The US Open - Open Golf and Oakland Hills
by Ed DeBell
The American Open - more popularly known as the United States Open - had very inauspicious beginnings. According to early golfing history, it began as an impromptu exhibition following the American Amateur - more widely known as the United States Amateur. So how did it get to be a tournament almost every American golfer would like to win?
In the early 1890's Theodore Havermeyer, a golf pioneer, built a golf course in Newport, Rhode Island - a well known resort of the wealthy. In 1894 he was elected as the first president of the United States Golf Association, an organization founded to administer the activities of the newly established golf clubs in this country - one of which was Newport. One of the functions of the U.S.G.A. was to conduct a national championship. Since Havermeyer was the president, the first U.S.G.A. national championship was held at his own course in Newport.
And that first tournament in 1895 was contested strictly among amateurs - there was no such thing as organized professional golf. The first professional championship was merely an afterthought, a tournament tacked on - so to speak - at the end of the amateur. It was nothing more than a one day affair following the three days of the amateur event, and no one seems to know how the idea of it ever came into being. The inaugural United States Amateur Championship got all of the attention, whereas the initial United States Open Championship got almost nothing. It was contested by only ten professionals with one amateur participating in order to make it a true 'open', but it would be years before it would eventually become the 'open' we know today.
The eventual winner of that first American Open, Horace Rawlins, was an Englishman who had just previously come to the United States to 'teach golf, tend greens, and stay out of the way," as he was told. His winning score of 173 over four rounds on that nine hole course in Rhode Island could scarcely have been inspiring, but then neither could his winner's prize of one hundred fifty dollars. But the American Open was on its way in 1895.
The winner of the American Open in 1995 - one hundred years later - got over $300,000. That is about 2,000 times greater than what Horace Rawlins got, and there were accordingly more than 5,000 original entrants. A score of 173 after thirty six holes in 1995 would have put Horace Rawlins out of the tournament, and with competition being what it is I am sure he would have been glad that he is "...out of the way." However, the gold medal he was awarded is a timeless reminder of the glorious tradition he was fortunate enough to start.
In the early years, the Open was dominated by British golfers primarily because few Americans played the game. But beginning in 1913, the tournament achieved national significance at the Country Club in Brookline, Massachusetts. That was the year in which the unheralded Francis Ouimet defeated two of Britain's finest players, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, in a now famous playoff. Ouimet's winning play that day was described as "the shots heard round the world," and ever since then the Americans have dominated their Open.
The American Open has also been characterized by a high standard of sportsmanship. That began in 1925 as Bobby Jones called a penalty stroke on himself when he was the only one who saw his ball move inadvertently while he addressed it. He would have won the tournament that year, but he went on to win it in 1926, 1929, and 1930 - the year in which he won the Grand Slam of Golf. His retirement from competitive golf in 1930 marked the decline of excellence by amateur golfers and the rise of prominence by professionals. With the exception of Johnnie Goodman in 1933, no amateur has ever again won the American Open.
And perhaps the professional who rose to the greatest prominence was Ben Hogan who won the Open four times: 1948, 1950, 1951, 1953. He considers his final round in the Open of 1951 as the finest he ever played, particularly because the course which he played upon was considered "so tough that nobody can win," Playing conservatively from tee to avoid trouble, he put together a round of 67 to win over all other competitors. During the presentation ceremony, he accepted the winner's trophy with the famous comment: "I am glad I brought this course, this monster, to its knees." That course which he was referring to was Oakland Hills.
Oakland Hills, which had been designed by Donald Ross in 1917, had hosted the Open in 1924 and 1937, and it was considered a fine test of championship golf. When Donald Ross first saw the site upon which he was to build the course, he declared that "the Lord had intended it for a golf course." But in 1951 the U.S.G.A. felt that some "alterations" should be made.
Consequently, it summoned the eminent architect Robert Trent Jones to "modernize" the layout in preparation for the Open and to bring it up to the standards for the developing game. When he finally presented the newly renovated course to the U.S.G.A., many viewers were skeptical. The fairways were narrower, the rough was punishing, and there were over one hundred bunkers which threatened fairways as well as greens. Jones' strategy concerning the bunkers was to force the player to "hit clearly defined but well defended landing areas." Otherwise, a player's ball might easily find the deep traps with their overhanging faces. Jones had presented the Open competitors with a severe test.
And that test will probably be no less severe in 1996 when the one hundred and fifty qualifiers attempt to add one more name to that list which Horace Rawlins started over one hundred years ago. The list of those who have won at Oakland Hills besides Ben Hogan includes Cyril Walker (1924), Ralph Guldahl (1937), Gene Littler (1961), and Andy North (1985). And the course is ranked next to Oakmont and Baltusrol as the most used site for the Open, so it must be a tough challenge. Robert Trent Jones implied just that when asked about his own design: "The player with the best shots, swing, and nerve control has the best chance to win." That player's name will be added to the list of Open winners on June 16, 1996.
The U.S.G.A. has often been criticized for making its Open course a severe examination of golfing skills. The usual features include fairways not much more than twenty five yards wide, a collar of two inch rough bordered by another rough about knee high - and very fast greens. But, with few exceptions, the best players usually win the Open. The Open trophy contains names of some of the greatest golfers ever, names like Vardon and Jones and Hagen, Nicklaus and Palmer and Hogan. Notwithstanding the era or the location or the circumstances, to be listed as an Open winner is to be listed among the greatest.
Horace Rawlins would have liked that.