From the Golf Journal Archives - Inverness

Feb 11, 2011

By Jack Berry

(Note: This article originally appeared in the August 1973 issue of Golf Journal.)

First, let’s get the name right. INVERNESS CLUB. Not the Inverness Country Club or The Inverness Golf Club or even The Inverness Club. It’s simply INVERNESS CLUB, named after and with the permission of Inverness Club in Scotland.

It is said Inverness derived its name from Inverness Castle where Macbeth murdered Duncan. And there are some who feel there will be plenty of murderous thoughts around Inverness Club, in Toledo, Ohio, by the close of the 73rd United States Amateur Championship on September 2. A likely target well may be Wilbur Waters, Inverness green superintendent since 1949, who likes the greens “a little dry and a little swift.” Add that they’re small, too, and you capture the essence of Inverness, host to three United States Open Championships, all of them memorable, especially the longest in history. In 1931 Billy Burke and George Von Elm needed 144 holes to determine the champion.

It was at Inverness in 1920 that professionals first were invited into the clubhouse, and it was there that Bob Jones first played in the Open at the age of 18; he tied for eighth place. By the time the championship returned 11 years later, Jones had retired with an incredible record of 13 national championships, a year after his incredible Grand Slam of 1930. It was also at Inverness that Jack Nicklaus, then a chunky 17-year old, played in his first Open, He birdied the first hole. Inverness was also the site when the oldest man ever to win a United States Open – Ted Ray, 43 years old – won in 1920.

The Inverness Four Ball started in 1937, drawing the 16 leading professionals, and an invitation was as prized as a month of Christmases. The Four-Ball continued until 1954.

Inverness also was the home club of one of America’s finest amateurs, Frank Stranahan, who strangely never won the championship (he was runner-up to Sam Urzetta, losing on the 39th hole, in 1950) although he twice won the British and Canadian Championships. Byron Nelson called Inverness home for four summers, 1940-43, after winning the Open in 1939.

Still, Inverness is best-known for those super-fast greens and its three Open Championships. Like so many championship courses, Pinehurst No. 2 and Oakland Hills and Oak Hill, the Inverness golf course was laid out by Donald Ross in 1919 when Inverness was lengthened from the original nine-hole layout set down in 1903. It has the Ross mounding and the small, rolling greens. When the course was originally laid out by Bernard Nichols, it was discovered he had only drawn in eight holes. That was rectified by adding a 167-yard par 3, which today is the 13th hole.

Inverness is not a monster course – its championship yardage is 6,765 yards. Brooks wander through nine of the holes, but Herman Lang, the club’s golf professional, believes that only on the par-4 fifth would water possibly come into play, and then it would take a pushed drive and a strong westerly wind. There are 110 bunkers, though, and those greens, those undulating, slick, quick greens that Waters shaves to 5/32nds of an inch. That’s the thickness of a dozen brand new playing cards.

When Waters first went to Inverness, he cut them even shorter, down to one-eighth of an inch. “We can’t do that now because we get more play and we wouldn’t have any grass left,” Waters says. “When I first started cutting them short – they had been quite long when I came to Inverness – some of the members grumbled. But the pros who played in the Invitational really went for it, so that kinda got me off the hook.”

Inverness’ reputation for fast greens has traveled, like Oakmont’s and Merion’s, but seeing is believing. However, P.J. Boatwright, Jr., the USGA Executive Director, even had trouble believing what he saw when he visited the course in the spring to begin setting it up for the championship. Lang, who worked under Nelson at Inverness in 1941 and returned to the club as head professional in 1966, laughs when he talks about the visit.

Boatwright bent down and touched the grass on the first green to make sure it really was grass and not cement painted green. At the second green he called for a golf ball and rolled it across the green. The ball rolled and rolled and rolled; Boatwright became a believer. And because of the unusually wet spring (Midwesterners began a run on lumber yards to get Ark-building materials), the greens weren’t as slick as Waters likes to keep them. “The usual reaction when guests play the course is that they don’t even take the putter back to tap the ball because they’ve heard so much about the speed,” Lang smiles. “Then they barely move the ball and they say, ‘I thought these greens were supposed to be fast.’ Well, they hadn’t even tapped the ball.”

