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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

"It kind of went back to my football days at Colorado. I was always the slowest, the shortest on the field. I built on those kind of situations. I always seemed to get it done, though. At that time, it was also a description of my golf game. So I didn't think of Winged Foot in a negative way. I made a pledge with myself--make a lot of pars and go for it when I could.

"I don't know how fast the greens were. I seem to remember watching somebody mark his ball and seeing the quarter slide off the green, though.

"There has been no U.S. Open that I have ever seen that was anything like 1974. As far as setting up the course, the USGA achieved what they wanted to achieve, but they let it get away from them. It could have been a response for what Johnny Miller did at Oakmont, a knee-jerk response, but I don't really know.

"What I do know is that Jack Nicklaus putted off the green on the first hole on the first day. The thing was, you would rather chip the ball with your third shot instead of putting downhill. Winged Foot had players on their back feet.

"It was a very trying time for the psyches of most of us. Our egos were bruised. I don't think some of those players wore the trauma very well.

"It was my first U.S. Open title and any first-time winner, particularly in a major, you like to think you broke a barrier, sort of like the four-minute mile or something. For me, Winged Foot in 1974 was the turning point in my career. It was a great week, but it was also very difficult because it was one of the most trying weeks I've ever had."

MISSED THE CUT / Billy Casper

"I won the U.S. Open in 1959 at Winged Foot, but it was a much different course in 1974.

"I don't even recall how I did [Casper shot 80-76 and missed the cut by three shots at 16 over]. I probably didn't play very well. You don't dwell on it. You just forget about it. That's probably why I don't remember.

"But Winged Foot is the kind of course where you miss the fairway and you're in the rough. You miss the green and you're in a trap. You can't miss. If you do, one thing you don't miss is trouble.

"The U.S. Open is always the most difficult test in golf, with narrow fairways, heavy rough and fast greens. What else do you need? You've got to hit perfect golf shots, but you've also got to be a little lucky to keep the ball on the green.

"At Winged Foot, you couldn't hit the ball soft enough to get the ball to stop. Those were the conditions. And they were sort of diabolical, I guess."

THE USGA / Frank "Sandy" Tatum

"The players had a real tough time with it, didn't they? It was a really difficult Open for scoring. I've often wondered what the combination of factors were that led to such a result.

"Since I was the Open committee chairman, I played it, I set it up, I was a great Tillinghast admirer. It was an absolutely wonderful venue for an Open. We enjoyed about as perfect a preparation for an Open golf course as I've ever seen.

"The first day was really a shock. I didn't expect the scores to be that high. That set the tone. Scores were really extremely high. I can't really understand what happened. Instead of all the players playing well, they all played really badly.

"Our goal was to provide as close to an ultimate test for the best golfers in the world as we could. Somewhere around par would be a good score. No one was going to eat it up because it wasn't edible."

"The field got really agitated about the examination they were being asked to endure. That created a lot of negative attention and it built upon itself.

"The greens were not as fast as they presently get them. The greens probably would be about a 10 [if they could have been measured on the Stimpmeter]. The greens were not severely contoured, by and large. They were firm, though. I remember, when I went out to cut the hole on one green, I noticed a modest amount of evidence of tire tracks on the green. So the greens must have been pretty firm, eh? But properly struck golf balls from the fairway would hold.

"The height of the rough was no different than other Opens, but [green superintendent] Ted Horton cultivated it. There weren't bare spots, weak spots or open spots. It was consistently tough. Players who hit their balls into the rough incurred a half-shot penalty and eliminated their chance of getting to the green. In other words, from the rough, half the players would make bogey and half would make par.

"That had a real impact. But it wasn't any tougher than it ought to be. It's the U.S. Open. We're not talking about the Milpitas Amateur.

"I was responsible for the setup. The decisions that were made were mine. Johnny Miller's 63 at Oakmont had absolutely zero influence on how the course was set up at Winged Foot.

"I will never forget this. When the situation kind of blew up and everybody seemed agitated, I was asked in the press room if we were trying to embarrass the best players in the world. And I said 'No, we're trying to identify them.' That statement has lasted.

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