17 Sep 2020 | Feature stories | Professional golf |

CLAYTON: When foot shooting becomes an art

by Mike Clayton

Colin Montgomerie and Phil Mickelson US Open Winged Foot_image
Close, but no cigar: Colin Montgomerie and Phil Mickelson at Winged Foot. (Photos: Getty Images)

Golf, on occasion, has proved itself remarkably adept at shooting itself in the foot.

Hawaiian Jackie Pung looked to be the winner of the 1957 US Women’s Open until she signed for an incorrect lower score on Winged Foot’s fourth hole and was disqualified.

Eleven years later and with the issue of clerical mistakes still unresolved, Roberto de Vicenzo was felled by another at Augusta National. The wonderful Argentine signed for a higher score on the 17th hole and the reigning British Open champion, on his 45th birthday, missed a playoff with Bob Goalby by a single shot.

More recently, Sophia Popov won the Women’s British Open, but a rule utterly failing the proverbial Aussie “pub test” meant she wasn’t exempt into the next major championship, the ANA Inspiration in the Palm Springs desert.

Sure, it’s a rule. But does anyone think it a worthy one – especially in a year in which we have all had to adapt to circumstances beyond our wildest collective imaginations?

Then only last week at the aforementioned Popov-absent ANA, the 18th hole offered another bizarre example of golf being, well … silly.

It’s a poor hole, but one contrived to elicit drama with its water-lined fairway, fake island green and a pool on the right for the winner’s now famous celebratory dive.

Originally the grandstand was behind the water backing the green, but more recently the stands moved to the back of the green and provided a perfect backstop for players fearful of going long or worried about the water at the front.

Instead of a grandstand – a decision made by Covid regulations meaning no spectators – those responsible for the infrastructure built a wall adorned with obligatory corporate logos where it would “normally” have stood.

If in doubt, the logical strategy was to blast long, drop away and try to get up and down for a birdie.

Eventual winner Mirim Lee used the “play it long” tactic knowing any water-bound ball would run into the backstop. The Korean then holed an extraordinary 30m chip, earning her a playoff spot with Brooke Henderson (who also blasted her long second into the fence and got up and in for a birdie) and Nelly Korda.

It was a pity that a brilliant finish could be brought into question by something so easily avoided in the year of no spectators.

Geoff Ogilvy Phil Mickelson 2006 US Open_image
Geoff Ogilvy and Phil Mickelson at the 2006 US Open at Winged Foot. (Photo: Getty Images)

In the 1974 US Open, the USGA – some say still smarting from Johnny Miller’s 63 around a rain-softened but still feared Oakmont the previous year – came to Winged Foot determined, in the words of Sandy Tatum, “not to embarrass the best players in the world, but rather to identify who they are”.

Hale Irwin, one of the greatest iron players of all time, survived what has come to be known as “The Massacre at Winged Foot” and finished with a perfect 2-iron to the 72nd green. He two-putted to finish on 287, seven over the “par” to beat by two strokes Forrest Fezler, the only other player to better 290.

(I would recommend reading Dick Schaap’s book by the same name, but a new copy is now almost $600.)

It was the quintessential U.S Open arrangement of narrow fairways bordered by long grass and defended at the end by a fearsome set of A.W. Tillinghast’s greens.

It was controversial, but so many US Opens are.

There have been exceptions to the set-up norm – notably Chambers Bay and Erin Hills – in recent times, but many thought the typical test compromised by not having to drive it like an arrow.

It’s not a form of golf for which I have much fondness, but many do.

Some like the idea of a “massacre” and seeing pros struggle to break 75; some think narrow fairways the only test of good driving.

Others are happy to eschew the chipping with which we are familiar in Australia, where the majority of short shots are played off short grass in favour of hacking out of long grass with the most lofted wedge in the bag.

In the United States, the course where the short game most resembles what we find in Australia is Augusta National. For me, at least both the relative freedom that Alister MacKenzie and Bobby Jones afforded players off the tee makes for more interesting golf, yet still asks for accurate – as opposed to just straight – driving.

Ten years after Irwin’s Open, Greg Norman lost a playoff to Fuzzy Zoeller, but only after the Australian made three extraordinary pars on the 70th,71st and 72nd holes. Some accuse Greg of being a “choker”, but nobody should until they watch him navigate his way from Winged Foot’s 16th tee to the final green.

Eight-year-old Geoff Ogilvy was likely watching back in Melbourne with no idea he would be the man making heroic pars to finish the 2006 Open triumphant at Winged Foot.

One group ahead and one shot ahead was Colin Montgomerie, but the man who’d made fortunes by hitting perfect left to right 7-irons to right flags shot himself in the foot not once, but twice.

“Monty” chunked the 7-iron into the long grass, blasted a pitch long and then three-putted from the back for a double-bogey.

One group behind Ogilvy – and needing “only” four to win – was Phil Mickelson. His shot to the foot was even more dramatic than Montgomerie’s.

Phil followed an uncontrolled tee shot slice with a stupid second shot and, from there, five was a pipe dream and matching Montgomerie’s six the near certainty it became.

Ogilvy’s five-over-par total was two better than Irwin’s and, this time, 14 men were better than 10 over par.

That Irwin needed a 2-iron to reach the 72nd green and Ogilvy a 9-iron may have had something to do with the better scores, but it’s also a window into how the game has changed – not all of it good when it comes to how far the ball now goes – in the intervening decades.

There are many more days, though, when golf doesn’t stumble and indeed shows why it’s such a great game. In the hours after Pung’s tragic mistake back in 1957, the members of Winged Foot whipped the hat around and she left the famed New York club with $3000 in her purse.

It was $1200 more than the winner’s prize.

Relive the highlights of Geoff's winning day at Winged Foot...

Highlights: Geoff Ogilvy wins the 2006 US Open

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