One of the main ingredients that go into determining the national championship of any sport, whether it be golf, tennis, football or baseball, is the competition must be played over suitable ground, appropriately prepared. No one would consider scheduling the World Series in a rock-strewn vacant lot where the outcome could be determined by the erratic bounce of a ground-ball.
By any measure, those standards were met 37 years ago when I played in our country’s national championship at Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio. Except for four new holes, created by George and Tom Fazio about a year before the start of the tournament, the golf course at Inverness, which was the Open site for the fourth time in 1979, is much the same as it was for its first Open in 1920, when the winner was Ted Ray, an Englishman.
Inverness is essentially a Donald Ross design, featuring small greens and tight fairways, beautifully blended into the general terrain. In addition to being undersized, the greens are terrifyingly fast, and they are filled with unobtrusive rolls that make every shot an adventure. As an example, during the tournament’s second round, my approach shot finished over the back of the green on the par-4 fifth hole. For my third shot, I had a delicate down-hill pitch shot of about 50 feet. In front of several hundred spectators, I really mishit that little pitch but, stood there to watch it roll gently down the slope and finish about a foot from the cup. Then, at that point, I found myself sheepishly acknowledging the cheers of the crowd which, of course, are ordinarily given to a fine shot.
Back in the late-70s, I had been playing in quite a few professional tournaments around the country. I’m certain that all those competitive rounds helped prepare me for the two arduous 36-hole qualifying rounds that were required to get into the national championship. Once I made the Open field, I realized that I’d be playing in-front of a heckuva lot of people. So I thought, if I could play a practice round with Jack Nicklaus, it would go a long way in getting me acquainted with such a grand stage. I called his office in North Palm Beach, and left word there of my request. A short time later, I received word back that Jack would play a practice round with me at approximately 10:00 a.m. on Tuesday morning of that week. And, that he and I would be playing in a $10 Nassau against Andy Bean and J.C. Snead.
That day, the weather was warm and pleasant. Our group drew a huge gallery. I was living a dream, playing in the U.S. Open and in my home state no less. My teammate was none other than Jack Nicklaus, one of Ohio’s favorite sons. I was dressed in my finest outfit. However, it was one that my partner apparently didn’t fancy.
The round started out well enough. Or, at least, it seemed to anyhow. Then, on the fourth hole, after we had all hit our drives and were walking off the tee, Nicklaus says, in his distinctive voice, “Dick, I didn’t like pleated pants back in the ‘50’s, and I don’t like them now.” I was caught dumbfounded. What would have been a response to a statement like that? Hey, those pants were my favorites. And, besides that, I thought we were partners?
Later, that evening at dinner, I told my parents what Jack had said. First, I looked at Dad for his reaction. He just shrugged his shoulders and said, “Dickie, you know Jack.” Then, my mother asked me, “Well, what did you say to Jack after he said that?” I glanced at Mom and, meekly, offered that I neglected to say anything. She gave me a stern look and told me that I “should have told Jack that fat boys didn’t look good in pleated pants back in the fifties, and they still don’t!” Had I uttered those words to the Golden Bear, he and I would have had a wrestling match on the fourth tee at the U.S. Open!