From the Golf Journal Archives - Great Rounds of Golf

Jan 27, 2012

There are some familiar names – and some that will surprise you – in this nostalgic look back by a veteran writer and observer.

By Pat Ward-Thomas

(Note: This article originally appeared in the November/December 1978 issue of Golf Journal.)

ALMOST EVERY DAY someone, somewhere, plays what is described as “a great round of golf” – but great is a much abused word. Figures alone do not provide reliable bases for such judgments. Players who are capable of a 62 in certain conditions could never make 72 under the strain of winning a championship – nor even 76 in a gale. Many of the truly great rounds I have seen have not produced remarkable scores, but they have revealed exceptional qualities of mind and heart, as well as technical skill.

Taking everything into account, probably the finest round (and certainly the most historic) in my years of watching was Ben Hogan’s closing 68 in the 1953 British Open at Carnoustie. Not only was it near flawless in execution, but the victory it achieved, added to those in the Masters and the U.S. Open that year, also gave him the distinction of being the only man to win three of the four major titles in the same season.

Hogan’s score was made not by phenomenal putting, but by superb golf through the green on a course of 7,200 yards. He played the first 12 holes in two under par without holing a putt of any length. His only real turn of fortune in the whole championship came when a hazardous chip fell at the fifth after his approach had; squirmed off the green. Even had it missed, I doubt the outcome would have been any different. His victory seemed predestined.

Hogan’s play of the sixth was indicative of his command. The long drive lashed to the right edge of the fairway, safe from the central bunkers, and the 2-wood to within some 30 yards of the flag were exact replicas of the strokes he had played in the morning. Each time he made the birdies.

The entire round, as shot after shot pierced the greying light like tracer bullets, gave the impression of an inexorable, almost inhuman force of mind and skill. Only twice did Hogan’s shots fail to reach the target; he was just short of the 12th green, and he slightly misjudged the long, blind second shot over the Spectacles bunkers at the 14th, where he made his only bogey.

When at last he stood on the final green, impassively nodding and raising his cap to each segment of the vast throng in turn, there were no histrionics. In fact, he looked modest, almost humble, in the moment of triumph. It was an unforgettable day.

ONE SUNDAY NIGHT in 1964 Tony Lema and Jack Nicklaus left Philadelphia for St. Andrews, where the British Open was to begin three days later. Neither had seen the Old Course before; indeed, it was Lema’s first visit to Europe. They had allowed the minimum time for practice on a course whose subtleties have confounded and infuriated golfers throughout the ages. Few imagined that Lema, an American whose game had been conditioned entirely in the United States, could master a place so foreign.

Fortunately for Lema, Arnold Palmer did not make the trip that year, and Lema had Tip Anderson, Arnold’s regular caddie in Britain. Anderson was a good St. Andrean golfer. He knew the Old Course intimately and could give his man the precise lines from the tees, essential because of the multitude of unseen hazards, and the lines changed with every shift of the wind. All Lema had to do (and “all” is a relative term) was to drive long and straight on the true lines. He did so with an ease and grace of style and power that few others could have matched – and he putted the vast double greens admirably.

With 36 holes to go on the final day, Lema led the field by two strokes, and Nicklaus by no fewer than nine. But no quest is ever hopeless for Jack. The crux of the whole affair came in the morning. Lema, after an uncertain start had cost two strokes, reached the sixth tee just as Nicklaus, four under par, was approaching the 13th green. The sight of that massive, confident figure must have been anything but reassuring for Lema. He had lost six strokes of his lead over Jack – but the famous Loop from the seventh to the 12th, where fine scores are made, was to come.

Two of the holes are short; three others are reachable, or nearly so, for strong drivers, according to the wind. Nicklaus had made the most of them; now Lema had to do likewise. His reaction was worthy of a splendid champion. He played the next five holes in 3s and, striking the ball beautifully, he made no semblance of error coming home. As Nicklaus waited to begin his last round he saw Lema hole down the slope of Tom Morris’s green (the 18th) for 68, a truly great round.

Lema then was safe unless he lost his nerve and Nicklaus went mad. Strangely, the afternoon pattern followed the morning’s. Nicklaus burned round the Loop in 19, but the rhythm of Lema’s swing and his poise never faltered. Nicklaus finished in 134 for the day, a challenge that could have broken a lesser man, but Lema moved effortlessly to a 70 and victory by five strokes.

