The third Sunday in June has always been special to me.
It’s Father’s Day; in 1977, it was my first day as a newlywed, and with the exception of this year, is the day for the final round of the premier golfing event in this country, the U.S. Open.
This week – and for the first time in the 120 years it has been played – the U.S. Open will conclude on September 20, the third Sunday of the month. It just won’t be the same, although as far as I’m concerned it hasn’t been the same since 2008, a point that will be addressed later.
My favorite golf tournament is the Masters, but it was the U.S. Open that first captured my imagination. The year was 1969 when relative unknown Orville Moody – who went by the nickname ‘Sarge,’ a nod to his career in the Army he ended two years earlier to play professional golf – won the U.S. Open, the only tournament he would win on an American golf course in his career. Moody’s unorthodox cross-handed putting style – for a right-handed golfer, the right hand below the left hand on the grip – may have been my influence for using the same style throughout my less golfing career, one much less memorable than Sarge’s.
The following year the U.S. Open was played at Hazeltine in Chaska, Minnesota. Brit Tony Jacklin won the tournament, but it was runner up Dave Hill that drew my interest. Hill openly criticized the course (‘they ruined a good farm when they built this course’) and complained that he had to use barns to line up blind approach shots to some of the greens (he was subsequently fined $150 by the PGA for ‘criticism that tends to ridicule and demean the club’).
As far as I was concerned, Dave Hill was the ‘bad boy’ of golf, and that made him one of my favorites. (At the time I was not aware of the PGA’s Tommy Bolt, who was notorious for throwing both golf clubs and temper tantrums – usually at the same time – several years before Dave Hill joined the tour.) I’ll admit to throwing a club or two in my time, and that my bad boy persona got me in trouble occasionally – I wouldn’t cut my hair to my high school golf coach’s specifications my senior year in high school and was kicked off the team – but for most of my golfing career, I was fairly tame in a don’t-poke-the-bear kind of way.
Through 2008, I watched virtually every minute of television coverage of the U.S. Open, with the possible exception of the year Cindy and I got married (Hubert Green was playing his final round on that third Sunday in June as Cindy and I drove to our honeymoon destination. We checked into our hotel room just in time to see Green play his final hole).
As I think back, so many other memorable U.S. Opens come to mind:
1972 – Jack Nicklaus won at Pebble Beach, and the one-iron he hit into the wind at the treacherous par 3 17th hole – into the teeth of a fierce wind blowing in from the Pacific Ocean – stands out as one of the finest shots in golf. The ball hit the pin, setting Nicklaus up for a short birdie putt and a subsequent stroll down the 18th fairway on the way to his 11th major title.
1973 – Johnny Miller won at Oakmont after firing a record eight-under par 63 in his final round. Miller’s approach shots that needed were like guided missiles, and to this day I still consider it to be the finest round of golf I’ve ever seen.
1978 – Andy North won at Cherry Hills, then won again at Oakland Hills seven years later. Other than his two U.S. Open titles, he won only one other professional tournament. I mention him because he, like me, is a graduate of the University of Florida, although the similarities end there. North played collegiate golf for the Gators; I tried out for the team in 1974, and although playing seven of the best rounds of golf of my life, I didn’t come close to making the team (some guy named Andy Bean won my spot).
1988 and 1989 – Curtis Strange won the U.S. Open in back-to-back years. He and I were both born in Norfolk, Virginia less than two months apart. During the summer of 1972 I played lot of golf with his cousin Billy at Stumpy Lake Golf Course in Virginia Beach. When Curtis turned 50, he abruptly stopped playing shortly after joining the Champions Tour and said ‘I was getting worse; to hell with it.’ Preaching to the choir, Curtis; preaching to the choir.
1999 – Payne Stewart won at Pinehurst, then tragically died four months later in a plane crash. He was just 42 years old. But his memory lives on: since its inception in 2000, the Payne Stewart Award has been given annually to the professional golfer who best exemplifies Stewart’s steadfast values both on and off the course.
2000 – In a performance for the ages, Tiger Woods dominated the field, finishing an astronomical 15 strokes ahead of the second-place finisher.
2008 – In yet another performance for the ages, Tiger Woods beat Rocco Mediate in the most improbable finish on Sunday followed by the most exciting Monday playoff in the history of professional golf. The battle between the two men was later chronicled in John Feinstein’s appropriately named book, Are You Kidding Me?
What happened next was the undoing of my love and respect for professional golf: the demise of Tiger Woods. Most of you already know the story, so I won’t bother going into it here. But I will say that when Woods won the U.S. Open at Torrey Pines in 2008, it was his 14th Major Championship; I thought at the time he would go on to win at least 25 in his career. I thought at the time he would win 125 tournaments. I thought at the time I would witness history being made for the second time; the first time, of course, was Jack Nicklaus winning his 18th Major Championship at the Masters in 1986 at the age of 46. At one time, I was one of Tiger’s biggest fans. But that came to an end the night that Elin – Tiger’s wife who became fed up with his marital infidelities - smashed the back windshield of his car with a golf club on a Friday morning in November of 2009. For me, it was The Day Golf Died.
However, this year, when the final round of the U.S. Open is played on the third Sunday in September, it won’t be the strangest thing we’ll see in professional golf this year. That will come in November when the Masters - golf’s annual spring ritual – is played.
Incidentally, Tiger Woods will be the defending champion.