June 25, 2007

Sand shots for the ages

Mickelson's collapse at Winged Foot gives Geoff Ogilvy the U.S. Open

It's a good bet that most golfers today think the sand wedge has been around longer than Harry Vardon, Laurie Auchterlonie and John McDermott's shipwreck. Wait, I have to take some of that back. Most golfers today probably have no idea who John McDermott was.

They know Vardon because he invented playing golf in a starched shirt, necktie, gangster cap and three-piece suit. And of course they know Auchterlonie's name because they've been to that antique clubmaking shop in St. Andrews. The whole world has been to St. Andrews. In fact, the whole world might be there right now.

As for McDermott, he's still the youngest winner of the U. S. Open—he was 19 at Chicago Golf Club in 1911. He's one of the few champions to win two U. S. Opens in a row, and the first American-born player to win it. But he soon became a tragic figure. Returning from a trip to England in 1914 his ocean liner, the Kaiser Wilhelm II, collided with another vessel, and he did a fair amount of time in a lifeboat before he was rescued.

The harrowing experience so disturbed McDermott that shortly after his return to the States, he collapsed and spent the rest of his life in mental hospitals and rest homes. Fascinating tidbit of golf history. You're welcome, don't mention it.

But onward to the sand wedge and my nomination for the Shot of the Year in 2006, which was pulled off by Tiger Woods. Talking about the best shot, most dramatic, stunning. The worst shot has already been retired for a decade, a century, perhaps an eternity. This was Phil Mickelson's drive on the 72nd tee at Winged Foot. His attempted drive, I should say. Not to forget his foolish club selection.

When Tiger Woods struck the best shot of the year with a sand wedge, it was in the British Open at Hoylake. The feat ties in with Bobby Jones, Hoylake and the Grand Slam, and the whole thing requires some telling.

It behooves me to start with the fact that Gene Sarazen did not invent the sand wedge in 1932, which is the accepted legend. The sand wedge was actually invented and patented four years earlier, in 1928, by a gentleman named Edwin Kerr MacClain, a member at Houston Country Club in Texas.

You have a right to ask how this MacClain fellow came to invent it. The answer is that he practically lived in bunkers every time he played golf and kept wondering why there wasn't something more useful than the niblick—a 9-iron, as it would come to be known—to extricate his golf ball from the evil unprintables, the bunkers.

The wedge he designed had a weird concave face and resembled a large ice-cream scoop on a stick. But it began to be marketed under the Walter Hagen logo, and the pros of the day went for it.

Horton Smith was a staunch believer in the sand wedge immediately. Smith, "the Joplin Ghost," as he was nicknamed by some nicknaming sportswriter of the era, was known to have the weapon in his bag all through 1929, a year in which he won an astonishing eight tournaments.

Smith then started the 1930 season in February by shooting 278 to win the Savannah Open by one stroke over Bobby Jones, who had entered the event to begin tuning up for what would be his Grand Slam season.

It was right there in Savannah, after the tournament, that Smith gave Jones one of the new sand wedges, strongly suggesting that it might come in handy for him someday.

Four months later, it did. Three holes from the finish of the final round in the British Open at Hoylake is when it happened. Jones had won the British Amateur at St. Andrews in May and was now trying to scoop the second leg of the Slam.

As Jones played the par-5 16th at Hoylake, the 70th of the championship, with Macdonald Smith and Leo Diegel closely chasing him, two strokes back, his wayward second shot left him with a nasty lie in a greenside bunker. The awkward lie forced him to stand with one foot in the sand and the other on a slope. So out came the sand wedge for the one and only time in Jones' brilliant career. What he did with it was, he blasted the ball out to within four inches of the cup for the birdie that saved the win—and the Slam—for him.

Fast-forward now. It's 76 years later, and Tiger Woods is at the par-5 10th in the first round of the 2006 British Open, trying to become only the third American—after Jones (1930) and Walter Hagen (1924)—to win at Hoylake, which is officially known as Royal Liverpool, although it's about as close to Liverpool as the Beatles are today.

Tiger's 3-iron second to the 10th that day was the only poor long iron he hit all week. It buried in a bunker in front of the green behind a six-foot-high wall. Smart money would have played out sideways and been happy with no worse than a bogey, but not Tiger.

He tried to blast out toward the flag. The shot hit the wall and left him still in the sand and even closer to the wall. Now he lay three, and there was double bogey or worse written all over his scorecard.

But that would have been for a mere mortal, not Tiger. He took another stance, laid open the face of his sand wedge, and took a mighty slash, still aiming at the flag.

The ball narrowly cleared the steep wall this time and dribbled down the slope of the green to within two feet of the cup, allowing Woods to escape with a par. There are those of us—like me—who believe this was the shot that saved the British Open for him. Nice or amazing or incredulous that it occurred on the same course where Bobby Jones saved his Grand Slam.

There are eight million stories in the naked sand-wedge city. This has been one of them.