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Irwin Recalls First U.S. Open Win At Winged Foot

Sep 10, 2020
Irwin examines the U.S. Open trophy following his 1974 win.

          As a 14-year old and a sophomore-to-be on my high school golf team, with the U.S. Open in Mamaroneck, N.Y., just five miles from my house, my late father tried in vain to get tickets to one of the early rounds.  It was slated for June 13-16, 1974 at Winged Foot Golf Club.
          Little did I know that 10 years later I'd be named the sports information director at the alma mater of the winner that year – University of Colorado alum Hale Irwin, who captured his first of three U.S. Open titles.  If I only had a time machine, maybe I could have used it to score some tickets, but I digress …
          The 1974 U.S. Open earned the nickname, "The Massacre at Winged Foot," and with good reason.  There were 10 former champions in the field – the four that made the cut were a combined 61-over par, and those included Arnold Palmer (+12, tied for fifth), Gary Player (+13, eighth) and Jack Nicklaus (+14, tied for 10th).
          The six that missed the cut?  They totaled 94-over.  The cut after 36 holes was an astronomic plus-13.  Many accused the USGA of setting Winged Foot up as "treacherous" to avenge the record final round of 8-under 63 scored by Johnny Miller in rallying to win the '73 event at Oakmont, Pa. (Miller was the fourth former champion to finish, but at 22-over).
          Irwin had already played in several of the sport's majors, beginning in 1966 after his junior year at CU.  He qualified as an amateur for the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco out of sectional qualifying that year.  He made the cut and finished tied for 61st, but was the fifth low amateur with a 75-75-78-77—305 scorecard (Billy Casper was crowned champion after he defeated Palmer in a playoff).
          Almost exactly a year later, Irwin claimed the '67 NCAA title at Shawnee-on-the-Delaware in Pennsylvania, no doubt utilizing his experience the summer before playing with the biggest names in golf.  A third round 65 paved the way for him to earn medalist honors.  He turned professional in 1968, and by 1974, he had won two PGA Tour events – the 1971 and 1973 Sea Pines Heritage Classic – and had several other top 10 finishes.
          Irwin turned in a 73-70-71-73—287 performance at Winged Foot, which was 7-over par on the par-70 layout; he would defeat Forrest Fezler by two shots, and two others by three strokes.  He was tied for ninth after the first round, zoomed into a tie for the lead after 36 holes, and entered the final round in second, one shot behind Tom Watson, who had taken over the lead after scoring a 1-under 69 in the third round, one of just eight subpar rounds over the entire four days.  He earned $35,000 for his efforts.
          His 7-over par effort for 72 holes remains tied for the fourth-highest winning score in relation to par in Open history; no winning score has been higher since, though the 2006 and 2007 victors were 5-over, including Geoff Ogilvy in the former – at Winged Foot, which hosts its sixth U.S. Open next week (Sept. 17-20). 
          It's now been 46 years since Irwin won the first of his three U.S. Opens. He also won at Inverness in 1979 ("That one always seems to get lost in the shuffle, but was just as important," he said), and at Medinah in 1990, where he won in sudden death on the first hole after the extra playoff round ended in a draw.  So what does the now-75-year old Irwin recall about that June week in Mamaroneck with the event returning there?
          Through the years, the USGA has been known (and criticized) for making the course conditions especially tough for the U.S. Open.  Irwin easily recalled such.
          "The rough – players lost their shoes, one caddy got lost," he joked.  "It was anywhere from six to 12 inches long.  It was that way all over the golf course.  You're from back there, you know how thick and plush the grass can be.  They did not top off the rough at four inches or so like they do now, they just let it go.  And it made for longer rounds, testing your patience.  It was really gnarly."
          (Yes, Hale actually said "gnarly," made famous by Sean Penn, a.k.a., Spicoli, in Fast Times At Ridgemont High.)

