Most of the fans, and certainly the networks, will tend to pull for a big-name, high-profile golfer to power to a win in the 115th U.S. Open.
It’s good for ratings and maybe even how the event will be viewed through history.
But some of the most interesting U.S. Opens through time have been spiced by the emergence of an unexpected champ.
This is a tournament that specifically invites the unexpected. And sometimes that means good stories.
Early on, there was “The Wasp,” Fred McLeod who, at 5-foot-4, 108 pounds, might have been better suited on the back of a thoroughbred. He was considered an ordinary player in his home country of Scotland, but he ended up winning the U.S. Open in 1908.
That year, he won a playoff against Willie Smith, the 1899 Open champ, an unfortunate Scot who eventually took a job as a pro at the Mexico City Country Club just in time for the Mexican Revolution.
Smith reportedly held his ground and protected the course the best he could. It’s fun to envision him fighting off Emiliano Zapata’s troops with a mashie, or, better, brandished his putter like a saber, in a move later emulated by Chi-Chi Rodriguez.
Smith was found trapped under a roof beam after the club had been ransacked. He later died of complications.
There was Johnny Goodman, who won the 1933 Open, the last amateur to do so. Goodman was an impoverished orphan who mounted a spectacular amateur career. He so embraced his amateur standing that he didn’t turn pro until 1960, at the age of 51.
Good stories. But the task, while sorting through the list of Open winners, was to arrive at five of the most unlikely. I like these:
▪ Jerry Pate came to the 1976 Open at Atlanta Athletic Club with a blue-ribbon amateur reputation. He’d been the low-amateur the previous year at Medina, and was the medalist at the 1975 PGA Tour Qualifying School.
Hard to imagine, though, that still in his rookie season he could top Al Geiberger and Tom Weiskopf to win his first professional major tournament by two strokes. He would finish with eight PGA Tour victories, but his first appearance in a major was the only one he could win.
▪ New Zealand’s Michael Campbell had to go through sectional qualifying to make it to Pinehurst in 2005. He had been in late contention in the British Open in 1995, but wrist problems caused his career to slip considerably during the subsequent decade.
Heading into the final round, he trailed Retief Goosen by four strokes. Goosen already had two Open titles on his resume, including one from the previous year. Surely he’d have the savvy to hold on once again.
But on that day, Campbell only had to keep from slipping on the gore of the others in the final two groups. Goosen shot 81, Olin Browne had an 80 and Jason Gore carded an 84.
▪ Orville Moody was known as “Sarge” because that was his rank in the Army, where he served his country by giving golf lessons and racking up three Korea Open titles. Moody had to gain entry through the 1969 Open qualifying at both the local and sectional level.
Moody’s third-round 68 brought him to within three strokes of leader Miller Barber. On the back nine of the final round, eight players were within two strokes of the lead, but Moody was steady with a 72 to defeat Deane Beman, Al Geiberger and Bob Rosburg by one stroke.
It would be Moody’s lone victory in 266 Tour events.
▪ Jack Fleck had been on the Tour only six months when he came to the 1955 Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco. Like most other golfers of the day, he was in awe of the play of Ben Hogan, a four-time Open winner.
Fleck was a World War II veteran who was at Normandy on D-Day, so the pressure of facing Hogan didn’t cause even a flinch.
Fleck birdied two of the last four holes for a final-round 67 to force a playoff with Hogan. He then beat Hogan by three strokes over the 18 extra holes.
▪ You’ve probably seen the movies or read stories about the 1913 Open at The Country Club at Brookline, Mass., won by a kid from the neighborhood — Francis Ouimet.
Ouimet was an amateur at 20, and had a 10-year-old kid carrying his bag.
After 72 holes, Ouimet was tied with Brits Harry Vardon and Ted Ray. Vardon had won five British Opens by then, and Ray also had a Claret Jug on his mantel, causing them to be considered No. 1 and 2 in the world.
On a dramatic rainy day, in one of sports’ greatest upsets, Ouimet won the 18-hole playoff by five strokes.
Yeah, something like that might create some interest at Chambers Bay.