The best golfers in the world, who will take on the Winged Foot West Course this week, will encounter their share of agony. That is standard for the United States Open, the game’s ultimate grind. Yet, however disgusted they get, the 144 players in this year’s field should be grateful.
It could be a lot worse. It could be 1974.
That year, the Open at the Winged Foot Golf Club in Mamaroneck, N.Y., 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 sportscaster, wrote a book about the tournament: “Massacre at Winged Foot: the U.S. Open Minute by Minute.”
The greens were fast, firm and undulating, and the fairways, as usual for an Open, were narrow. Then there was that rough.
“As high as I had ever seen it,” said David Graham, who won the Open in 1981 and tied for 18th in 1974. “If you missed the fairway, you were lucky to find your ball.”
The conditions led to a tournament with extremely high scores. The average score for the week was 76.73, and there has been no average score higher in an Open since.
So what happened? Why was the 1974 Open so punishing?
One theory that circulated was that the United States Golf Association, which ran the tournament, toughened 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. He had rallied from six shots back to win by one.
No one had ever shot a 63 in a U.S. Open and the talk was that the association didn’t want that kind of low score at the Open at Winged Foot the next year.
In 2003, Johnny Miller told The Los Angeles Times: “My final round had more repercussions for the U.S.G.A. than any other round in history. The next year, [the course] was off the charts. I guess they really took a lot of flak. I sure took a lot of flak from a lot of players, blaming me.”
An early indication of the kind of week it was going to be at Winged Foot occurred on the first hole Jack Nicklaus played.
He was one of the favorites, in pursuit of his fourth Open title. He faced about a 25-footer for birdie. The ball kept rolling and rolling, coming to a halt about 30 feet away.
“He looked like a ghost,” Jim Colbert, one of his playing partners, recalled. “He was in shock.”
Nicklaus would end up with a bogey and also bogey the next three holes as well, finishing with a five-over 75.
Referring to the putt on No. 1, Nicklaus said in an email: “I went ‘Oops.’ I never recovered and never really got back into the tournament.”
Sandy Tatum, who died in 2017 and was the U.S.G.A.’s Open committee chairman at Winged Foot in 1974, dismissed the Miller theory.
“Johnny Miller’s 63 at Oakmont had absolutely zero influence on how the course was set up at Winged Foot,” Tatum told The Los Angeles Times in 2003.
In any case, there were other factors that helped turn Winged Foot into such a demanding test.
For one thing, a new mower had made it possible for the rough to be at the same high level all over the course.
For another, the weather in the months leading up to the tournament featured the perfect amount of rain.
“It was a superintendent’s dream,” said Ted Horton, the course superintendent in 1974. “It allowed us to firm up the greens.” The players, he added, “ran into what I’ll call their perfect storm, with the rough being as tough as it was. We also achieved green speed that had not been seen in any tournament to that date.”
Horton is familiar with the theory that blames Miller’s 63, but he made clear, “That never got down to me for one minute.”
Irwin eventually won. He wasn’t a star, but he had proven himself more than capable with two impressive victories at the Heritage Classic in 1971 and 1973, on the formidable Harbour Town Golf Links in Hilton Head Island, S.C.
Irwin, started with a three-over 73, three shots behind the leader, Gary Player, who had won the Masters tournament two months before.
At the halfway mark, Irwin and Player were tied, along with Arnold Palmer and Ray Floyd. Tom Kite and Tom Watson were only a shot behind.
Watson, seized the lead over Irwin after 54 holes by one with a 69 on Saturday. 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 converted another long one for birdie at 11. Irwin held it together down the stretch for the win.
For Irwin, it was a dream come true. Literally. He said that a few months before he had a dream he would win the Open. Irwin didn’t tell anybody except his wife, Sally.
While many players may have been intimidated by Winged Foot, that wasn’t the case with Irwin, an All-Big Eight Conference safety for the University of Colorado.
His approach was similar to how he might tackle a fullback.
“You didn’t take it head on,” said Irwin, who said his goal the whole week was to keep the ball under the hole so he wasn’t putting downhill.
For Watson, who shot a 79 in the final round, it was far from a total loss.
He was having a beer in the clubhouse afterward when he was approached by Byron Nelson, who offered to help him with his game. They wound up working 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.
“As a younger man, winning the U.S. Open was my goal,” said Irwin, who was 29 when he prevailed at Winged Foot. “I had achieved that, but that didn’t mean I wanted to stop.”