Imagine Golf Blogs

An Olympic Open

This week's tournament has an interesting history

Posted Jun 12, 2012 by Dermot Gilleece

olympic club

At a time of major championships, we on this side of the pond can be somewhat pompous and patronising, especially on the subject of tradition.  We like to point out to our friends in the US that when they talk about memorably stirring achievements in the US Masters, for instance, they should note that the Open Championship was around for more than 70 years before Bobby Jones got the idea of bringing the world’s golfing elite to Augusta.

But the US Open is different.  In fact the event, which dates back to 1895 and has its 112th staging this week, has produced some wonderful stories over the years.  And though The Olympic Club will be playing host to the event for only the fifth time, it has made a very significant contribution to golfing lore.

But let’s start near the beginning.  Back in 1898, the 24-year-old Scottish winner of the title, Fred Herd, was not presented with the trophy until he agreed to put up a security deposit.  It seems that his reputation as a serious tippler was such that the USGA were afraid he would pawn their silverware so as to buy alcohol.  Then there was the appalling state of the greens at Myopia in 1908 which led to one of the leading challengers, Mike Brady, nine-putting one hole.

A perennial scandal on both sides of the Atlantic was the treatment of the competitors, though the Americans were quicker to grapple with the problem than their new-found friends in British golf.  In the event, the Philadelphia Cricket Club which played host to the 1910 US Open, became the first venue to permit professionals into the clubhouse and provide each of them with a locker.

Ten years later, there was another very significant development in this particular context, when players were treated to courtesy cars for the first time, along with complete run of the clubhouse.  This was at Inverness where the clubhouse clock still stands as a token of the professionals’ appreciation.  On it, a brass plate carries the legend: “God measures men by what they are/ Not what in wealth possess/ This vibrant message chimes afar; The voice of Inverness.”                    

Nobody relished this long-overdue freedom more than the flamboyant American, Walter Hagen.  So it was that after finishing fourth in the 1933 US Open at North Shore, Chicago, Hagen paid an attendant $5 to take an armchair out to Gene Sarazen, who was still on the course.  A few days earlier, Sarazen had suggested that an older player like Hagen would be better off in an armchair than trying to win the US Open.  Sarazen was eventually tied 26th.

Playing apparel was also undergoing change.  And in 1939, Byron Nelson became the first champion to triumph while wearing a short-sleeved, open-necked shirt. Eight years later, the event was televised for the first time.   The audience for the staging at St Louis Country Club, however, was confined to the host city and numbered no more than 600.

In 1955, the championship went to The Olympic Club for the first time.  And that particular staging became noted for the remarkable circumstances in which Ben Hogan was deprived of a record, fifth US Open title. A par on the last would have secured victory for The Hawk.  Instead, he double-bogeyed it to be involved in a play-off with the virtually unknown, Jack Fleck, who emerged victorious.

In his anxiety to report the events of the 72nd hole to his newspaper in Pittsburgh as quickly as possible because of the three-hour time difference, veteran golf-writer Bob Drum neglected to check Hogan’s score.  Later, he and Hogan met in a corridor of the Olympic clubhouse and after offering his condolences, Drum suggested it had still been good to finish with a four.  Hogan explained that he had carded a six, not a four, hence the play-off.  Drum disagreed, insisting he had watched every stroke, albeit from a distance.  What the scribe didn’t know was that Hogan had actually made contact with the ball on three occasions in the rough, before returning it to the fairway after an errant drive.

“Weren’t those practice swings?” Drum enquired.  Furious, Hogan barked: “I was trying to hit the ball you damn fool.”  Drum later claimed the Hogan didn’t speak to him for five years after that. “Ben doesn’t talk to idiots,” explained the self-effacing scribe.

We await similar stories to savour from this week’s event.

- Dermot Gilleece

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