U.S. Open

Erin Hills rough recalls memory of U.S. Open legend ‘whose blows lifted a trout high into the air’

June 13, 2017
Jamie Squire

Alexander Noren of Sweden and Martin Kaymer of Germany look for a ball on the 17th hole during a practice round prior to the 2017 U.S. Open at Erin Hills. (Photo by Jamie Squire/Getty Images)

The tall, thick fescue rough at Erin Hills and the thrashing that likely will occur in the U.S. Open there in efforts to extract wayward golf balls recalls the memory of the legend of Ray Ainsley.

In the 1938 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills Country Club, Ainsley took 19 shots to play the 16th hole, still an Open record for futility.

Here is how columnist Henry McLemore of the United Press described it, and we prefer to take him literally and not consider that he might have been embellishing:

Ray Ainsley, Saturday was the most beloved man in the United States.

Five million golf duffers recognized him as their beau ideal, hailed him as their vindication, their excuse for living.

Ainsley, an unknown until Friday, bounded to fame when he scored 19 — 15 strokes over par. For almost half an hour he stood in a swift-moving creek that borders the 16th green and belabored his ball with blows. It is recorded that a little girl who witnessed his effort to knock the ball from the creek turned to her mother when Ainsley finally got it out and said:

“Mummy, it must be dead now, because the man has quit hitting it.”

Ainsley’s effort at the 16th will go down in sports history with the famed “long count” of the second Dempsey-Tunney fight at Chicago. Just as Dave Barry became confused after Jack's knockdown of Gene, so did the official scorer become lost in a maze of figures as Ainsley swatted at the ball. After many strokes, the scorer turned to Ainsley’s playing companion, Bud McKinney, and called,

“Pick up the count. I’m through.”

McKinney counted as high as he could, but not having majored in mathematics, he quit after one of Ainsley’s blows lifted a speckled trout high into the air. A spectator suggested that Ainsley play the trout and not his ball . . . He was a sad sight at this point. He was covered from head to foot with sand, and his clothes were soaking wet.

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Each time Ainsley missed the ball, the current would sweep it farther downstream, and he would have to run along behind it, trying to get in a decisive blow. No man ever showed more gameness.

He scorned treacherous currents that swirled about him and threatened to sweep him into whirlpools. He ignored the dangers of boulders, seaweed and the incoming tide.

Sharks nibbled at his ankles but he kept whacking away.

Passing ships sent out lifeboats, but he waved them aside.

Finally, Ainsley backed the ball into a neutral eddy and caught it squarely on the head and it soared from the water.

The spectators cheered - until they saw that it had landed beyond a tree on the far side of the green. An amphibian by now, Ainsley adapted himself to dry land with remarkable alacrity and strode into the bush. After much thrashing, the Californian beat the ball onto the green and putted it into the cup.

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