Competing in a U.S. Open, can be the highlight of a playing career – especially if you had only one chance.
From the Golf Journal Archives - Once Upon a Time
Jun 15, 2012
By Marino Parascenzo
(Note: This article originally appeared in the June 2000 issue of Golf Journal.)
Things to do at least once in your life: Hold the Hope diamond in your hand; conduct Beethoven’s Ninth; race a Bugatti; play in the U.S. Open.
The winners aren’t the only dreamers. Let some guy win the U.S. Open and he’ll be telling the world how he always dreamed of winning it. Of when he was a kid, when he was practicing and was in the stretch drive at the U.S. Open, the way other kids are batting in the bottom of the ninth in the World Series. Of how he created the drama, the suspense. Of how he inflicted the pressure on himself, to make himself function with his heart in his throat. This is not just a putt; it’s the putt to win.
These are the other dreamers. These are the guys, who would sell their souls just to get into the Open. Sometimes they even hit the leader board, to which the fans say, Who? Mostly, though, they just roll boxcars and hit the road. For these four, they not only got in, they made the cut. And it happened for them only once.
’77, Southern Hills C.C. Tulsa, Okla.
This was Hubert Green’s year. He went wire-to-wire on tough old Southern Hills, and that included playing the final round under a phoned-in death threat, probably from a guy who had someone else in the office pool. Against this backdrop, Sam Adams, then a PGA Tour pro of modest accomplishments from Boone, N.C., didn’t figure to make a ripple. But for a guy playing in his only Open, and only the second one he even tried for, he did okay. He tied for 23rd with Ron Streck and Andy Bean, and did a lot better than, among others, Ben Crenshaw, Raymond Floyd, Hale Irwin, Johnny Miller, Lee Trevino and Fuzzy Zoeller.
Adams, now the head pro at Roan Valley Golf club in Mountain City, Tenn., across the border from Boone, recalls making it comfortably through both the local and sectional qualifiers. A hole-in-one at the sectional helped.
This was his second try at the Open. He did not try again. “I was winding down my very, very checkered career,” Adams says, “and I just lost interest in playing golf.”
At Southern Hills, he wasn’t a total unknown. He was in the fifth year of what would be a seven-year career on the tour, and he owned one victory: the 1973 Quad Cities Open. And he had played in the Masters and PGA Championship, so he wasn’t intimidated by the crowds and surroundings. And he could putt fast greens, of which Southern Hills had 18, and he emerged as the early surprise, one stroke off the first-round lead with an even-par 70.
“I think the folks back home in Boone were as surprised as I was,” Adams says. More so the second day, when a so-so round erupted into a rampage – four straight birdies. At the par-3 14th, he stuck a 4-wood to 30 feet. He nearly holed his 7-iron approach at the 15th and tapped in from an inch. At the par-5 16th – “The big hitters could get there in two, but I couldn’t” – he pitched his third to 10 feet. And at the 17th, he hit a wedge to 15 feet.
“The 18th, though,” Adams laments. “I never did par the thing. I bogeyed it to shoot 69.” And found himself at 1-under 139, just three off Green’s lead.
Then in the third round, pffft.
“I was either tied for the lead or within a stroke, and I was one under coming to No. 9,” Adams says. “But I was able to take care of that pretty easily. I three-putted the ninth, and then I double-bogeyed the, 12th and 18th. In the U.S. Open, you can be playing well and you can really have a wreck with no trouble at all.”
‘81, Merion Golf Club, Ardmore, Pa.
For Sammy Rachels, the Open, in a way, was something like your Wednesday afternoon league. You stretch a little, take a few practice swings and stick a peg in the ground on the first tee.
“The whole week I was there, I never found the driving range,” Rachels says. “It wasn’t even on the golf course. It was a major hassle to go find it. I never hit a practice ball in that U.S. Open. I just pretended.”
Practice must be overrated. In his first and only Open, Rachels tied for sixth with Jack Nicklaus and Chi Chi Rodriguez, and he beat Ben Crenshaw, Greg Norman, Curtis Strange and Lanny Wadkins. David Graham played that sensational final round and won by three, but for Rachels, a shot here, a shot there, and who knows? Was it a good thing? A bad thing? A thrill? Sad? Fun?
“All of the above,” says Rachels, 49, a former PGA Tour player whose playing career was ended by a bad back.
Rachels, now the head pro at Ted Bay (Fla.) Golf Club, remembers little of Merion. “Except the last four holes,” he says. He owned the 15th. He birdied it three out of the four days. And he remembers the last three holes because they made him a hero in the clubhouse. Because of him, someone cashed. “I was told after the tournament that some members had a betting pool,” Rachels says. “One of the bets was that nobody would play the last three holes under par. But I did it. I was the only one. I don’t have a clue how I played them, except that I played them in one under.”
It was an ironic Open. It got him into the Masters. Then again, it didn’t.
“At the 18th, I chipped it to three inches – so close, even I could make it,” Rachels jokes. “I could see the leader board and I knew I’d made the Masters.” The tie for sixth got him into the tournament. Then a back operation, one of four, kept him out.
