At the US Open in 1974 the grass was high and scores were higher

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The best golfers in the world who will play the Winged Foot West Course this week will experience their share of pain. That's standard for the United States Open, the ultimate grind of the game. But as disgusting as they are, the 144 players in this year's field should thank you.

It could have been much worse. It could be 1974.

That year, the Open at the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, New York, was won by Hale Irwin with a score of 287, seven over par and two strokes better than Forrest Fezler. Dick Schaap, the journalist and sports reporter, wrote a book about the tournament: "Massacre at Winged Foot: the US Open Minute by Minute."

The greens were fast, firm and undulating, and the fairways, as usual for an Open, were narrow. And then there was that roughness.

"As high as I'd ever seen it," said David Graham, who won the Open in 1981 and tied for 18th place in 1974. "If you missed the fairway, you were lucky. To find your ball."

The circumstances led to a tournament with extremely high scores. The average score for the week was 76.73, and since then there has been no mean score has been higher in an Open.

So what happened? Why was the 1974 Open so punitive?

One theory that was circulating was that the United States Golf Association, which led the tournament, hardening the course after the year before Johnny Miller shot an eight-under-63 in the final round to win the Open at Oakmont Country Club in Pennsylvania, accumulating six shots back to win with one

No one had ever shot a 63 in a US Open and it was rumored that the association did not want such a low score at the Open at Winged. Foot the following year.

In 2003 Johnny Miller told The Los Angeles Times, “My last round had more consequence and for the USGA than any other round in history. The following year [the course] was off the charts. I think they've had a lot of flak. I definitely got a lot of flak from a lot of players and blamed myself.

An early indication of the kind of week it would be at Winged Foot occurred on the first hole that Jack Nicklaus played.


He was one of the favorites in search of his fourth Open title. He stood for about 25 feet for the birdie. The ball kept rolling and rolling and came to a stop about 10 meters away.

"He looked like a ghost," recalls Jim Colbert, one of his gaming partners. "He was in shock."

Nicklaus would end with a bogey and also a bogey in the next three holes, ending with a five-over-75.

Referring to the putt at No. 1, Nicklaus said in an email, "I went & # 39; Oops & # 39;. I never recovered and never actually went back to the tournament."

Sandy Tatum, who died in 2017 and the USGA & # 39; s Open Committee chaired Winged Foot in 1974, rejected the Miller theory.

"Johnny Miller's 63 in Oakmont had absolutely no influence whatsoever on how the course at Winged Foot was set up," Tatum told The Los Angeles Times in 2003.

In any case, there were other factors that helped make Winged Foot such a demanding test.

To begin with, a new mower had allowed the rugged foot to be level. level all over the track.

For another, the weather in the months leading up to the tournament had been marked by the perfect amount of rain. [19459] 002]

"It was a superintendent's dream," said Ted Horton, the 1974 course inspector. "It enabled us to fortify the greens." The players, he added, & # 39; ran into what I will call their perfect storm, with the rough creature as tough as it was. We also achieved green speed not seen in any tournament until then. "

Horton is familiar with the theory that blames Miller & # 39; s 63, but he made it clear," I didn't care for a minute. .

Irwin eventually won. He wasn't a star, but he had proved himself more than capable with two impressive wins at the Heritage Classic in 1971 and 1973, at the formidable Harbor Town Golf Links in Hilton Head Island, SC

Irwin, started with a three-over 73, three shots behind the leader, Gary Player, who had won the Masters tournament two months earlier.

Halfway through Irwin and Player were equal, along with Arnold Palmer and Ray Floyd. Tom Kite and Tom Watson were just one shot behind.

Watson took the lead over Irwin on Saturday after 54 holes to one with 69. Palmer was still in it, three back.

On Sunday Irwin passed Watson with a long birdie-putt at the ninth hole, but bogeyed No. 10. He then turned another long birdie on 11. Irwin held it together on his way to victory.

For Irwin it was a dream come true. Literally. He said he would win the Open a few months before he had a dream. Irwin didn't tell anyone except his wife, Sally.

While many players may have been intimidated by Winged Foot, that was not the case with Irwin, an All-Big Eight Conference safety for the University of Colorado.

His approach was similar to how he would approach a fullback.

"You didn't take it right away," said Irwin, who said his goal all week was to get the ball under the hole so it didn't go downhill.

For Watson, who shot a 79 on the last round, it was far from a total loss.

He had a beer in the clubhouse afterwards, when he was approached by Byron Nelson, who offered to help him with his game. They worked together a few years later. Watson went on to become one of the game's great champions, with eight major titles, including five British Opens.

Irwin also became a great champion, conquered the US Open in 1979 and 1990, and won 45 times as a senior player

"As a younger man, winning the US Open was my goal" , said Irwin, who was 29 when he was victorious at Winged Foot. "I had achieved that, but that didn't mean I wanted to stop."

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