A Whole New World

It was a marvel when the pros came to town

By Bill Fields

Seeing the U.S. Open played at Pinehurst No. 2 three times in the last 20 years — and the U.S. Women’s Open, too, in 2014 — has been wonderful. For many years the prospect of holding the national Open here was as unlikely as landing an NFL franchise. The negative chorus was loud: too small, too remote, too you-name-it. But the championships went off without hitches, and a fourth Open is already penciled in for 2024.

My best memories of elite competition on No. 2, though, pre-date the majors and are of a time when people didn’t go to golf tournaments to shop or drink, when “corporate hospitality” was not yet a glint in a marketer’s eye, when knuckleheads weren’t shouting inanities after someone’s shot. 

I didn’t know then, more than four decades ago, that Donald Ross’ masterpiece design had lost its way architecturally, with acres of Bermuda rough, soft putting surfaces and love-to-hate grass planted in all the wrong places. If you were a young, aspiring golfer — and there weren’t a lot of us around in those days, Mecca of the game or not — it seemed just shy of magical that the PGA Tour came to town.

Arnie. Jack. Lee. Raymond. Chi Chi. Even Sam, more than 30 years since the first of his three victories in the North and South Open on No. 2, the golf gods having given him not only glorious tempo but the gift of time.

And there were the tour rabbits that came out of the Monday qualifying hat to fill the field in a given season, players such as George Cadle, Bunky Henry, Lyn Lott, Ed Sabo, Curtis Sifford and Alan Tapie.

All ours for a week — or two, in the case of the inaugural World Open in 1973, which copied the State Fair without the cotton candy and candy apples. But to a local golf-loving teenager who knew the difference between Terry Diehl and Terry Dill, even though their surnames sounded the same in our accent, the tournament was plenty sweet.

Watching the pros in the flesh, particularly while carrying a scoring standard on weekends at the World Open from 1974-76, was inspiring but also sobering, like seeing my swing for the first time on our Super 8 movie camera. What they (best in the world) and I (decent high school golfer) were capable of seemed galaxies apart. Everything looked orderly, coordinated, purposeful. Putting a cabretta glove in a back pocket before putting was origami. No one got grass stains, even on dewy mornings. The sound of their spikes on a hard concrete path even played a different tune.

Tom Watson was a decade older than me, but he and caddie Bruce Edwards looked impossibly young the several times I drew a grouping that included the rising star who fearlessly made his way around No. 2. Stray tee shot? No problem. Missed green? No worries. Almost every time I thought I was going to have to denote a dropped shot on my standard, he holed a putt. That this par-saving machine went on to win at Pinehurst in consecutive years (1978-79) was no surprise.

Before or after my volunteer shifts inside the ropes, or after school on Thursday or Friday, it was never hard to see the action in the low-key atmosphere so different from the gallery choke points during the Opens when so many spectators made roomy No. 2 seem claustrophic in places. In 1975, late on Sunday afternoon, I hustled back to the 15th hole for the start of a playoff between eventual winner Johnny Miller, Frank Beard, Bob Murphy and Jack Nicklaus. I was sitting so close to the players I felt like I could reach out and grab Murph’s long iron when he made his signature pause at the top.

Some of my friends picked up work with ABC Sports when the Pinehurst stop got televised, one of them dispatched to a drug store to buy hair spray for Jim McKay. My paying gig was limited to the Mondays after the World Open when our golf coach would get us out of school.

For $20 and a sandwich apiece, a handful of us would collect the gallery stakes and ropes, somehow managing to avoid hurting ourselves and invariably pausing on a couple of tees to make air swings, the only times I never missed a fairway.   PS

Southern Pines native Bill Fields, who writes about golf and other things, moved north in 1986 but hasn’t lost his accent.

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