“But calling me a golf pro is like calling Bill Clinton a saxophonist,” Rachels says. “Still, I’m proud that I played well in the U.S. Open and that I found out I liked to play a course that’s difficult. The Open is not a birdiefest. It’s a survival contest. The Open allows very little room. I liked it that par is a good score.”
Rachels doesn’t wring his hands over what-ifs, and he’s proud of his record in the Open. “I never missed qualifying when I tried to, and I never finished out of the top 10,” Rachel says. “So I’m 1-for-1 across the board with the U.S. Open. And I said, ‘Well, hell, that’s a pretty good stat. I think I’ll just leave it alone.’ ”
’87, The Olympic Club, San Francisco, Calif.
“I’m a rare case,” Jim Woodward admits. “The only time I ever played in the U.S. Open, I tied for 17th place, and I didn’t even know the top 16 made the Masters. Didn’t have a clue. I shot 69 the last round, birdied 18, and it was the thrill of my life. But I thought, Oh, man, just one shot somewhere and I’d have had the Masters, too.”
Woodward, a 42-year-old former tour player, is now the head pro at Quail Creek Golf and Country Club in Oklahoma City, Okla., and he’s not chasing that what-if rabbit. After all, he did tie with Mark Calcavecchia and Nick Price, among others, and he finished ahead of Fred Couples, defending champion Raymond Floyd and Greg Norman. That was something to take home to Oklahoma. But not the only thing. He still recalls heading for the driving range the first day and hearing the haunting skirl of the pipes piercing the chilling morning fog of San Francisco. “I told my caddie, ‘We’re not in Kansas anymore, Toto,’ ” he says. He also recalls – heaven forbid – thinking he had a chance to win the Open. That was in the final round, when he played the first five holes in even par.
Then there was the kindness of a famous golfer, Payne Stewart, to a nervous, out-of-place guy. They had met briefly years earlier. “Payne still remembered me,” Woodward recalls.”He said, ‘You sign up with me for practice.’ He didn’t have to take a lowly or club pro out of some little town in Oklahoma to play a practice round with. He made me feel important. The day he died – that was one of the saddest days of my life.”
And another thing: How many U.S. Open players ever hit shots off an aircraft carrier?
The Big E – the USS Enterprise – was docked at San Francisco that week. The captain, Rocky Spane, invited the golfers to dinner. Woodward, a nobody by his own calculations, tagged along behind Tom Watson and the boys. Somehow, Woodward ended up at Capt. Spane’s table. “We got to be friends,” Woodward says. “He was impressed by how much I knew about planes.”
About a year later, Woodward got a telegram from Rocky Spane, “He said if I could get to Seattle, I could sail with him on the Enterprise down to San Francisco,” Woodward recalls. “Could I make it? Could I crawl? It took five days to get to San Francisco. We even went out on the deck and hit golf balls into the ocean.
“Those were the two greatest weeks of my life — the U.S. Open and the USS Enterprise.”
’89, Oak Hill C.C., Rochester, N.Y.
At one point in the second round of the 1989 U.S. Open, the name “K. Beck” appeared on the leader board. This triggered two comments in the crowded press tent: “Who the hell is K. Beck?” and “You don’t spell ‘Chip’ with a K.”
This was Kurt Beck, out of Pittsburgh, then 25, recently turned pro and medalist in the local qualifier and co-medalist in the sectional. The highlights of his Open included a sore back, nearly missing his starting time, and doing an Oscar imitation of Gerald Ford.
He arrived at Oak Hill on Sunday and promptly hurt his back hitting balls. He didn’t play a practice round until Wednesday. Then he shot a 2-under 68 in the first round.
He returned a 73 in the second round, staggering down the stretch with a couple of three-putts and a missed green for bogeys, and he parred the 18th after missing a four-footer for birdie. He was not in great spirits for Saturday. Worse, torrential rain threw everything into a tizzy. Beck and his caddie and pal from home, John Bruno, went back to bed, hearing that starting times would be set back. They weren’t. The format was switched to groups of three. His mother saved him when she called. “You went back to bed?” she scolded. “Get up! You’re going to miss your tee time.”
Beck was one scared puppy when he made it to the course with little to spare. Shaken, he shot an 83.
“Would it have been different if I’d gone through my routine? I think so,” Beck says. “Would I have shot another 69? I’d like to think so. But maybe I just woke up and realized, hey, I’m playing in the U.S. Open.”
It was a family experience, that 83. On the back nine, he pushed a drive and hit some guy in the leg. “Turned out he was my uncle,” Beck says. He missed a green wide right and hit a young woman in the back. “Turned out she was my sister,” he says. Your family, someone noted, can’t afford to have you play in another Open.
Beck now is the head professional at New Castle (Pa.) Country Club, and he has two young sons, Ryan, 4, and Jack, 2. “And my hope is that someday maybe one of these guys can sneak out there and I can caddie for him,” Beck says.
He still has that dream, though. “I do look back,” Beck admits, and he might speak for all of them, “and I say, ‘Boy, if I could just have that Saturday over again.’ ”