Some 3-man U.S. Open playoffs are more memorable than others

June 21, 1994|By Phil Jackman

Every time a guy smacked what looked to be a fine approach shot at the Oakmont greens during the past five days in the U.S. Open, it was like a not-so-instant replay of the last time there was a three-man playoff in this hallowed event. With a couple of minor differences.

If you caught any of the 4,000 hours of coverage from the course east of Pittsburgh, no doubt you were impressed with the size of the greens. Some were the size of counties in Maryland. And tough to putt? Almost ridiculous.

Almost, because in that 1963 playoff featuring Arnold Palmer, Julius Boros and Jackie Cupit, were out and out ridiculous. These are some thoughts on yesterday's showdown between Ernie Els, Loren Roberts and Colin Montgomerie, but we'll get to those in a moment.

The reason the '63 tournament was awarded to a club that started out being called the Brookline (Mass.) Country Club was to commemorate the 50th anniversary of amateur Francis Ouimet's victory over seasoned English pros Harry Vardon and Ted Ray in yet another three-man playoff.

Ouimet was 20, the son of a coachman who lived across the street from the club and his win signaled the end of Great Britain's dominance of the event. All four players shot 79 in the first round and finished square at 304, just 16 over par.

Because Brookline Country Club sounded so, uh, common, they decided to change the name to The Country Club, sort of like Harvard and Yale referring to their annual football meeting as The Game. Together with the Cabots and the Lodges, Crimson and Eli grads no doubt made up the membership. Princeton, Dartmouth, Columbia and you other Ivy Leaguers need not apply.

I first got the impression it was exclusive because all I knew of it was from history books. I had no idea of its location despite having covered events at all of the Boston area's finest clubs, including Open sites Myopia Hunt Club, Brae Burn.

Anyway, the first thing that struck you about the layout was the size of the greens. Most were the size of a tablecloth, others a handkerchief and as Boros, one of the great putters of the day, said, "Trying to hold the ball on these greens is like putting on a flight of marble stairs and trying to stop it on the next-to-last step."

Palmer got into the playoff by doing the last two rounds in 77 and 74. Cupit was 76-75 and Boros 75-72. Everyone assumed Arnie would stop his rash of over-par rounds and win. It was no contest, Boros prevailing by three and six shots with a 70, Palmer finishing third.

Probably the nicest thing that can be said about Els' victory over Roberts and Montgomerie at Oakmont is, as ABC commentator Peter Alliss put it, "The way these guys are playing it's one of those days when you just want to go home to mum." The trio's best ball on the front nine was 36, par. It's not unreasonable to expect a 30 out of these expert shot makers. Their worst ball was a 46.

On course analyst Mark Rolfing tried to alibi by saying, "I think this might be the hardest golf course I've ever seen," but fellow announcers were having none of it.

"It's rare when you hear galleries applaud bogeys," said Alliss, "but they're having to do that right now." It took 2 1/2 hours to complete nine holes, which prompted ABC to go back to its usual Monday schedule for 90 minutes of soap opera, telling ESPN to carry on, they'd join in at 2.

Host Brent Musburger referred to it as, "The Demolition Derby of Oakmont," after delivering the news that the players had combined for six bogeys, two double bogeys and a triple bogey on the front nine alone. Of course, the guy who carded the triple, Els, ended up the winner after, get this, two holes of sudden death. Mercifully, Montgomerie was excused after 18 holes with a 78.

Essayist Jack Whitaker called it right when he said the tournament was "memorable" if only for its "bizarre" final hour on Sunday. Players were in full-scale retreat as it became apparent they might win this thing. In other words, it was different, therefore memorable . . . remember the year those three guys played like a trio of 10-handicappers for the championship?

The ordeal lasted five hours and 20 minutes, Els finally winning with a par. Figures. The network broke away for 10 minutes to cover the arraignment of O.J. Simpson live just as Els and Roberts walked up to their second shots on the first extra hole, and chances are it would have received only a handful of viewer complaints had the thing ended in its absence.

Oh, by the way, Ouimet beat Vardon and Ray by five and six shots, respectively, with a 72.

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