by Dick Brown
At the end of July, the world’s best golfers will come to Baltusrol for the purpose of competing for the 98th Championship of the Professional Golfers Association. Between now and then the pundits will write or speak thousands of words opining as to which of these players will win, and how the Championship will be won. Believing that the past might indeed be a prologue of the future, we have described below what we believe were the key shots of some of the 16 past major championships contested at Baltusrol.
1915 U.S. Open
Jerry Travers, who was one of the leading golfers of his day, had decided to sit out the 1915 Open because due to the pressures of business he had allowed his game to get rusty. However, after a good round played late in May, he decided that because Baltusrol was not far from his home in Montclair, he should enter. That decision seemed well justified after the first two rounds as he found himself in second place, one stroke behind one Michael J. Brady, a club professional from Wollaston, MA. He began the fourth round thinking that he was in a match play situation with Brady, but Brady played badly, and Travers had him two stokes down at the turn. Travers stood on the No. 10 tee thinking that he needed only to play steady golf to win. He thereupon sliced his tee shot out of bounds. (The penalty for an out-of-bounds shot in 1915 was only loss of distance.) Wishing not to repeat that error, he hooked his second shot into a difficult lie in the left rough. He then made the key stroke of the tournament, as he, in the words of the New York Times, “coolly tore the ball out of its nestling place and laid it on the green within six feet of the cup, carrying over a dangerous water hazard in the flight. He recorded a 4 on a par 4 even with his two mistakes.” Travers followed this save with a bogey on No. 12 and a birdie on No. 15 but otherwise made steady pars to become one of only three (the others were Francis Ouimet and Bobby Jones) amateurs to win the U.S. Open.
1926 U.S. Amateur
George Von Elm, a native of Utah, was the first resident west of Chicago to win the National Amateur. His play was indifferent during the early part of the week, but he was able to climb through his bracket and to make it into the 36-hole championship match with Bobby Jones. Von Elm defeated Jones 2 and 1 in that match in what William D. Richardson, the New York Times writer, deemed to be “one of the greatest upsets ever known in the realm of sports.” Jones won the first hole, but lost the second and never again led in the match. Bobby got back to even on the first hole of the second round, and his game seemed to be getting sounder. However, Von Elm’s second shot on the fifth hole of the second round that settled 15 feet from the pin enabled an easy birdie putt, and put him in the lead. He maintained his lead for the remainder of the round, and won on No. 17. The two most written about shots of the day were Jones’ failure on his first try to get out of the front bunker of No. 10, which led to a bogey, and his subsequent errant tee shot into the ditch on No. 13 which also caused a bogey. But the key shot of the tournament was Von Elm’s second on the fifth.
1936 U.S. Open
The entire atmosphere of the 1936 U.S. Open, played on the Upper, was established a year earlier at Oakmont, which the USGA set up to be so difficult that no one broke par, and the event was won by the local club professional. The resulting criticism of the USGA was stinging, which reacted, when during the following year the event came to Baltusrol’s Upper, by setting the course up to be so easy that a number of scoring records, including the tournament record, were shattered. Another result was that fully a dozen players were in contention as the fourth round began. “Lighthorse” Harry Cooper was in the lead and played confidently until No. 14 when he missed a 14-foot birdie putt and then a three-foot putt for par. Tony Manero, a relatively unknown club professional, a native of Westchester County and a boyhood friend of Gene Sarazen, had begun his round four shots behind Cooper, but was playing the best golf of his life at the time of Cooper’s lapse. He caught Cooper by making par on No. 14, which Cooper had bogeyed. He bogeyed the No. 16, as Cooper had done, but birdied No. 16 and took the lead. When he reached the tee on 18, he had to wait for two other groups to tee off before he could finally take the tee. His nerves were drum head tight, but Sarazen, his friend and compatriot from the old days in the caddy shacks in Westchester, who himself was out of contention for the championship, settled him down and helped him keep his focus. Finally, Manero took his turn on the tee and split the fairway with his drive. (There was discussion later as to whether or not Sarazen broke the rule that prohibits helping a fellow competitor, but as he had not done such things as clubbing Manero, or reading his putts, but only cheering him on, he was absolved in the court of opinion.) The 12,000 spectators formed an oval surrounding Sarazen and Manero on the fairway, and the green as Manero hit his second, a 200-yard iron that landed on the back of the left bunker but bounded diagonally forward and right to a spot that was ten feet from the pin. Two putts later, Manero was the U.S. Open champion.
Manero shot a 67 that day. That score was a course record for the Upper that was equaled a number of times but not broken until 2014. He also set a tournament record of 287. One could nominate the second shot during the last round on No. 14 to 10 feet that tied him; or the 25-foot birdie putt on No. 13 that put him within reach; or the 10-footer on No. 16 that put him ahead, as the key shot of the tournament, but our view is that Manero’s iron into No. 18 green was the shot that won him the tournament.
