The mental_floss Guide to the U.S. Open

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Golf's U.S. Open plays out this week, just in time for the customary final round on Father's Day. In honor of the Open's teeing off at Torrey Pines Golf Course in San Diego, we dug through the championship's history to find some crucial details (and trivial moments, too).

How old is the tournament?
The Newport Country Club of Rhode Island hosted the first U.S. Open in 1895 with far less fanfare than the modern tournament receives. Instead of a mad scramble to make the elite field, the competition only had 11 entrants, each of whom played a nine-hole course four times in a single day. The U.S. Open wasn't even the main draw on the course that week; spectators and golfers were much more preoccupied with the first playing of U.S. Amateur Championship at the club, which made the Open something of an afterthought. At the end of play, Englishman Horace Rawlins claimed the title and pocketed $150 and a gold medal for his stellar performance. (He also made a compelling case for home-course advantage in golf; by day the young champ was the assistant pro at"¦you guessed it, the Newport Country Club.) The Open's been played ever since with two exceptions: a two-year break for World War I and a four-year gap during World War II.

So Americans dominated right off the bat, right?
Hardly. Although the tournament was called the U.S. Open, winning was strictly a British affair in its early days. From 1895 to 1910, British golfers won every year, including four wins by Scottish immigrant Willie Anderson. Americans didn't claim their own Open until 1911 when Philadelphia's John J. McDermott bested the field by three strokes. McDermott, who was only 19 years old at the time of his victory, still holds the record for youngest Open champ. Just as impressively, he successfully defended his title the following year at the Country Club of Buffalo.

Why is it called the U.S. Open?
Technically, the tournament is open to all comers rather than restricted to a certain group of golfers. Both amateurs john-daly.jpgand professionals can compete in the event, so in theory, any golfer in the world is eligible for the field. Thus, it's an "open" tournament. Of course, you can't just show up with your bag and shoes on Thursday morning and expect to tee off with Tiger. Golfers have to either qualify for the championship or gain an invitation through a qualifying exemption, which are given to past champions, recent champions of other major championships, top-ranked professionals, and other elite groups.

Amateurs with handicaps of 1.4 or less can play in the U.S. Open if they make it through the qualifying process, which includes a local qualifying round and a sectional qualifying round. Golfers who manage to qualify in this way had better behave themselves, though. The USGA's website ominously warns that golfers are "subject to rejection at any time (including during the Championship) by the USGA. The reason for rejection may include unbecoming conduct." If John Daly's been sliding by, though, it's probably tough to get the boot.

What's the roughest time anyone's had at the Open?
It would be hard to beat J.D. Tucker in the futility department. He took the course for the 1898 Open at the Myopia Hunt Club in S. Hamilton, MA, and proceeded to shoot a 157 in his opening round. During his second round the same day, he carved 57 strokes off of his score, but that only got him to a not-so-competitive 100. He then withdrew from the tournament.

For a single hole, though, Ray Ainsley gave Tucker a run for his money. At the 1938 Open at Cherry Hills in Englewood, Colorado, Ainsley hit into a creek on the 16th hole of his second round. Rather than take a penalty, Ainsley thought he'd try to hit the ball out of the water. When his first attempt was unsuccessful, he tried again. And again. And again. When the ball finally found its way onto dry land and into the cup, Ainsley had racked up a 19-stroke hole, a record that still stands. That should make you feel better the next time you have to suck it up and take a drop.

Who was the unlikeliest champion?
shia.jpgThat honor probably belongs to Francis Ouimet, the former caddy who took the 1913 U.S. Open at the course he used to patrol, the Country Club of Brookline, MA. Although he was an amateur facing stiff competition from celebrated British pros like Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, Ouimet managed to squeak out a victory following an 18-hole playoff. Fittingly, Ouimet's caddy made him look old; 10-year-old friend Eddie Lowery skipped school to man the bag for Ouimet throughout the tournament. The national press hung on young Ouimet's gutsy performance against his British rivals, and the stunning win is credited with helping to popularize golf in the U.S. Sounds like a Disney movie, doesn't it? It is; the story was adapted in 2005 as The Greatest Game Ever Played starring Shia LeBeouf as Ouimet.

Why doesn't Bobby Jones have five U.S. Open titles?
Amateur golfer Bobby Jones was undoubtedly one of the best golfers of all time, and he had the hardware to back it up: four U.S. Open wins, another three wins in the British Open, and six more wins between the U.S. Amateur and the British Amateur. He might have had a fifth U.S. Open title if he hadn't been so honest, though. At the 1925 U.S. Open, he was getting set to hit an iron shot out of the rough when he felt his club move the ball ever so slightly. No one else seemed to have seen this movement, but Jones called a penalty on himself. After officials were unable to confirm that the ball had actually moved, they allowed Jones to make his own ruling on whether or not he should be penalized. Jones said he was certain the ball had moved and penalized himself. The decision cost him the outright title, and he then lost a playoff to Willie Macfarlane. Spectators praised Jones for being so conscientious, but he would have none of it. He flatly replied, "You might as well praise me for not robbing banks."

Who was the unhealthiest champ?
angel.jpgAnyone who watched Angel Cabrera win last year's U.S. Open while chain-smoking between shots might be surprised to learn the tobacco-loving Argentine doesn't hold this distinction. Olin Dutra's win at the 1934 U.S. Open was as much a medical marvel as it was an athletic achievement after Dutra got sick on his way to the tournament. He wasn't just a little ill; he was suffering from a case of amoebic dysentery that caused him to lose 15 pounds before the tournament began. For the first two rounds, Dutra played well enough to lurk just eight strokes back on the leaderboard. The third round was disastrous, though. The dysentery acted up, and Dutra dropped to 18th place. In the final round, though, he roared back despite feeling ill and being forced to subsist on sugar cubes. By shooting a final-round 72, Dutra passed Bobby Cruickshank and Gene Sarazen to win his only U.S. Open crown by just one stroke.

Honorable mention in this category has to go to Ken Venturi, who won the 1964 U.S Open at the Congressional Country Club in Bethestda, Maryland. The sweltering sun got to Venturi in his final round, and he nearly collapsed from heat exhaustion. He eventually completed his victory under the watchful eye of a doctor.

Ethan Trex grew up idolizing Vince Coleman, and he kind of still does. Ethan co-writes Straight Cash, Homey, the Internet's undisputed top source for pictures of people in Ryan Leaf jerseys.
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June 11, 2008 - 7:46am
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