most of us. Our egos were bruised. I don’t think some of those players wore the trauma very well.
“It was my first U.S. Open title and any first-time winner, particularly in a major, you like to think you broke a barrier, sort of like the four-minute mile or something. For me, Winged Foot in 1974 was the turning point in my career. It was a great week, but it was also very difficult because it was one of the most trying weeks I’ve ever had.”
MISSED THE CUT / Billy Casper
“I won the U.S. Open in 1959 at Winged Foot, but it was a much different course in 1974.
“I don’t even recall how I did [Casper shot 80-76 and missed the cut by three shots at 16 over]. I probably didn’t play very well. You don’t dwell on it. You just forget about it. That’s probably why I don’t remember.
“But Winged Foot is the kind of course where you miss the fairway and you’re in the rough. You miss the green and you’re in a trap. You can’t miss. If you do, one thing you don’t miss is trouble.
“The U.S. Open is always the most difficult test in golf, with narrow fairways, heavy rough and fast greens. What else do you need? You’ve got to hit perfect golf shots, but you’ve also got to be a little lucky to keep the ball on the green.
“At Winged Foot, you couldn’t hit the ball soft enough to get the ball to stop. Those were the conditions. And they were sort of diabolical, I guess.”
THE USGA / Frank “Sandy” Tatum
“The players had a real tough time with it, didn’t they? It was a really difficult Open for scoring. I’ve often wondered what the combination of factors were that led to such a result.
“Since I was the Open committee chairman, I played it, I set it up, I was a great Tillinghast admirer. It was an absolutely wonderful venue for an Open. We enjoyed about as perfect a preparation for an Open golf course as I’ve ever seen.
“The first day was really a shock. I didn’t expect the scores to be that high. That set the tone. Scores were really extremely high. I can’t really understand what happened. Instead of all the players playing well, they all played really badly.
“Our goal was to provide as close to an ultimate test for the best golfers in the world as we could. Somewhere around par would be a good score. No one was going to eat it up because it wasn’t edible.”
“The field got really agitated about the examination they were being asked to endure. That created a lot of negative attention and it built upon itself.
“The greens were not as fast as they presently get them. The greens probably would be about a 10 [if they could have been measured on the Stimpmeter]. The greens were not severely contoured, by and large. They were firm, though. I remember, when I went out to cut the hole on one green, I noticed a modest amount of evidence of tire tracks on the green. So the greens must have been pretty firm, eh? But properly struck golf balls from the fairway would hold.
“The height of the rough was no different than other Opens, but [green superintendent] Ted Horton cultivated it. There weren’t bare spots, weak spots or open spots. It was consistently tough. Players who hit their balls into the rough incurred a half-shot penalty and eliminated their chance of getting to the green. In other words, from the rough, half the players would make bogey and half would make par.
“That had a real impact. But it wasn’t any tougher than it ought to be. It’s the U.S. Open. We’re not talking about the Milpitas Amateur.
“I was responsible for the setup. The decisions that were made were mine. Johnny Miller’s 63 at Oakmont had absolutely zero influence on how the course was set up at Winged Foot.
“I will never forget this. When the situation kind of blew up and everybody seemed agitated, I was asked in the press room if we were trying to embarrass the best players in the world. And I said ‘No, we’re trying to identify them.’ That statement has lasted.
“We were going to find this tough, but at that level, you ought to be able to handle it. Some people can. The great players can.
“I remember one night I was walking down the hall in the hotel and I came upon two players. One of them said ‘Boy, Sandy, you look tired.’ And the other player said ‘You’d look tired too, if you had been out there all night on your knees waxing the greens.’
“It seems that players expect golf courses to be perfectly responsive to everything. But I do not feel this way. Sometimes, you need to manage the course. Golf is not just flying it from here to there in the air. Man, that’s a lovely walk in the country, not the way an Open championship should be.”
* Tatum is a lawyer in the San Francisco Bay Area.
THE SUPERINTENDENT / Ted Horton
“Obviously my goal as green superintendent was to make the golf course show itself off as well as possible. We just probably had some of the best setup weather you could possibly hope for.
“The greens firmed up very nicely. The rough . . . the rough was one of the biggest successes. I think it was the first Open where the preparation of the rough was changed. Up until ’74, it was mowed with a different type of mower. But we had an up-front rotary mower that gave us a uniform six-inch height of cut. Any areas of rough that hadn’t filled in were fed, fertilized and encouraged. As a result, we produced a dense, uniform stand of grass. We gave the USGA what they wanted. Unfortunately for the players, the USGA got what they asked for.
“The players didn’t have trouble finding the ball, they had trouble finding their feet. When you have scores of 21 under par, it just demoralizes everybody from the golf course--the members, the staff. I understand birdie golf . . . but I almost feel demeaned by scores of that nature.
“I’d like to brag and pretend we did something extraordinary, but we didn’t. I know a score of seven over par won. It was great, wasn’t it?”
* Horton is vice president of resource management for the Pebble Beach Co.