Popular Players Fall in 1987 and 1998
By Steve Buchanan
If you’ve read the first two installments you’ve seen a trend develop at U.S. Opens on the Lake Course at Olympic Club, and if past is prologue to this Sunday's final round is likely to have an improbable winner in the event's 112th edition.
Journeyman pro Jack Fleck beat his hero, Ben Hogan, in 1955, with the amazing story lines of what he felt was dramatic, divine intervention, all the while using Ben Hogan’s golf clubs to defeat his mentor. Golf writer Al Barkow points out in a recent book about the 1955 Open that Fleck had conquered a serious anger problem with the assistance of a self help book on Yoga. Prior to 1955, Fleck would simply walk off the course if he felt a slight by an official, or was unhappy with his play. Today, at 90 years old, Fleck is the oldest living U.S. Open Champion, and is in attendance at Olympic this week.
In 1966, Golf’s greatest showman, Arnold Palmer, was similarly defeated by the phlegmatic Billy Casper.
1987 was not as dramatic as the previous Opens at Olympic, but again, the reigning hero of the day, in the twilight of his PGA career, Tom Watson, was defeated by a pro that was well known only to serious golf fans, Scott Simpson. Watson had led for three rounds, led the tournament by one stroke and lost in an up and down, back and forth match on Sunday. Amazingly, at age 59, a major championship was again within his reach at the British Open in 2009, losing a four-hole playoff to Stewart Cink. Simpson, an off the cuff practical joker is often better known for his close friendship with real comedian Bill Murray. The two were partners for years in the AT&T celebrity pro-am, and although Murray drew the attention of the television cameras, fans along the rope lines would often say that the funniest guy in the foursome during those tournaments was Simpson. Still, despite his comedic rap, Simpson was good enough to knock off one of the game’s all-time greats in Watson in 1987 to continue the trend of “upsets” at U.S. Opens at Olympic.
In 1998 the U.S. Open came down to two fluke shots. The confident fan favorite, Payne Stewart, as famous for his dress in traditional plus four trousers as his stellar play, entered the fourth round after having led the tournament from day one. He held a three stoke lead going into play Sunday, and was five shots better than the eventual winner, Lee Jantzen when he teed off.
The tournament rested on the odd bounces of two shots. On the fourth hole, Jantzen hit a shot into a tree that never came down. Because he could not identify his ball, resting some forty feet high in the tree, Jantzen started the long walk back to the tee to hit again, his only option. His tee shot would have been his third stroke after taking the penalty and loss of distance. But as he was walking back, suddenly, his amateur playing partner, Matt Kuchar, saw the ball fall down within seconds of the five-minute limit afforded golfers when searching for their ball. Jantzen scrapped it out of the rough, and instead of a double bogey or worse, made par by taking full advantage of this tremendous stroke of luck.
On the 12th hole, Stewart wasn’t so fortunate. His drive found the middle of the fairway, but landed in a sand filled divot. Trying to pinch it out with a nine iron, instead, the clubhead slid through the sandy lie, and Stewart’s poorly struck shot found the greenside bunker. A bogey on 12 combined with Jantzen's good fortune, proved to be the difference in the tournament.
Olympic has undoubtedly produced strange results in which goliath has fallen to David.
Hence, what will come of the Open today as fan-favorite and longtime touring pro and former U.S. Open champion Jim Furyk dukes it out with the 2010 U.S. Open champ Graeme McDowell. As the final round is set to begin, my original Wednesday pick of Arizona Wildcat Jim Furyk looks solid. Furyk has the accuracy, putting and grinding mentality to win another Open.
Rincon High graduate Michael Thompson from Tucson had the early lead at four under, but rounds of 75 and 74 have him six strokes off the pace (+5) heading into Sunday. Thompson, though, deserves a ton of credit and isn’t out of this thing by any stretch of the imagination. The course has already gobbled up the hopes of the world’s top two golfers, Rory Mclroy and Luke Donald (both missed the cut), and had Sergio Garcia going all Roy McAvoy as he smashed a CBS microphone with his golf club out of frustration on Friday.
Tiger Woods struggled Saturday to a 74 and sits five shots out of the lead (+4), which brings us back to the history of U.S. Open’s at Olympic.
Everyone thought Woods would run away with the event after sharing the 36-hole lead with Furyk. He didn’t. Now, it appears that two past champions will battle it out on Sunday for what would be the second major title for the winner. However, if history is our guide, don’t be surprised if the unexpected happens again at Olympic. Frederik Jacobsen is in solo third place at +1. Little known players Blake Adams and Nicholas Colsaerts are tied for fourth at +2 along with Ernie Els and Lee Westwood. Those guys are just a stroke better than the log jam of golfers at +3, which among the seven include 17-year old amateur Beau Hossler and Mr. Steady Jason Dufner. And, of course, there’s Eldrick Woods, always one to keep an eye one, at +4.
Golf odds would put Furyk and McDowell, two proven winners, as the favorites. However, golf odds don’t apply to Olympic, or at least they haven’t in four previous championships at the famed course outside of San Francisco. What it all means is anybody’s guess entering Sunday’s final round, and that’s exactly the way the USGA likes it.
Steve Buchanan is a regular contributor to Wildcat Sports Report.