In furtherance of the celebrations surrounding the recent 113th U.S. Open at Merion, the U.S.G.A. released its new book “Great Moments of the U.S. Open,” an assortment of essays by a fistful of U.S.G.A. staff on a buffet of landmark, inspiring, or otherwise exciting National Championship moments. It’s a good collection, with 27 different Opens highlighted – from Horace Rawlins’s win in the inaugural U.S. Open championship to Rory McIlroy’s record setting romp through Congressional in 2011 – and other interstitial articles peppered throughout on random topics of general interest. The two primary authors are Robert Williams, Director of the U.S.G.A. Museum, (an absolute, cast-iron, Gold-star bucket list to-do item for golf fans) and Michael Trostel, the Senior Curator and Historian of the museum, and they write as you would expect museum directors to write: better at the old historical details and more superficially, sometimes even fawningly as the timeline continues into the recent Opens of this new century.
In other words, they overdo Tiger, but I digress…
Indeed the book’s greatest value comes in illuminating the ancient Opens of ages past. Perhaps the best chapter in the entire book is the opening piece by Rand Jerris, a master historian and author of three essential books on golf ages gone by. Jerris takes us through not only the first U.S. Open ever contested in 1895, but also analyzes the controversial and ill-fated National Golf Championship played the year before, which ultimately gave birth to both the U.S.G.A. and the U.S. Open Championship. Also contested at Newport Country Club (a founding five club and the host of the first recognized U.S. Open Championship), W.G. Lawrence was crowned champion and when Charles Blair Macdonald was assessed a two-stroke penalty which changed what would have been his one-shot win into a single stroke defeat. (He moved his golf ball away from a stone wall against which it had come to rest.) Ever the blustering bully, Macdonald protested, challenging the results, vilifying the tournament, proclaiming it unofficial, and calling for the formation of a governing body to run officially recognized national championships.
For some reason not explained further, Macdonald’s complaints were heeded and the results of that tournament not included in lists of national championships. (It would be fascinating to learn whether that was because he actually should not have been penalized the two strokes or he just bullied everyone until he got his way.) The U.S.G.A. was formed and the first National Open held the next year.
Anyway, the piece is vintage Jerris, all the razor sharp clarity of writing and super-smart acumen we’ve seen from him in his other books, such as Golf’s Golden Age, also a must read for golf historians and writers.
The second best chapter is the one on Francis Ouimet and the 1913 Open. The U.S.G.A. does a nice job of not Disney-fying the story and telling us some fascinating and critical details even seasoned sports writers didn’t know. Here’s a sure-fire bar bet winner for you: did you know Ouimet was actually the reigning Massachusetts Amateur Champion at the time as well and got into the tournament because the sitting president of the U.S.G.A. saw him play and recruited him for the tournament? He wasn’t just some kid who got lucky. He had serious game and was playing at home. Even Duke has a tough time walking into Maryland and beating the Terps in College Park, so while his win was a big upset, it wasn’t as much of a statistical outlier as myth makes it out to be. Perhaps other Opens have had more “out of the blue” or “miraculous” winners?
In another juicy tidbit, yes, Ouimet beat the “Great Triumvirate” of Ray, Vardon, and Reid, but one-third of that trio only made it through one round in one piece. It seems Ray and Reid got into a bare-knuckle, knock-down, drag-out, roundhouse, uppercut, and haymaker throwing donnybrook at dinner after the first round…at dinner! (Reid insulted Ray’s being from Jersey. See what happens when you make disparaging remarks about a guy’s parentage? Gotta watch those Jersey guys….) Reid took such a shot in the chops from Ray – and had his pride wounded far further – that he disappeared into the nether-reaches of the leaderboard never to be seen again that week.
Other historical Opens discussed include the last win by an amateur, (Johnny Goodman in 1933), Hogan’s comeback in 1950, and Gary Player’s breakthrough win in at Bellerive.
Finally, the photography is stunning: a mix of old photos where the heroes materialize through the mists of history like a reverie and pictures from modern Opens that are the work of John Mummert, the U.S.G.A.’s photographer. Mummert, as everyone knows is part of another “Great Triumvirate”…of golf photographers. (The others of course being the Hennebrys and Aiden Bradley – together they are undoubtedly the Nicklaus, Palmer, and Player of golf photographers.) Mummert’s work is sublime. His ability to capture quintessential moments in sports competition is only surpassed by the powerful poignancy of the rest of his work. The picture of Arnold Palmer’s visor as it soars into the air is an instant classic.
But unquestionably the best photo in the book is the one of Ben Hogan in the ambulance as it carried from the scene of his near fatal accident. I saw that photo once before. It’s near Hogan’s locker at Colonial in their clubhouse shrine to his memory. Hogan is in the stretcher being loaded into the ambulance, and he’s looking right into the camera. It’s a time capsule moment in golf history – though a dark one to be sure – but here’s the kicker:
He looks exactly like a young Sean Connery.
To look at the photo, you think you’re looking at James Bond walking into M’s office to discuss Dr. No, Mr. Big, or Goldfinger. It’s astounding.
Anyway, the greatest compliment I can give the book is that I’ll use it. It will come in handy for referencing the history of Opens long past. But it has appeal all across golf fans anywhere. You can learn the history of the game, revel histories of your favorite golf hero, or you can put it on the coffee table and watch everyone ooh and ahh over the pictures.
Or, like me, you can dine out on the bar bets you win on the details no one else knew but thought they did. So there’s yet another reason to add it to your golf library – knowledge is power.