FARMINGDALE, N.Y. - If the weather problems this week at Bethpage Black end up forcing the fourth round of the U.S. Open to be completed on Monday, you could say it was due for a tardy conclusion. The championship hasn't gone into a fifth day without a playoff since 1983.
That year the U.S. Open was played at Oakmont CC. Larry Nelson, who trailed by seven strokes after two rounds, closed with the best 36 holes in U.S. Open history (65-67) to edge Tom Watson by one stroke.
Watson was on the 14th hole, Nelson on the 15th green late Sunday afternoon and tied for the lead at four under when an electrical storm arrived, suspending play at 5:29 p.m. Nelson, under the rules of the day, elected to finish the 15th hole and faced the 228-yard 16th hole when the final round resumed at 10 a.m. Monday.
Nelson hit a 4-wood tee shot on the green at the 16th but faced a 60-foot birdie putt. But he sank one of the most memorable putts in Open history to move one stroke in front. When Watson bogeyed the par-4 17th hole, Nelson's three-putt bogey at No. 18 didn't cost him. Watson was denied in defense of the title he had won at Pebble Beach in 1982, and Nelson had the second of his three majors.
The Sunday suspension was the second that week at Oakmont. An earlier storm struck Friday afternoon without much warning, and two spectators were injured when they were hit by lightning near the second hole, where the pairing of David Graham, Hale Irwin and Bobby Wadkins sought cover in a ditch and feared for their lives in the dangerous conditions, which caused the second round to be completed Saturday morning.
Of the many evolutions in tournament golf in recent years, advancements in weather forecasting that allow spectators and golfers earlier warning of dangerous conditions is the most important. Bad weather is still an inconvenience, but fortunately it usually isn't accompanied by tragedy anymore, as it was at the 1991 U.S. Open and 1991 PGA Championship, where a spectator was killed by lightning at each event.
-- *Bill Fields