Links With History

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Rae’s Creek, which runs along “Amen Corner” on the back nine at Augusta, is a graveyard of golfing hopes.

If ever there was proof of the bromide that those who forget the lessons of history are condemned to repeat them, it can be found at the bottom of Rae’s Creek. In 1965 Arnold Palmer, who won The Masters four times, missed his chance for a fifth victory when he splashed a 7-iron shot into the creek at the twelfth. In 1985 Curtis Strange, the most meticulous of American golfers, threw away his best opportunity for a win when he crashed two shots into the water on two different holes. Looking on, wearing the blue blazer of an official of the U.S. Golf Association (USGA), was Billy Joe Patton. And just last year Raymond Floyd lost his bid to become the oldest winner in The Masters when he put a shot into Rae’s Creek on the eleventh.

The opening hole at the Cherry Hills Golf Club, in Denver, doesn’t have the look of historical importance about it. A 346-yard, par-four that’s downhill all the way, it’s a benign business that easily yields to par. In the thin mountain air of the Colorado Rockies, long-hitting, reckless golfers might even think of trying to drive the green. Most of the players in the 1960 U.S. Open, however, didn’t. The rough, grown to U.S. Open standards, was murderous, and a deep grass bunker stood guard in front of the green. It was much safer to hit an iron short and pitch up to the hole. Arnold Palmer wasn’t thinking like that at all. A brash young player who had been a professional for five years, Palmer was the kind of golfer who relishes what he called the “sweetness of risk.” He decided to grab the course by the throat and “shake it to death.” At first his strategy did not go well. On the opening round he put his tee shot in a ditch and scored a two-over-par double bogey. Next time, Palmer took a bogey, and on the third round he scratched out a par. By the afternoon round on the last day, Palmer was seven shots back. He hitched up his pants and banged away once more. This time he made the green and two-putted for a birdie. Palmer then went off on a ferocious tear and shot a 65, the lowest final round that had ever been posted by a winner of the U.S. Open. The Arnold Palmer era had begun. With it came a vigorous, attacking style of golf, cheering crowds, and “Arnie’s Army.” When those images were magnified through television, they helped power a national surge of golfing popularity that has not abated to this day.

 

Another unprepossessing hole, but one filled with historical significance, is the eleventh at Merion Golf Club, in Ardmore, Pennsylvania, near Philadelphia. This is where Bobby Jones closed out Gene Homans to win the 1930 U.S. Amateur. The match itself was of little consequence. Homans was a gifted player, but not in the same class with Jones, the finest golfer America had yet produced. In winning, Jones, the ultimate amateur who played mostly on weekends, completed a season in which he took the four most important tournaments of the time: the British Open, the British Amateur, the U.S. Open, and the U.S. Amateur—the Grand Slam of golf.

The back nine at Merion reminds us that the game requires not only mechanical excellence but something of the heart as well.

Farther up the back nine at Merion is another view that reminds us that golf requires not only mechanical excellence but something of the heart as well. In 1950 Ben Hogan was struggling to stay in contention during the final round of the U.S. Open. By rights he should have been in bed. Seventeen months before, Hogan’s legs had been shattered in an automobile accident, and now he was playing in his first national championship since getting out of the hospital. His blood circulation was so sluggish that every night after the competition he went to bed in his hotel room with his legs in traction. On the last day, thirty-six holes of it, Hogan wobbled off in pursuit of Lloyd Mangrum and George Fazio, who posted respectable final scores of 287. The pain in his legs was so fierce he couldn’t bend over, and he had his caddie take the ball out of the hole for him. By the thirteenth he almost withdrew because he didn’t think he could walk any farther. But Hogan persevered, although faltering badly, with bogeys on the fifteenth and seventeenth. He came to the eighteenth, a demanding 458-yard par-four, needing a par to tie for the lead so he could then play another eighteen holes the following day. Hogan held himself together to drive well and selected a 1-iron for his shot to the green. Remember that even with two good legs, the 1-iron is the most difficult club in the bag. Lee Trevino says that a golfer caught in a lightning storm should hold one up for protection because “not even God can hit a 1-iron.” Hogan puffed on his cigarette and then nailed the shot wide left but on the green. He made his par and the next day, drawing on the last of his physical reserves, stroked a sixty-foot birdie putt on the seventeenth to seal a fourstroke victory.

 

Afterwards, Hogan, who was not known as the Ice Man for nothing, said he should have hit his Sunday 1-iron twenty-five feet closer to the hole so he could have had a makable birdie putt.