Monday, June 17, 2013
THURSDAY, JUNE 23, 1983, SPORTS
Copyright 1983/THE TIMES MIRROR COMPANY
The Open Scoffs at Legends
The sporting writers, God bless their little pointy heads, make much of the fact the 1983 U.S. Open has been won by (a) a guy who was 92nd on the money list of golf this year, (b) a guy who was winning only his sixth championship ever, (c) a guy who had missed the cut 10 out of 17 times this year, (d) a guy who didn't take up golf till he was 21 years old and (e) a guy who spent most of his life on tour not trying to make history, just money. The sporting writers say, Gee Whiz, what an upset! What a story! A guy like this winning the Open!
I submit it's dog bites man. Larry Nelson is the archetypical U.S. Open winner. The upset would be if one of the certified giants of the game ever won the Open. It's the hardest single thing for the deserving to win in all the fabric of sport. If it were a World War, Albania would win. It's almost, but not quite, the No-Name Open.
Consider that the Real Nelson — Lord Byron himself, who once won 19 tournaments in a single year, 11 in a row and 54 in his lifetime — won only one U.S. Open. Sam Snead won none, but he won more tournaments (84) than any golfer who ever lived.
To be sure, Ben Hogan and Bobby Jones won four. So did Jack Nicklaus. But only 10 men have won as many as two, and many of them were back in the dark ages when golf was only played by the kind of people who owned yachts.
You look at the recent history of the United States Open and it's the most formless competition you can imagine. Larry Nelson is a fine, capable golfer — but for him to win a U.S. Open at this stage of his career is like a club fighter winning the heavyweight championship, a stock Pontiac winning the Indianapolis 500, or me winning a Pulitzer. Somebody made a terrible mistake somewhere.
Still, a stock Pontiac, so to speak always wins the U.S. Open. A member of the chorus gets the Oscar. Bear in mind that Arnold Palmer won only one of these. Larry Nelson has now won precisely as many U.S. Opens as Arnold Palmer, and that, you have to say, means no one is minding the store, as Arnold is a cool 55 lifetime victories ahead of Larry.
You look over the recent history of the U.S. Open and it comes into focus like a member-guest truck-driver's tournament or a contest of driving range pros. Run a checklist of winners over the past couple of decades and you find no less than four players winning their first tournament ever in the U.S. Open. One of them was winning his last tournament ever. But you had a winner in 1974 who had won only two tournaments before the Open and they were the same tournament, in separate years. The following year, the winner was a guy who had won only two previous tournaments. In 1978, the winner had won only one other tournament besides the Open and that is still the case.
It's a graveyard of champions. A hoodoo, not a championship. In our little circle of friends, I have a standing wager that I offer to all comers and that I lose only every other eclipse of the sun. I will give any bettor his choice of five players in a U.S. Open. And I will take the field. Under extreme provocation, I will give my bettor a multiple choice. (Any Tom in the field, for example. Any Andy, Bob or Jerry.)
On the face of it, I would seem to have the house edge. I mean, I get 145 players, the wagerer gets 5. But, in an Open, you have to throw out 100 players automatically.
The only times this bet has been lost in the past 20 Opens has been in 1967, when Nicklaus won it, 1972 when he won again, 1980 when he won his fourth Open and 1982 when Tom Watson won it. The moral there is, the bet does not work when the course is Baltusrol or Pebble Beach. Throw out Pebble Beach and Baltusrol and the players are bucking a stacked deck.
I contend Larry Nelson should have been an odds-on favorite in the closing stages of the Open at Oakmont. What you do in an Open is take the least deserving of the survivors in the hunt and bet the house and car on him. It never fails. When Nelson came up against Watson (28 tournaments won and two British Opens), Seve Ballesteros (25 tournaments worldwide, plus two Masters and a British Open), Ray Floyd (19 tournaments won, including a Masters and two PGAs), Nelson had everything going for him. He was the chalk. The wheel was crooked. He couldn't lose.
The real upset would have been if one of the other recognizable silhouettes had won it. “Unknown Wins Open” is not really a headline anymore, it's a cliché. It's “Germany Goes to War,” “Liz Taylor Remarries,” “Castro Blames U.S.” It doesn't even sell papers anymore.
Reprinted with permission by the Los Angeles Times
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