13 May 2022 | Feature stories |

Southern Hills and the legacy of Tommy 'Thunder' Bolt

by Contributor

The Wanamaker trophy basks in sunlight on the 13th hole at Southern Hills Country Club.
The Wanamaker trophy basks in sunlight on the 13th hole at Southern Hills Country Club.

By Richard Allen

Whether or not reigning champion Phil Mickelson tees it up golf’s second major of the year, the US PGA Championship at Southern Hills in Oklahoma, on 19-22 May, the international game has changed considerably – and probably not for the better – since he won last year’s event at Kiawah Island in South Carolina.

The breakaway Saudi-backed – and Greg Norman-endorsed – golf tour looks like it will take several high-profile players from the world’s principal tours. Mickelson has been embroiled in it from the start, appearing to both praise and castigate the fledgling tour in the same breath.

Last year’s US PGA win made Mickelson the oldest major championship winner in history, aged 50 years, 11 months, and 7 days. For him not to defend his title at Southern Hills would be a great shame; he has given joy to many since he turned professional in 1992, winning 45 events on the PGA tour with his high-risk, make-or-break approach. This same approach, however, has cost him dearly on many occasions, not least his six runner-up placings at the US Open, the only one of the four majors he has not won.

Eight Australians will compete at Southern Hills: Cameron Davis, Jason Day, Lucas Herbert, Matt Jones, Min Woo Lee, Marc Leishman, Adam Scott and Cam Smith. Smith will be trying hard to exorcise the demons of his triple-bogey six on the 12th hole during the last round of the US Masters. This ended his run at the title, and he eventually finished in a tie for third, five shots behind winner, American Scottie Scheffler. His tee shot on 12 will not be an easy one to erase from the memory bank.

Southern Hills is one of the grand old venues on the major rota, having hosted three US Opens and four US PGAs. Its name is bit of a misnomer – the course is in fact built on a fairly flat piece of land in Tulsa, laid out in 1935 by Perry Maxwell, one the best designers of the time. Once a partner of the great course designer Alister MacKenzie – creator of Royal Melbourne, Augusta National and Cypress Point – Maxwell either designed from scratch or consulted on many great courses throughout the USA, collaborating with MacKenzie on courses such as University of Michigan Golf Club and Crystal Downs Country Club.

Southern Hills has since been upgraded by both Robert Trent Jones and Gil Hanse. In 2019 Hanse returned the course to much like its original design, widening fairways, replacing rough around greens with short grass, restoring bunkers, removing trees and restoring original creek hazards. The result is a firmer, faster course, with less ‘aerial target’ golf.

Previous winners at Southern Hills are a roll-call of greatness. US Open winners have been Tommy Bolt (1958), Hubert Green (1977) and Retief Goosen (2001), while US PGA winners have been Dave Stockton (1970), Raymond Floyd (1982), Nick Price (1994) and Tiger Woods (2007). Oh, and arguably the greatest female player of all, Babe Zaharias, won the 1946 US Women’s Amateur there before embarking on a stellar professional career.

The first of the men’s majors, the 1958 US Open, was played in a cauldron of heat, and Bolt eventually prevailed by four shots over South African Gary Player. Bolt missed only 13 greens in 72 holes, and yet finished three over par. When asked what had won the tournament for him, Bolt pointed to his driver. The rough was so punishing that year that Ben Hogan had to withdraw from the tournament after hurting his wrist trying extricate his ball from it.

Bolt, who served in the US army during WW2, is a good case study on the mellowing player behaviour on the US Tour after the colourful post-war years. Then, players occasionally threw and broke clubs after a bad shot. One professional tied his putter behind his car after a bad round and dragged it home – 120 miles – sparks flying.

No-one had worse behaviour than Bolt, who predictably picked up the nickname ‘Thunder’. Such was his predilection for self-castigation and club damage that the US Tour amended its behaviour rules.

‘Tommy Bolt’s putter has spent more time in the air than Lindbergh,’ said fellow pro Jimmy Demaret.

‘Turning off his temper is rather like capping Mount Vesuvius – interesting but impractical,’ wrote Jim Murray in the Los Angeles Times.

Bolt, a native of Oklahoma, even put his thoughts on golf, and life in general, into a book: How to keep Your Temper on the Golf Course (1969). In it he had plenty of advice for budding club-throwers, such as, ‘Always throw clubs ahead of you; that way you don’t have to waste energy going back to pick them up.’

He was also happy to pass comment on his fellow professionals. ‘Why, during those early days (Arnold) Palmer was on tour, he threw them. I have to say that he was the very worst golf club thrower I have ever seen. He had to learn to play well, he’d have never made it as a thrower.’

Bolt, winner of 15 PGA titles, never resiled from the fact that his temper often got the better of him on course (‘I’ve thrown or broken a few clubs in my day. In fact, I guess at one time or another I probably held distance records for every club in the bag,’ he wrote) but claimed before he died in 2008 that much of his temper was an act and that his reputation as a club-thrower was not really deserved.

‘Actually, I was always more of a breaker than a thrower – most of them putters,’ he wrote. ‘I broke so many of those, I probably became the world’s foremost authority on how to putt without a putter.’

Bolt was also scathing of caddies, but occasionally this backfired. At one tournament he instructed his caddie on the first tee not to say anything – anything – during the round. On a fairway on the back nine, Bolt pulled a seven-iron out of the bag to play to the green and his caddie piped up: ‘I wouldn’t hit that Mr Bolt.’

‘I told you not to speak,’ Bolt exploded.

‘Sure thing, Mr Bolt,’ replied the caddie, retreating with the clubs to a safer distance.

Bolt played the shot to a foot from the pin, and couldn’t resist turning to his caddie. ‘So, what do you think about that, eh?’ he said.

‘That wasn’t your ball Mr Bolt,’ replied the caddie.

* Richard Allen is a journalist and author and a Golf Australia board member

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