June 25, 2007

Sarge is still a straight shooter

He stood on the 18th tee of the Cypress Creek course at Champions GC in Houston with a one-stroke lead on the 72nd hole of the 1969 U.S. Open and swung as hard as he could, seemingly inviting the inevitable. Orville Moody hailed from obscurity, and no doubt he was headed back there just as soon as his golf ball took its imminent turn toward trouble. Moody had spent 14 years in the Army, mostly playing and teaching golf. He left the service in 1968 to pursue professional golf, but the uniform has followed him. He is still called "Sarge."

Opens are won from the fairway. Waiting for the players to clear ahead of him, Sarge had 10 minutes to consider the wisdom of the ages. It was beckoning him to slow down, to just put the ball in play. Instead, he dug in and "turned it loose," he says. "I came clear out of my shoes." It was a tough old hole, 470 yards by his recollection, and he hit it 310 yards, "right down the middle." Details are often a casualty of time; a Golf World account from 1969 called it 431 yards. We're quibbling. What mattered was that the ball split the fairway. For his second shot, he hit an 8-iron hard, the ball stopping 12 feet above the hole.

From there Moody eased the ball to the hole. "It looked like it stuck to the putterface," he says. "It's a good thing it was downgrain, downhill."

Then he tapped it in, and in that instant, Moody became one of the unlikeliest U.S. Open champions in history. It would be his only PGA Tour victory, and 38 years later Moody remains the last player to have won the U.S. Open after playing his way in through local and sectional qualifying.

"I was lucky I was even at the Open," he said last week from his home in Lexington, Ky. He recounted how on the 35th hole of local qualifying at Dallas AC, he needed to save par from the sand to have a chance to advance, and just beyond the hole was a menacing ridge. He holed the bunker shot.

In sectional qualifying at Colonial CC in Memphis, Moody shot 67 in the morning, then on the first hole of the afternoon round he inadvertently violated the continuous-putting rule in place at the time, incurring a two-stroke penalty. Still, he qualified for the Open by a single stroke. He went to Champions GC with no expectations, though he was on form in the run-up to the tournament. He had been in contention on a couple of occasions, only to be derailed by a career nemesis, his putter. "Nerves got to me," he says.

Only Lee Trevino accurately interpreted the hints offered by Moody's play. Trevino played three practice rounds with Sarge and told a reporter that he might win. His forte was ball-striking. "I was just down the middle all the time," Moody says. "That's where I saved my strokes against the field."

Moody's putting would haunt him his entire PGA Tour career. "I could miss a [one-]foot putt," he says. His salvation was the long putter, which he discovered in time for the Senior PGA Tour. He won 11 senior tournaments, including the 1989 U.S. Senior Open.

Now 73, Moody no longer plays competitively beyond an annual appearance in the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf. Yet his Open victory still resonates in his circles; by virtue of his Open victory, he was given an honorary membership at Lexington CC.

He's in generally good health and is leaving soon for the south of Ireland, for a golf trip with three friends who no doubt will have occasion to bemoan the fact that the man they call Sarge "can still put it in the short grass," he says.