Us Open, Pinehurst and the ghost of massacre

It passed into popular imagination as 'The Winged Foot Massacre,' a title that could belong to a B-movie western but, in fact, refers to the golf tournament held at that celebrated New York course between June 13th and 16th, 1974

by Andrea Gussoni
Us Open, Pinehurst and the ghost of massacre
© Getty Images Sport - Patrick Smith / Staff

It passed into popular imagination as 'The Winged Foot Massacre,' a title that could belong to a B-movie western but, in fact, refers to the golf tournament held at that celebrated New York course between June 13th and 16th, 1974.

It was the story of how the United States Golf Association (USGA) lost control of the US Open, marking a significant moment in sports history, especially as this Thursday marks 50 years since the event.

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The scenes were gruesome.

Like that of Jack Nicklaus, who, by then, had already won 12 of his 16 majors, struggling to cross the green with his first putt. The level of demand, cruelty, or whatever you want to call it reached by the organization could be measured by the statements of those affected.

"All you could do if you fell into the rough was get it back onto the fairway with a wedge. It was normal to advance 80 yards," said Johnny Miller. "By God, there was no mistake: you were either on the fairway or in trouble," Nicklaus remarked of that.

Yet, amidst the chaos, Nicklaus enjoyed himself simply "because he could," having the shots to play in such conditions. Legend has it that you could hear a ball land on the greens, hard as flint, over 150 meters away. Not a single player finished the first day below par.

The best, Gary Player, equaled it. After the day ended, Sandy Tatum, then president of the USGA, coined the phrase that best encapsulates the spirit of the US Open: "We're not trying to humiliate the best players in the world, we're trying to identify them." Hale Irwin would go on to win with a score of seven over par; the impact of what happened in the New York suburb of Mamaroneck would forever change the federative approach to presenting their courses.

Many perceived this as a sort of vendetta for what happened the year before at Oakmont, when Johnny Miller won with a 63 in the final round, intolerable from the organization's perspective. And so there are reasons to fear that something similar could happen this week at the 124th edition of the event, at Pinehurst's Number 2 (North Carolina), the 'home' of American golf, one of the sanctuaries in the Open rotation, where the USGA has part of its headquarters (the general is in New Jersey) and its Hall of Fame.

Wyndham Clark, defending champion, already warned on Tuesday: "the greens are on the edge." Part of the blame, if one were to look for scapegoats within the USGA, would be on the -10 with which the event was won last year at the Los Angeles Country Club.

The other 66% would be the responsibility of Xander Schauffele and Rickie Fowler, who 'provoked' tournament officials with rounds of 62 each, a major record, on Thursday. So it's not far-fetched to expect a winner above par, or a couple of strokes or three below.

Nothing new. In 1951, at Oakland Hills, Michigan, Ben Hogan won at +7 and proudly declared he had "tamed a monster" at his feet. In 1963, at The Country Club, Boston, +9 was only enough for a playoff, which was won by Julius Boros, ahead of Jacky Cupit and Arnold Palmer.

Of the 93 editions since 1930, when playing under par more or less ceases to be an exception, 29 have seen a champion above par. In the Masters, which has been played 88 times, it has only happened three times. Proof that the US Open speaks a different language than the rest of competitive golf.

"Our philosophy is to take the best courses in America and let them be what their creators intended them to be for the best players in the world, and let them showcase their abilities. Every club in the bag, dirty. We want them to hit it left to right, right to left, high, low.

We want to test them mentally and physically. It's as simple as that," graphically sums up USGA Tournament Director John Bodenhamer in statements quoted by Golf Digest. Whether or not it produces the drama that can be sensed from afar, speaking of Pinehurst is speaking of a pinnacle of American golf.

Located in the interior of North Carolina, it is the work of James Walker Tufts, a magnate with businesses in silverware and soda fountains who in 1895 bought 5,500 acres (2,225 hectares or 22 square kilometers) where today stands a macro-resort that receives a million visitors a year.

The first 18-hole course opened in 1898, and they're already building the tenth. The offer is completed with a nine-hole course and a par 3. This US Open will be the 13th USGA event played there, and there will be at least six more by 2044 (the men's US Open will return in 2029, 2035, 2041, and 2047).

It's part of the Anchor Sites policy, implemented in 2020. The Number 2, which will be played from this Thursday, is a design by Donald Ross (there are others with the stamp of Gil Hanse, Tom Fazio, or Jack Nicklaus, an All-Star of contemporary golf architecture) renovated in 1974 by Robert Trent Jones and again in 2010 by Bill Coore and Ben Crenshaw with a view to the last Open played there, in 2014 with victory for German Martin Kaymer, today a player for LIV.

Johnny Miller said of its undulating greens that landing the ball on them is "like trying to leave it on the roof of a Volkswagen Beetle." Nestled in a pine forest, with large sand obstacles in the style of Kiawah and monstrous par 4s like the 2 (the 1 being easier because Ross believed the first segment of a course should never be too difficult), a classic of the US Open, from this Thursday it will once again showcase its majesty, and also its fangs.

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