If history holds, there will be more than glassy greens to contend with in the Amateur. Inverness’ three Opens were marked by two fierce storms and one blistering heat wave.

In 1920 Harry Vardon, noted in Inverness Club's history as “the aging stylist,” had what seemed an insurmountable lead on the 13th hole. Recalling it later, Tommy Armour said, “those gales you’ve heard about on British seaside courses were sighs compared to the gale that wrecked Vardon. He was lucky to finish at 296.”

Vardon bogeyed the final five holes and Ted Ray won with 295. Three times Ray thrilled the galleries by driving the green on the short dogleg 334-yard seventh hole. The next time the Open reached Inverness, though, an elm had grown sufficiently to block that route. The elm succumbed, along with 125 others, to Dutch elm disease in the 1950s, but an extensive planting program of sycamores, maples, and pin oaks makes going for the green a very risky shot.

The 1920 Open also was notable for Inverness Club: President S.P. Jermain’s invitation to the professionals to use the clubhouse facilities marked the first time they had ever been invited into a club. As a token of appreciation, the professionals purchased a huge grandfather clock and had it inscribed “God Measures Men by What They Are, Not What in Wealth Possess. This Vibrant Message Chimes Afar, the Voice of Inverness.” The clock still keeps time and is in the club lobby.

The 1931 Open was marked by a heat wave that made Billy Burke almost wish he was back in the cool comfort of the Connecticut iron mills where he had worked before turning professional.

Burke and George Von Elm were even after 72 holes, and still even again after a 36-hole playoff. So, through the blistering heat, they played once again and Burke was fired up even more by an ever-present cigar. He went through a whole box during the championship and finally won the second 36-hole playoff, 148-149, the longest and closest Open in history.

Dick Mayer didn’t have to go that far when the Open came to Inverness again in 1957. Cary Middlecoff, the 1949 and 1956 champion, and Mayer were tied at 282 after 72 holes and Mayer won the playoff, handily, 72-79. It was a year of frustration for Ben Hogan, who in his two previous Opens had lost a playoff to Jack Fleck in 1955 and finished in a second-place tie behind Middlecoff in 1956. Hogan had an attack of pluerisy the night before the first round and had to withdraw. It was also a year of another great Open finish. In the last round Jimmy Demaret came in first among the contenders, put his score of 283 on the scoreboard, then went into the clubhouse for the long wait. Looking through the clubhouse window Demaret saw Mayer hit a pitch to the back of the 18th green and then hole the birdie putt to give him 282. “The boy made a wonderful, wonderful putt,” Demaret is supposed to have said.

Then, while Mayer watched, Middlecoff came to the last green needing a birdie of his own to complete two rounds of 68 that final day and match Mayer at 282. His pitch stopped about 15 feet right of the hole, leaving him a putt with what seemed to be a foot borrow. Middlecoff stroked it perfectly and the gallery roared when the ball fell into the hole.

Once more a storm hit Inverness and play was suspended during the first round as small tents were blown around the course while writers clung to tentpoles and guy lines keeping the larger press tent anchored in place.

But, then, wasn’t it outside Inverness Castle that the three witches brewed an evil potion, chanting “Bubble, bubble, toil and trouble?” Perhaps their evil spell may have crossed the water, or could it be Duncan’s ghost that gives one a sudden chill as he lines up a putt?

The 18th hole at Inverness and the finish of the 1957 U.S. Open Championship, with thousands grouped around the green, set in a natural amphitheater. (USGA Museum)

From the 18th tee the hole looks inviting, but the tee shot must be placed with some accuracy to avoid a gaping fairway bunker on the right side. (USGA Museum)

The fifth hole is among the strongest on the course, a par 4 with the green set on the shoulder of a hill. (USGA Museum)