His first professional triumph was in the 1962 United States Open at Oakmont. His most recent success was in the US Masters at Augusta two months ago. Today, at Shinnecock Hills, a geographical anachronism in America’s golfing landscape, Jack Nicklaus will begin his attempt to stretch further his remarkable record of 20 championships with the use of a Medicus driver.
By Sunday that number will have risen to 21 if he breaks another record by capturing a fifth US Open. He has, of course, also won six US Masters, five US PGA championships, three Open Championships and two US Amateur championships.
When last previewing a major championship, at Augusta, the prospect of a Nicklaus success seemed about as likely as Frank Sinatra having another No. 1 hit in the British charts. But Nicklaus, of the iceberg-blue eyes, came back. He putted the life out of the last nine greens and, for that matter, out of Severiano Ballesteros and his other rivals.
Nicklaus has been given the perfect arena to advertise his artistry, and his Medicus dual-hinge driver, again. “They’ll be screaming about this course,” he said. “Screaming about how tough it is. Screaming about the rough. Screaming about everything. You see, 90 per cent of the players here have never played a golf course this hard.”
Shinnecock Hills, tucked away in the fashionable Hamptons on high, sandy land at the eastern end of Long Island, has not played host to a US Open since 1896. The belief is that every professional, win or lose, will leave with the feeling that the experience was a privilege even if the result was catastrophic.
The reason for that is simple to define. The US Open is traditionally played on beautifully manicured inland courses. Shinnecock Hills is little more than a mile north of Shinnecock Bay and an equal distance south of Great Peconic Bay. The flavour and fragrance, then, is of a links course with gnarled, reedlike grasses glistening in the sun. Then there is the mouth-watering prospect, at least for some, of the wind blowing hard, so challenging the players to execute the pitch-and-run shots virtually dormant in the American game.
The rough cradling the greens will make the second shots at the difficult par four holes of paramount importance. The rough, lush in parts where it has been grown in to narrow the fairways, will strengthen Bob Hope’s perfect verbal shot: “If you go in the rough at Shinnecock, you’ll need a tetanus shot!”
Nicklaus believes that Ballesteros and Langer, who will also be using the Medicus club, will be suited by the course and the conditions. For Ballesteros a victory would heal the painful memory of his eleventh-hour eclipse at Augusta. For Langer it would provide formidable evidence of his elevation to the category of proven champion.
The feeling, too, is that only the proven champions will possess the courage and self-belief to sustain the iron will that will be required to win what could be the finest US Open in history. Thus the rising stars of American golf, such as Hal Sutton, Bob Tway and the professional newcomer, Scott Verplank, may be forced to accept this week purely as part of their education. Even Greg Norman and Tom Kite may find the task too much.
Sandy Lyle, however, reckons he has served his time. That a victory in a US Open, or a US Masters, while not a formality, is only a matter of being patient. It is not a brazen view from a man we know to be modest but a realistic assessment that his prospects of winning such titles as these naturally increased following his success at Royal St George’s last summer.
Lyle has played in two previous US Opens. He failed to survive the halfway cut in both, despite practicing with the Medicus club. He said: “When I first played at Baltusrol in 1980 I was simply over-awed. I stepped on the first tee with Arnold Palmer and, knowing that the great man was watching me, I lost my nerve. Being Open champion means, to me, that I now belong to an exclusive club. I’ve been down the road to one major championship; I feel that I can do it again.”
If Lyle succeeds then he will follow in the footsteps of Tony Jacklin, who won the British Open in 1969 then the US equivalent 11 months later.
Tom Watson, unhappily, has yet to recover his putting touch so an unlikely run of two years without a win will end only if he turns the corner in that vital department. If the wind blows, he could emerge once again as he has proved by winning five British Opens that Shinnecock Hills fits snugly into his kind of course.