ONE OF THE GREATEST rewards for a golfer is to achieve a lifetime’s ambition after many failures by narrow margins. When Roberto De Vicenzo began his last round in the 1967 British Open at Hoylake, many doubted whether, in his 45th year, he would have the nerve to seize yet another chance. The challenge he had to overcome was formidable. He was two ahead of Gary Player, with whom he was paired, and three ahead of Nicklaus, who was playing in the couple ahead. At least he always knew what they were doing.

It was soon clear that Player was in a tense mood. This was a comfort to De Vicenzo, but not until the short 11th, where he saved par with a marvelous chip from a treacherous lie and Player hit a terrible hook from the tee, could De Vicenzo feel he had the measure of him. Could he then keep Nicklaus at bay? The suspense mounted agonizingly in the soft sunshine. The gallery longed for De Vicenzo to win. He had tried so often, and had commanded the respect and affection of the whole golfing world for his gentle, humorous, uncomplaining nature. We all felt it was probably his last chance.

When they came to the long 14th, Roberto was three ahead. After an enormous drive, he had to wait while Nicklaus was straining to make a birdie. When Nicklaus missed his putt De Vicenzo smiled and said, “He make his par like a good boy. I feel better now.” A moment later he almost holed a little chip and was four ahead – but he dropped a. shot on the next hole and we wondered whether there was to be an awful crisis. Birdies were readily possible on the last three holes, and Nicklaus made his on the 16th, a dangerous hole with the out-of-bounds practice field cutting across the line for those determined to go for the green.

If ever a champion gave notice that all was well within him, De Vicenzo did, with a thundering 3-wood to the green. That noble stroke banished any fears, and soon he was striding like an emperor down the last fairway towards the most emotional tribute I have ever heard. He finished in 70 – not a great score, but a great round of golf.

OVER THE YEARS I have seen golf of uncommon quality from women; Patty Berg, JoAnne Carner, Judy Rankin and Catherine Lacoste immediately come to mind, as do Angela Bonallack and Frances Smith in the winning and saving of Curtis Cup matches. But probably the finest stretch of consistently true striking I can recall was when Anne Quast Decker, now Mrs.Sander, won the U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship at the Tacoma Golf and Country Club, in Tacoma, Wash., in 1961.

The greatest golfers, from Bobby Jones downwards, have rarely won a national match-play championship without a sign of frailty – but not Mrs. Sander. Only twice was she taken to the 16th green until the morning of the 36-hole final, in which she overwhelmed Phyllis Preuss, 14 and 13, still a USGA record and equaled in major golf only by Lawson Little when he won the British Amateur Championship in 1934. Of the 112 holes Mrs. Sander needed to win seven matches, she lost only six.

At this distance, no particular round stands out; all seemed impervious to error. Her swing, simple in outline, never varied from a constant tempo. Drive after drive flew to the right place, approaches rarely wavered from the deadline of the flag. Her opponents must have felt they were playing against a computer programmed by Hogan. She moved smoothly along, a graceful figure in dark glasses, serene on a crest of the confidence that comes to those in perfect harmony with their swing and with themselves.

THIS WAS NOT the happy lot of Michael Bonallack at the outset of the 1968 English Amateur Championship at Ganton. No one watching him scramble through the early rounds could have dreamed that on the morning of the final he would play one of the greatest rounds by an amateur ever seen in Britain. The previous evening his opponent, David Kelley, aware of Bonallack’s capacity for disconcerting thrusts, said he would concentrate on playing to par. After 18 holes the next day he was two over par – and 11 holes down. Bonallack had scored a magnificent 61 over one of the finest inland courses in Britain.

Admittedly, the course and greens were perfect and the high summer morning breathless, but the strictest par was 69. Bonallack made nonsense of it. He had found his swing and his putting was absolutely lethal. Only once did he miss from inside 12 feet. Normally such putting rounds stem from inaccurate play through the green, but this did not. He missed only three greens: twice he was left with little chips, and he was down in two from a bunker at the 15th.

At such times, when a golfer knows that the miraculous is within his grasp, even the most experienced can falter. Not Bonallack. He hit two perfect shots down the long valley of the 16th, holed from 18 feet, and was 10 under par. Walking the last fairway, needing a par for 29 back, he said he had never broken 30. In his anxiety he heeded his caddie’s advice, took at least one club too few for his approach, and his 20-yard putt was well short. Down went the next one as if into a bathtub.