1954 U.S. Open
Ed Furgol’s second shot on No.18 in the last round of the 1954 Open was struck from the hemlock grove to the left of the fairway, not back onto 18 Lower, but onto the Upper. That shot is one of the more famous ever struck at Baltusrol, if only because it gave rise to the statement that “the 1954 Open was the only Open to have been played over two golf courses.” Furgol did not rate his innovative escape from the woods onto the Upper as his best shot of the hole. His third shot had landed in the greenside rough. His chip left him with a five-foot putt. He had three putted twice during the round, and a nasty memory of those missed putts lurked in his mind. He knew he had to make that putt to defeat Dick Mayer, his playing partner, and Gene Littler, who was behind him on the golf course. He later said, “I just wanted to show everybody that I had the guts to make that putt.” He did make it, and thereby became a U.S. Open Champion, defeating Hogan, Snead, and other great golfers of that era.
1961 U.S. Women’s Open
For many years, the Women’s National Open Championship was played in three days, with 18-hole rounds played on Thursday and Friday, and 36 on Saturday. Mickey Wright, then the best female player in the world, played a brilliant round on Thursday when she made 72, the first time a woman had made par on the Lower in a championship round. However, she made 80 on the Friday round and found herself two strokes out of the lead as she began play on Saturday. Mickey knew on that Saturday morning she needed two very good rounds to catch up. She actually lost ground early in the third round, when, after pars on the first and second holes, she bogeyed the third.
The fourth hole, at 175 yards, was set up about as long as it could be. The tee markers were at the extreme back of the present forward tee, and the hole was set to the extreme rear, as near as it reasonably could be to the right rear bunkers. Mickey’s tee shot, struck with a 3-iron, comfortably made the green, but landed dead center and on the lower level. Her putt needed to climb diagonally up the rise to the green’s upper level and then to traverse the upper level on a left to right breaking line to the hole. Most members could not make that putt given a bushel basket full of balls and a morning to do it.
Mickey made the putt, and the stroke propelled her to one of the great rounds in a career notable for great rounds. She made four more birdies that morning and scored 69. The so-called perfect round requires 14 fairways hit, 18 greens hit in regulation, and two putts on each green. Mickey missed two fairways in her afternoon round, but hit every green in regulation, and two putted every green. The course was playing very long, even for a woman professional golfer. Mickey frequently used her 2 and 3-irons and played many of these strokes brilliantly. But our vote for the “shot of the round” is cast in favor of Mickey’s birdie putt on the fourth.
1967 U.S. Open
The 1967 Open was forecast by the press prior to the first round to be yet another almost match-play situation between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus. That presumption seemed to be in danger when Marty Fleckman, an amateur, quickly took the lead that he held until well into the fourth round, but was confirmed by the middle of the round, when Palmer and Nicklaus began to distance themselves from the field, and as a result proved the pundits’ point. Nicklaus was one stroke ahead of Palmer on the seventh hole of the last round that was playing as a par 4. He outdrove Palmer by 20 yards, but Palmer answered with a 1-iron to about 10 feet from the pin. Nicklaus hit his 3-iron to 20 feet and left himself a much more difficult putt. However, he sunk it, and Palmer missed. The result was that Nicklaus left the seventh green two shots ahead, rather than with a tie (that would have been the case had he missed, and Palmer made his putt). He went on to add two more strokes to his lead and was four shots up on Palmer as he stood on the No. 18 tee. Nicklaus did not take the view at that moment that this lead was absolutely safe, as he recalled that Dick Mayer had made seven on the hole in the 1954 Open, so he played it safe and drove with his 1-iron. Ironically, his tee shot landed in the hemlocks on the right—not as far right as Mayer’s had done in 1967—but still to the right. His 8-iron recovery could have been better struck, and it landed some 237 yards from the pin. However, it set the stage for the most famous shot ever shot at Baltusrol, and one of the more famous shots in U.S. Open history. That shot, struck, as we all know, with a 1-iron, earned Nicklaus a birdie and the tournament record of 274, a record previously held by Ben Hogan.
Jack Nicklaus shot 31 on the front nine of that round and made eight birdies during the day, and any assertion that his round was dominated by one shot could be met with suspicion. Our view nevertheless is that Jack’s putt on the seventh, more than any other, was the one stroke that assured his championship.
