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Return To The Scene Of The Crime

THE MASSACRE: Players Got Killed by Winged Foot and Posted Record-High Scores in the 1974 U.S. Open

August 14, 1997|THOMAS BONK | TIMES STAFF WRITER

MAMARONECK, N.Y. — Here we are at Winged Foot, the scene of the crime, you might say. All right, after 23 years, the evidence is getting a little stale, but what happened at Winged Foot in the 1974 U.S. Open is not something that is easily forgotten.

Beginning today, the 79th PGA Championship will be played at the historic, tree-lined course designed in 1921 by the ubiquitous A.W. Tillinghast, one of America's greatest golf course architects, a dabbler in Broadway musical productions, an acquaintance of Leon Trotsky and the man who invented the term birdie.

But the way Winged Foot played those four days in June 1974, more than a few wondered if Tillinghast had created something else, something more like torture than golf.

In 1959, Billy Casper won the U.S. Open at Winged Foot, which became longer and tougher 15 years later. The par-70 course played to 6,873 yards in 1959 and 6,961 yards in 1974. Three holes were significantly lengthened: No. 4 was made 25 yards longer, No. 14 became 59 yards longer and No. 18 was 24 yards longer.

For the 1974 Open, the Winged Foot fairways were narrowed, the rough grown nearly tall enough to hide a caddie and the greens, with more undulations than a belly dancer, made rock-hard.

Of course, it wasn't Tillinghast who did this. It was the United States Golf Assn., which may or may not have seen fit to toughen up the course after witnessing Johnny Miller lay waste to Oakmont the year before when he closed with a 63.

That wasn't going to happen this time, and it didn't. Hale Irwin won with a score of seven-over-par 287.

Irwin, then a 28-year-old in his sixth full year as a pro, somehow survived the rough and negotiated the concrete-like greens that caused John Mahaffey to joke he was going to take a pane of glass back to his hotel room to practice putting.

Not a single player broke par in the first round, and the USGA heard many complaints that the course had been tricked up.

This led to one of the most famous quotations in U.S. Open history, delivered by Sandy Tatum, head of the USGA's championship committee.

Tatum was asked if the USGA was trying to embarrass the best players in the world.

"No," Tatum said. "We're trying to identify them."

A police lineup would have done. The way almost everyone played was criminal. Of the 427 rounds played in the tournament, eight were under par. Since World War II, only one other winning score was higher in relation to par--nine over by Julius Boros in 1963.

Sportswriter Dick Schaap wrote in his book, "Massacre at Winged Foot": "Perhaps if A.W. Tillinghast had designed the Alamo and the USGA had toughened it up, the Mexican siege would have failed."

Five former Open champions missed the cut--Casper, Gene Littler, Tony Jacklin, Lee Trevino and Ken Venturi. Four former Masters champions also missed the cut--Bob Goalby, Tommy Aaron, Charles Coody and Doug Ford.

Tom Watson had a two-shot lead to start the last round, but finished with a nine-over 79.

Three shots behind Watson as the fourth round began, Arnold Palmer finished with a 76 and tied for fifth. Irwin's closing 73 won by two shots over Forrest Fezler.

For this week's PGA Championship, it isn't the same Winged Foot that Irwin saw in 1974, when he won the first of his three U.S. Open titles.

"We've come a long way," Irwin said. "We've really got a lot more great players now than we did then. I tend to think the golf course this year will be difficult, but not anything like 1974.

"That one was one of a kind," he said.

A look back at the '74 Open, in the words of some who were there:

THE WINNER / Hale Irwin

"That was the benchmark, in my book, on how to prepare a golf course as hard as you can get it. Even the USGA admitted they got carried away with the difficulty of the rough.

"There were areas of the rough where it was just so long and sort of laid down, sort of gnarly. And the fairways weren't overly generous. If you were wild off the tee, the trees would get you. So the problem was you had a long golf course with narrow fairways and heavy rough and you were hitting long second shots into extremely firm greens with steep bunkers everywhere.

"It was quite a challenge to get next to the pins on those greens. And there was a lot of blood-letting.

"Any U.S. Open is played under tough conditions, but Winged Foot just on its own is a pretty good golf course. I remember after the first day [when the average score was 77.8], I didn't really feel like I had survived something. What I felt, more than anything else, is like I had just been beat up. [Irwin had a 73.]

"All of us were just searching for a way to play the holes. I mean, we didn't know. There was lot of that kind of guessing. You couldn't commit to any single formula because there wasn't one.

"Let me back up a little bit. When I first got to Winged Foot and saw it and heard the complaints, I wasn't upset. I felt like that was fine. That was how I made my mark. I preferred those kinds of courses.

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