          A lot of talk through the years was that the USGA made the course tougher because of Miller's record final round the year before.   Sandy Tatum, USGA competition committee chairman said that week, "We're not trying to humiliate the best players in the world.  We're simply trying to identify who they are."
          "There was denial on the USGA's part, but when you read between the lines, some of the people there might have admonished themselves for not making the course tougher for that final round at Oakmont and were going to make sure it would be tougher at Winged Foot," Irwin said.
          "Taking nothing away from Johnny, he did have a tremendous round, but it had rained the night before and it softened the greens," he continued.  "He was so good with his irons that he could shoot right at the targets and stick it.  So that round did have lower scoring because of the conditions."  (Irwin shot a final round 71 to tie for 20th in '73, moving up from 33rd after 54 holes as he recorded the eighth-best score of the day.)
          "But I never worried about tough conditions – if you're playing poorly, they don't matter," he said.  "You have to rise to the occasion and can't play lackadaisically.  You have to find ways to be creative and adjust."
          Irwin might not have been a household name yet, but as he noted, "I wasn't exactly an unknown, having won two times at that point in my career, but in terms of vying for major championships, I was.  The favorites were who you expected them to be at the time, Nicklaus, Palmer, Player, Miller.  Jack was right in the middle of his great years, and even though Arnold was toward the end of his, he was more than formidable.  Player won the Masters and was gunning for two majors in a row and Miller was the defending champ.  They were a great group of players who were easy to write and talk about, and naturally so." 
          "Going in, I felt like I played well the week before in Philadelphia," he recalled (13 strokes under par and a second-place finish behind Hubert Green in the IVC Classic).  "My game was relatively sharp.  But I tell you, when we stepped on to Winged Foot for the first time for the practice round, it was a real eye opener.  I think the confidence many players had going in was quickly dashed, and the course lived up to what we heard in the locker room."
          Leading up to the tournament, the Associated Press appeared to move nationally just eight of the 52 pairings of threesomes for the opening round, tagging them as featured starting tee times.  Irwin was not among those groupings; Miller proclaimed to a reporter from the AP that the "Jack Nicklaus Era is over," and cited several "young lions" ready to challenge the throne but did not list Irwin among them, despite mentioning Green, the previous week's winner.
          But the 29-year old Irwin was on his way to joining those well known in the sport.  And likely as early as after the second round which found him tied atop the leaderboard with three others: Palmer, Player and Raymond Floyd, the latter of whom was paired with Irwin for the third round.
         After firing a 1-over 71 on Saturday, Irwin was in second place at 4-over par, one shot behind Watson, as the pair recorded two of the best three scores for the third 18, commonly known as "moving day."  Heading into the final round, he remembered his mindset like it was just yesterday.
          "I tried to maintain a relatively even keel," he said.  "You couldn't get yourself in the mode where you were going to attack that golf course because if you did, you'd shoot 90.  I do hate those clubhouse clichés, but you really had to just worry about your next shot.  My attitude going in was that pars would be like birdies.  True birdies were going to be hard to come by, and you knew you were going to score bogeys.  So my strategy for the last 18 holes was to keep the ball under the hole, don't be overly aggressive and to stay away from double bogeys." 
          He held true to his plan, scoring three birdies, nine pars and six bogeys en route to his final round 73, avoiding costly doubles.  In fact, after his opening 73, he had 10 birdies and 31 pars against 12 bogeys and one lone double over his final 54 holes (the double was on No. 16 in the second round).
          Irwin, paired with Watson for the final round, pulled even with him after five holes, both standing 5-over par.  They matched each other on the next three holes (par-par-bogey).  He would take the lead for good when he birdied No. 9, doing so by draining a 35-foot putt. 
          "I made that long putt at 9, but I knew bogeys were still to come, and they would be for everybody else," he said.  "There were no electronic scoreboards back then, so you'd get an update here or there where you stood.  But I couldn't worry about it, back to playing the next shot and avoiding trouble."
          He made what Sports Illustrated referred to as a "sinister" birdie on 14, enabling him to bounce back from a bogey the previous hole and remain at 5-over.  But he would bogey both 15 and 16 and had what was a three-stroke lead reduced to one.
          By the time Irwin would reach the 17th green, Fezler was the leader in the clubhouse at 9-over.
          "The last scoreboard I had last seen was on 16," Irwin recalled.  "I was ahead by one.  On 17, I didn't hit a great drive and hit my approach in some deep rough, but chopped it out of there and put it about 10 feet away.  I made the putt to save par.  But I didn't know what anyone else had done.  The marshal told me that Fez had bogeyed 18 and that I had a two-shot lead.  But I didn't believe it or even want to – I played as if I had a one-shot lead and didn't know I was two ahead for certain until I saw the big board on 18."
          Irwin hit a perfect drive down the middle on the 448-yard, par-4 18th, and then hit a 2-iron to within 25 feet of the pin.  The gallery collapsed around him as he approached the green, where he nearly made birdie as his putt settled an inch away from the cup for an easy tap-in and the title.
          After he won, he was quoted in the media embracing the conditions at Winged Foot.  "I've always enjoyed playing tough courses.  It's much more of a challenge to me.  I'm not a birdie machine.  I'm not an overpowering hitter.  I've worked hard on hitting all kinds of golf shots and that's what you had to do on this course."
          Hale would go on to win 17 more times on the PGA Tour and a record 45 times on the Champions (formerly Senior) Tour.   Did his '74 win at Winged Foot occur at the toughest course he ever played?
          "Without weather — yes," he said.  "But Pebble Beach and several British Opens were more difficult because of weather, be it rain, wind, cold or a combination of all three.  Winged Foot was actually a pretty straightforward course until you got to the contoured greens.  If you hit in the fairway, you had a relatively flat lie and everything was in front of you.  You just had to keep it below the hole and out of the bunkers, and that week, out of the rough as much as possible.
          "Everybody who gets out there has the talent," he concluded.  "It's what you do with it, but most importantly how you deal with it from the inside-out; from the outside-in is easy, the difficulty is from within.  That was huge for me that week and in the end, it was a most satisfying victory."
NOTES: Talk about luck of the draw: Irwin's caddy for the event was 16-year old Peter McGarey, who had moved to Scottsdale with his family from Larchmont, N.Y., which borders Mamaroneck; familiar with Winged Foot, he was invited back to caddy and in the random draw, he was assigned to Hale's bag … The average score for the final round was 75.9; there were just two subpar rounds (68 by Al Geiberger, 69 by Nicklaus) and two even-par 70s … In 1973, the final round average was 73.8 … Three amateurs made the cut, led by Jay Haas (307, +27) who tied for 54th … The six former champions who missed the cut are all recognizable names to this day: Tony Jacklin, Gene Littler, Billy Casper, Lee Trevino, Ken Venturi and Julius Boros … Irwin mentioned after he won that he had a dream that he was going to win, but only told Sally, his wife.  "I had (the dream) about three weeks prior to the tournament, and of course didn't tell anyone else but Sally.  But I really believed at the time there was something going on with my psyche, maybe internally I was preparing myself by giving me those thoughts.  I can't really remember how I won it in the dream, but the common denominator was winning." … Irwin remains one of the few athletes in CU history to earn first-team All-Conference honors twice in two sports (golf and football; he was a defensive back for the late Eddie Crowder's 1965 and 1966 teams) … He was inducted into the Colorado Golf Hall of Fame in 1974, Colorado Sports Hall of Fame in 1986, the World Golf Hall of Fame in 1992 and into CU's Athletic Hall of Fame in 2002 (which was created in 1998).