1980 U.S. Open
When Jack Nicklaus arrived at Baltusrol in 1980 there was much learned discussion in the press and on TV expressing doubts as to whether or not his days as the best golfer in the world were behind him. That discussion was supported by the fact that he had not won a major since the 1978 British Open, or a tour event in almost as long a time. Tom Watson, Seve Ballesteros, Larry Nelson, and Lee Trevino were the favorites. Isao Aoki was not listed as one of the favorites, but it was he who challenged Nicklaus almost from the first hole to the seventieth. Nicklaus finally got two shots ahead of Aoki on hole 10 of the last round by knocking his second shot to within three feet. He held that lead for the remainder of the day, but he was particularly desirous of making birdie on No. 17, so that he could have a two-shot lead going home. That turned out to be difficult because Aoki hit his wedge to ten feet and an easy putt, while he, Nicklaus, had to deal with a 24-footer, with a two-foot right-to-left break. Nicklaus “grinded” that putt into the hole and thereby made the key shot of the tournament.
1985 U.S. Women’s Open
The big question to be answered in the 1985 Women’s Open, the second national championship played on the Upper, was whether or not Nancy Lopez, the best woman golfer of her era and perhaps, one of the most loved in the long history of the game, would, at last, win an Open. It turned out that Nancy would not win, but she was one shot behind Kathy Baker and Judy Clark, the leaders, as the fourth round began. Nancy three-putted two of the five opening holes, and dropped behind Baker and Clark who were tied for the lead on the sixth hole. On the seventh hole Baker took out her 3-iron and hit her tee shot to 15 feet. She made birdie, to Clark’s par, and thereafter never surrendered the lead. She won by two shots and was the only player to break par. She played other brilliant shots as the day progressed, but the decisive stroke of her round, in our view, was her 3-iron birdie on the seventh.
1993 U.S. Open
Lee Janzen pretty much led the 1993 Open from beginning to end. However, Payne Stewart was always close and was one stroke down as he and Janzen stood on the No. 16 tee in the last round. Janzen’s tee shot on that hole put him 30 feet from the pin into long, tangled rough perhaps a foot from the green, while Stewart was on the green with a possible 40-foot birdie putt. Stewart invited Janzen to chip onto the green, and Janzen obliged by producing his historic chip for birdie and a two-shot lead. Stewart actually touched the cup with his putt, but it lipped out. Janzen’s shot immediately brought to mind Tom Watson’s similar shot, made 11 years earlier on No. 17 at Pebble Beach. Watson, when he saw it on TV said, “actually, very poignantly, it reminded me of what happened to me on No. 17 at Pebble Beach.” Lee Janzen tied the tournament record at 272 and obviously hit many fine golf shots in the 1993 Open. One of those, remarked upon by the reporters, was a 3-iron from an awkward lie on a mound near a fairway bunker on No. 11 in the third round, and a putt on No. 14 during the fourth round that put him, at last, a shot ahead of Stewart. But the key shot of the tournament was the chip on No. 16.
2000 U.S. Amateur
Jeff Quinney won the 100th U.S. Amateur on the 39th hole of his final match with James Driscoll, on the Third Upper by holing a 30-foot downhill left-to-right sliding putt. Driscoll had come back from a three-hole deficit to square the match at the end of regulation play. The match was halted the previous day after two extra holes by a thunderstorm. Quinney’s putt for the win was unquestionably the decisive stroke of that tournament.
2005 PGA Championship
Phil Mickelson came to the PGA tournament having been reminded almost daily by the press that he needed to win a second major to validate his career. The winner of only one major tournament would, the press claimed, be deemed by history to have been a good player, but not a great one. Phil responded to that challenge by playing some very good golf during the tournament and led during much of it. He had offset some Mickelsonian lapses with brilliant shots, as he had often done before and has since. A number of players were playing very well. Thomas Bjorn, for an example, threw a course-record-tying 63 at him. When the leaders reached the back nine, the Championship was truly up for grabs.
A thunderstorm halted play late Sunday as Mickelson was putting for par on No. 14 green. He marked his ball immediately when the alarm sounded, even though he was allowed by the rules to complete the hole. When play resumed the next morning, he was tied with Steve Elkington and Bjorn who were playing ahead of him, but he putted quickly and made the putt. No. 18 was at that point the only obvious birdie hole left for them. After Elkington flat out missed a ten-foot putt on the No. 18 green, and Bjorn lipped out a 20-footer, Mickelson needed only to birdie No. 18 for a win. A good drive set up a 250-yard 3-wood to the green. After lining up the shot, Mickelson tapped the Nicklaus marker with his club, as if to assure himself that the shot had once been made and could be made again, and then played away. The ball landed perhaps 40 feet from the pin in terrible rough. Mickelson pulled out his famous 64-degree lob wedge and flopped his ball to two feet from the pin. That shot was obviously the key shot of the 2005 PGA Championship, and joined Nicklaus’ 1-iron on No. 18 and Janzen’s chip on No. 16 on the short list of the most notable shots ever played at Baltusrol.