Arnold Palmer was 64, and on a regular-tournament winless streak of 21 years, when the USGA offered him a chance to take what amounted to a victory lap in 1994.
Palmer got an invitation to the U.S. Open at Oakmont, less than an hour’s drive from his childhood home in Latrobe, Pennsylvania. It was a sweet, sentimental story arranged by a bureaucracy not known for using either sweetness or sentimentality when assembling the 156-player fields eligible to compete on American golf’s brightest stage.
The reaction was mixed. Fans were delighted with a final opportunity to see Palmer in a major tournament, but some members of golf’s old guard held their noses.
Retired USGA president Frank Hannigan, in an opinion piece written for Golf Digest, noted that his former cohorts had “forgotten the difference between the U.S. Open and the Skins Game.”
When a golfer as admired as Arnold Palmer finds himself the subject of controversy for accepting an exemption to a tournament he once won with a flourish — Palmer’s final-round comeback victory in the 1960 Open at Cherry Hills, where he prevailed over Ben Hogan and Jack Nicklaus, largely defined his legend — you know the standards are exacting.
Two decades after Hannigan feared the USGA had gone all kind and gentle, merely qualifying for a U.S. Open remains a challenge that can fluster some of the greatest players in the world. Last year’s Open at Pinehurst, for instance, required Vijay Singh (winner of 34 PGA events and a former world No. 1), Davis Love III (winner of 20), David Duvall (winner of 13 and another former world No. 1) and Lee Jantzen (a two-time Open champion) to advance in sectional qualifiers.
Only Love advanced: Sam Love, a University of Alabama-Birmingham product whose first order of business at Pinehurst was to sign some documents converting his status from amateur to pro.
Just in case.
Among the quirky traditions of the U.S. Open is that it is literally open to any golfer, amateur or pro, whose handicap does not exceed 1.4. A few months after turning pro, Jack Fleck won the 1955 Open by beating Hogan in an 18-hole playoff. It was one of only three first-place finishes on the PGA Tour for Fleck, a D-Day survivor.
Fellow military veteran Orville Moody won in 1969. Moody came out of nowhere, and promptly returned there. He never won again on the regular tour.
That no-names would become as fundamental to U.S. Open lore as Hogan and Nicklaus was inevitable: The courses, tweaked to a degree of difficulty prone to aggravate the superstars, sometimes appeal to those with no reasonable shot except the one they’re lining up.
While the USGA hasn’t budged on its determination to assure its signature event will be an endurance test — a physical and mental endurance test — it also had to make pragmatic adjustments to the times. In 1964, when Ken Venturi won at Congressional, it was a three-day competition that concluded with a 36-hole finale.
The temperature reached 112 degrees on the third day, which raised safety concerns. A more subtle issue was television coverage: Why the frenzy to complete 36 holes in one day when the show could be converted into 18 holes played over two days?
The Open was changed to a four-day format in 1965, and it’s still a four-day format unless the Sunday round ends in a tie for first place. In that case, an 18-hole playoff — unique among major tournaments — is set for Monday.
Of the 114 U.S. Open tournaments to date, no number has grated the USGA more than 63: the final-round score 1973 winner Johnny Miller posted at Oakmont.
The ideal Open performance, as envisioned by the USGA, concludes with a scorecard containing more bogeys than birdies. If you go par for the course, hooray, the president might be calling to extend his congratulations.
Miller’s 63 mocked that notion, which explains why the two-day cut the following year, at Winged Foot, was set at 13-over. Hale Irwin, at 7-over, won a tournament remembered as “The Massacre at Winged Foot.”
If Miller’s 63 still rankles the USGA, another number makes it proud: 10,127, which is how many golfers contended last year for one of the 82 non-exempt slots at Pinehurst.
The chances of qualifying stood at .081 percent, which Golf Digest estimated were less than successfully applying for admission into Harvard, or going to prison, or escaping from prison.
Those playing for a tee time in the 2014 U.S. Open, the magazine concluded, were more likely to have a twin sibling, or be diagnosed as a psychopath, than to earn a tee time for the 2014 U.S. Open.
But, hey, once a tee time is guaranteed, a war veteran with no career victories is just as much a threat to win as a four-time Open champion.
“This is the tournament of the people, by the people, and for the people,” Atlanta Journal-Columnist Furman Bisher wrote in 1984. “This is the tournament that comes with democracy. Every man who can swing a two-iron has his chance. He doesn’t have to belong to a club.”
The player who wins the 2015 Open at Chambers Bay, by the way, will be presented a trophy with no name. I get it: No need to attach an award emblematic of a champion of the people, by the people and for the people to any one person.
There’s something beautiful about that.