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Pleasures of Life Dept.

Links to the Past

A view from the back nine

By Scott Sheffield

As I eagerly anticipate the playing of the 124th U.S. Men’s Open Golf Championship, I find myself becoming somewhat nostalgic and maybe a little wistful. I have watched every U.S. Open since the late 1950s either on television or in person, and this year’s tournament marks the 60th anniversary of the first Open I watched from the grounds.

The ’64 U. S. Open was held at Congressional Country Club in Potomac, Maryland, a suburb of Washington, D.C. I was 17 years old and a junior member of Belle Haven Country Club in Alexandria, Virginia, also a suburb of D.C. That year the Open Organizing Committee decided to use junior golfers from the area as hole marshals. I was chosen to be one of them.

My uniform consisted of a solid dark blue, collarless shirt fashioned from some sort of thin mesh material; a solid red baseball-style cap; and a round white metal badge. In a blue ring around the edge of the badge were the obligatory words stating which Open it was and where it was being played — but what was in the center of the badge is what impressed me. Superimposed over the logo of the club was the word COMMITTEE in bold red letters. I was a member of the Committee! Or at least I thought so then, and never to this day have I tried to discredit that assumption. (The only reason I can state with authority what the badge looked like is because I still have it.)

My assignment was the green on the 15th hole, a par-5. It was situated at the back of the property abutting a fenced personal residence. Some large trees near the fence offered shade, which, as the week progressed, became a welcome and much needed haven from the unusually intense heat and humidity. That area was a refuge for marshals and spectators alike, especially when the kids that lived beyond the fence started selling lemonade at prices that undercut the on-course concession stands — 50 cents for a large, 20-ounce cup and a quarter for 8 ounces, if memory serves. I must have downed 20 large cups or more that week.

I’m convinced volunteers at the championship have it much easier today than in ’64. Our assignments were for the whole day, every day (including practice days), not just a few four-hour shifts. It’s true, volunteers now have to purchase their uniforms, but at least they are well made and can still be worn later. After the tournament in ’64, one of the hottest on record, there was nothing usable left of my uniform. My cap was so sweat-stained I had to throw it away (I wish I hadn’t), and my flimsy shirt literally disintegrated, leaving the badge as my only souvenir.

I have attended six U. S. Open championships in person, three as a volunteer (1964 at Congressional, 2005 and 2014 at Pinehurst No. 2), and three times as a spectator (1973 and 2007 at Oakmont, and 1997 at Congressional). The memories stay with me to this day.

I’ll never forget what Ken Venturi looked like plodding down the last fairway on Saturday afternoon in ’64. Venturi, who under normal conditions appeared thin, looked gaunt and emaciated. As he made his way down the hill toward the green, his shoulders slumped, his gait almost a limp, his color nearly as white as his shirt. I feared he might pass out before he finished the hole. For a while, a golf cart followed the players, apparently in the event Venturi would require medical attention or have to be whisked off the course at a moment’s notice. Thankfully, none of that proved necessary. He parred the hole and won the tournament. We wouldn’t learn until later how serious his condition had been. In ’64, and in most of the years prior, the Open was played over three days — 18 holes on Thursday and Friday, and 36 on Saturday. After Venturi’s struggles, the championship would be contested over four days instead of three. The double round became a relic of the past.

Before I joined the gallery following Venturi, I asked the kids behind the fence how much money they had taken in. They said they were still counting, but the final amount was probably going to be around $3,000. Not a bad haul 60 years ago.

Even though I was only 17 and accustomed to playing 36 holes of golf a day, that week took it out of me. When the Open returned to Congressional in 1997, I went only on Sunday for the final round. At the ripe old age of 50, that was enough for me. I did visit the fence on the 15th that day. Sadly, there was no one there to sell me cut-rate lemonade.  PS

Scott Sheffield is a contributing writer for PineStraw and The Pilot. He may be reached at