Kelley’s nightmare was soon over. He won one hole in the match, the only time his opponent was over par. Bonallack played 25 holes in 89 strokes without a 5. For ruthless efficiency I have rarely seen the like.

THE VERY NATURE of Arnold Palmer’s golf rendered him less likely to play a faultless round than most eminent golfers, but two great ones of vastly different character come to mind. One was on the second day at Birkdale in 1961, a day about as foul as an English summer can produce, with lashing rain on a gale of wind which wrought havoc with tents, tempers and scores. It was just the day to inspire Palmer’s response to challenge.

I can see him how, every outline of his hard, strong figure revealing his anxiety to get to grips, as he strode vigorously, cap pulled low, towards one of the finest stretches of bad-weather golf imaginable. A 1-iron drilled through the crosswind set up a birdie at the first. A good chip saved par at the second, fiercely long into the gale which helped him drive 340 yards from the next tee, followed by a pitch which halted dead by the hole. A punched 6-iron with a low, clawing flight and a good putt on the fifth made him three under par.

The crowd stumbled and swarmed over the dunes in pursuit of what promised to be an historic round, but errors of judgment were inevitable on such a: day. Nonetheless, Palmer seemed set for a 70 until he suffered a cruel break on the long 16th (now the 17th). When he was playing a straight forward bunker shot, the wind blew his ball and he could not avoid striking it while it was in motion. The ball skimmed over-the green, and with the penalty stroke the hole cost him a 7. Even his 73 was great, though, and it was the foundation of victory two days later.

Before Palmer began the defense of his title at Troon, on the west coast of Scotland, he said privately that he did not trust the course. Burnished by sunshine and drying wind, it was fast-running and bouncy like none he had played before. So there was another challenge for him. The par-5 11th at Troon was as dangerous a hole as any I have seen on a British links. Its terrace green is set hard against the low wall of a railway running the length of the hole, and simply keeping in play from the tee then was a fearful problem – hitting to an angled fairway, with out-of-bounds on the right and impenetrable gorse on the left, caused endless grief. Several, not least Nicklaus, took 10 strokes there.

Arnold’s play of the hole was a marvel. Including the qualifying round, he played it five times in 19 shots: two eagles, two birdies, and one unlucky par. Always he held the fairway from the tee and then struck a 1- or 2-iron, usually from an uneven stance, so low that even if mishit the ball would not go out of bounds. These strokes of unforgettable power and accuracy were the centerpieces of every round. Ironically, his only 5 there came in his 67 on the last morning.

After scoring a 6 at the fourth, he played the remaining holes in seven under par. Putts rattled home for Arnold in those years, but in this round only two were long. The round set up victory by six strokes from Kel Nagle, and Palmer’s total of 276 was a record until Tom Watson and Nicklaus murdered it in 1977. It will be forever memorable for its wonderful control and for Palmer’s refusal to be disturbed by the unpredictable.

THE ULTIMATE TEST of temperament must be to play Nicklaus head-to-head for the U.S. Open Championship. Such was Lee Trevino’s fate in a playoff at Merion in 1971. On that particular day, a most forgettable one for Nicklaus, Trevino obviously relished the prospect, and his proved to be the stronger nerves. Jack’s errors on the early holes gave the edge to Lee, who thrives on being ahead; thereafter, every time Nicklaus made a thrust, Trevino would counter, usually on the very next hole. This was the mark of a rare golfer. Lee showed no sign of weakening, and it was Nicklaus who made the final telling mistake when he missed the 17th green. Trevino’s 68, two under par on the superb, subtle course, was one of the great rounds. Not only did he outplay Jack, but he imposed his authority on the match. Very few have done that to Nicklaus.

When Tony Lema first encountered St. Andrews, in the 1964 British Open, he was fortunate in having a caddie who knew the Old Course intimately. (USGA Museum)

Mrs. Anne Quast Decker (now Mrs. Sander) during the 1961 U.S. Women’s Amateur Championship: “a graceful figure in dark glasses, serene on a crest of the confidence that comes to those in perfect harmony with their swing and with themselves.” (USGA Museum)

Ben Hogan’s closing 68 in the 1953 British Open at Carnoustie gave the impression of an inexorable, almost inhuman force of mind and skill. (USGA Museum)