June 25, 2007

'Unknown leads Open'

A gathering of players who continued the tradition of obscure first-round Open leaders

Here we are at the inaugural dinner of the First-Round Leaders of the U.S. Open, a group of gentlemen who've made the lives of all of us in the media a little more interesting, a little more challenging. A little too challenging at times, if you ask me—pardon the humor.

My name is Ace Clacker. I'm your genial host tonight. I'll just move around the tables here and have a brief word with some of these fellows. I see a lot of familiar faces in the room—Lee Mackey, Marty Fleckman, Labron Harris Jr., Bob Gadja, and there's old "Dynamite David" Hunter over there. Who could ever forget him?

I'll start with Lee Mackey Jr. How you doing, Lee? We still remember that 64 you strapped on Merion in 1950. Yes, sir, you made quite a story for us. Quite a story the second day, of course, when you strapped that 81 on Merion.

"Get away from me."

Always a pleasure, Lee. Over here is my good buddy, Bob Gadja. Hi, Bob. I'll never forget the 69 you opened with at The Country Club in 1963. You were kind of memorable the next day, too. Went around in a big fat 80, as I recall.

"Hit the road, jerk. You still can't say my name right, can you?"

It's that "j" thing, Bob.

Here's a heck of a guy, the one and only David Hunter. First player to break 70 in the Open. That was back in 1909 when you set fire to Englewood Golf Club with a 68! Good to see you, pro.

"You can't talk to me. I'm dead."

Right you are, David. And I expect it was those back-to-back 84s you followed up the 68 with that had something to do with it.

"Take a hike, unless you want to say something to my friend here, Charles Hoffner. He's dead, too."

Charley, my boy! The man at Brae Burn in 1919! Very first of the true unknowns to lead the Open. Led the field with a 72 in the first round. Unknown leads Open. You invented a headline, Charley.

"Do what?"

And you hung in there. You trailed Walter Hagen by only a shot with 18 to go, but that's when the old satchel flew open. You scared up a cool 89 in the last round. I guess that's what unknowns are all about, huh?

"Let me rest in peace. Do you mind?"

Uh-oh. Here's a pair to draw to. The dueling unknowns, Henry Ciuci and Frank Ball. It was some kind of day back at Olympia Fields in 1928 when two unknowns tied for the first-round lead.

You guys came in with a 70 to nose out old Leonard Schmutte by a stroke. Yeah. Leonard Schmutte. Another brand name. Lot of laughs around the Olympia Fields press tent that day.

"Beat it, chump."

In due time, Henry. Just want to mention the historic second-round scores you guys put up: Ciuci, 77; Ball and Schmutte, 81. That pretty much turned the deal over to Johnny Farrell and Bobby Jones.

Gee, let's see. Looking around the room at all these celebrities, it's hard to decide where to go next. There's Bobby Brue... Les Kennedy... Mike Reid...Al Krueger... Mike Nicolette... Al Mengert... Dick Knight....

OK, here's a legend. None other than Al Brosch himself. The total unknown who carved out a 68 at Northwood in '52 to steal the first-round lead from Ben Hogan. How's it going, Al?

"I wasn't an unknown, you idiot. I'd been in 11 Opens. I'd been on and off the tour for 20 years."

True enough, Al. And I did my best to explain that to everybody at Northwood. They wouldn't listen, of course. Especially after you hammered out that 79 in the second round.

"Get lost, numbskull."

Oh, my. Here he is. Your favorite and mine. The inimitable T.C. Chen from Taiwan. Led the first round at Oakland Hills in '85 with a roaring 65. Led at 36, led at 54, and still led by four on the last day after four holes. But, as some smart aleck wrote, T.C. was like most things from Taiwan—they break after three days. Heh, heh. It was in the last round that T.C. double-hit the pitch shot and suffered a quadruple-bogey 8 at No. 5. From there on, as we know, it was Andy North's Open.

What's up, guy?

Excuse me?

Nice chatting with you, T.C. Let's hear it for all these stars, folks. Without 'em, it wouldn't be—well, it wouldn't be the Open, would it?