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Former U.S. Open Champions Not Forgotten

June 18, 1989|MARK HERRMANN | Newsday

JERICHO, N.Y. — A fickle sport that offers its rewards hole by hole and confers its titles week to week, golf has a long memory where the U.S. Open is concerned.

It doesn't matter if a golfer enters semi-retirement anonymously, fails to win any tournament on the Senior Professional Golfers' Association Tour or starts putting so poorly he feels embarrassed to go out on the course. Golf and history never turn their backs on a U.S. Open champion.

"I still get people coming up to me, saying they were there when I won," said Lou Graham, who beat John Mahaffey in a 1975 playoff. "Some of the (endorsement) contracts I signed after the Open are still running."

Several senior members of the Open fraternity are more concerned with winning this weekend's Northville Long Island Classic at Meadow Brook Club in Jericho than following the Open at Oak Hill in Rochester, N.Y., yet their titles remain as closely connected with them as class rings.

"I'm sure I still get some of my outings now because I won the Open," Orville Moody said Thursday, 20 years after his short putt on the 18th at Champions CC edged Deane Beman, Al Geiberger and Bob Rosburg. It was Moody's first win on the regular tour -- and his last. "I think everybody knew I could play golf as well as anyone. I just couldn't putt," said Moody, 55, who has won $1,429,227 and 10 tournaments after he started using a long putter and joined the Senior Tour.

The Open win didn't open doors. In the years that followed, Moody fired manager Bucky Woy (who was suspected of questionable business deals involving another client), lost much of his money in a failed golf course and lost his house to an electrical fire that also claimed his Open trophy. "I didn't get it replaced until last Christmas," he said. "My wife got it for me."

He enjoyed that present from the past, but he prefers to keep the Open behind him. He wouldn't play in that major championship even if he had an exemption. "Why would I want to go play for two days and go home? I don't even watch it, unless a friend of mine is winning it," he said.

Jack Fleck, a municipal course pro in Iowa until early 1955, joined the tour that year, only a few months before he became perhaps the Open's most unlikely champion. Ben Hogan had finished his round (in those pre-TV days, leaders didn't go last) with an apparent record fifth Open triumph. Fleck birdied two of the last four holes to tie, and beat Hogan in a playoff the next day.

Ironically, it was his obscurity that made Fleck something of a golf legend. Few people really knew anything about him, which made the climate just right for exaggerated stories. Some said he had only $3 in his pocket when he beat Hogan. Others claimed that when he was told the president (Eisenhower) had asked to meet him, he said, "President of what?"

"They try to make you sound like an imbecile," Fleck said. "The only story I heard that was true was the one that said I did win the Open."

He has made a reasonable living, winning two more PGA events before opening his "College of Golf Knowledge" in Arkansas and playing part-time on the Senior Tour. And while he never gained public acclaim, he earned someting more rare: enduring respect from the reclusive, distant Hogan.

"He let me in his (club) factory and told the people there to take care of me," Fleck said. "Cary Middlecoff, Byron Nelson, they couldn't get in. He wouldn't let anybody into that factory."

That aside, Fleck's Open triumph afforded him the mixed blessings of appearances at banquets and openings. "Some of the old-timers will tell you that I might have won a lot more," he said, "if my first win wasn't the Open."

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