U.S. Open 2019: The Legend of Purvis James

May 27, 2019
P.J. Boatwright Jr.

Photo by USGA Archive

When Gary Player won the 1965 U.S. Open at Bellerive, first place was $25,000. Player, whose mother died of cancer when he was 8, donated $5,000 from the purse to cancer research and the remaining $20,000 to the USGA for junior golf. Some pros were moved to say, “Just goes to show, the USGA is four times tougher to beat than cancer.”

So our story in the June issue, “USGA Confidential,” isn't the first example of the contentiousness between tour players and the governing body. P.J. Boatwright, who set up courses for the USGA from 1969-'90, once told me: “Shouldn't it be difficult to win the U.S. Open—damned difficult?” But the definition of damned difficult has been called into question these days. For the answer, I'd look to the man himself.

Purvis James Boatwright Jr. of Spartanburg, S.C., won the Carolina Open twice and the Carolina Amateur once in the 1950s. He played 72 holes in the 1950 U.S. Open at Merion won by Ben Hogan, but the championship that left its mark was the 1949 U.S. Amateur at Oak Hill, where he drew the No. 1-ranked Ronnie White in match play. Boatwright had a swing idiosyncrasy of “milking the grip,” like Sergio Garcia's old habit. Being especially nervous, P.J. was standing over his drive on the first hole milking the grip a bit excessively before finally hitting his tee shot. When he stepped aside, he felt a tap on his shoulder and turned to see USGA executive secretary Joseph C. Dey Jr. glaring at him.

“Young man,” Dey said, “you need to pick up the pace … considerably … if you're going to get around the course today.” The warning began a lifelong frostiness between Boatwright and Dey, but it didn't stop Joe from recommending P.J. as his successor at the USGA. Historical note: Like the famous rivals John Adams and Thomas Jefferson, who passed away within hours of each other in 1826, Dey and Boatwright died a month apart in 1991. No rules official ever since has taken their place as the Open Eminence.

The point of the Oak Hill story is that P.J. was a fine amateur who never lost his sensitivity for looking at championships from a player's perspective. As one of his successors, David Fay, says: “He had great judgment and a total, absolute understanding of the Rules of Golf. In selecting hole locations, Boatwright erred toward the bland over the goofy. Vanilla was OK with him. He never wanted the venue to be the story. He was a devotee of the [1956-'57 USGA president] Richard Tufts setup: Put the ball in play off the tee. Make the greens firm so they require a skilled approach. The putting should be difficult but fair.”

David Eger, who succeeded Boatwright, described his philosophy similarly: “P.J. used an abundance of caution in setting up the course—and in everything he did. If a bunch of guys are under par the first couple of days, you don't have to touch the course to get the winning score to even par if that's the goal. Increased pressure of playing for the U.S. Open will take care of that.”

On each green, P.J. selected four hole locations and rated them 1 to 4 (hardest to easiest), and put together 18 holes totaling 43–47 each day. Using his “fingertips and feet,” he decided how much to water or mow or roll the greens. In his day, green speeds got no faster than 10 feet on the Stimpmeter; today they routinely exceed 13 at the Open. Boatwright never cut a hole closer than five paces from the edge of a green; today the limit is three.

It's clear we need a return to the Boatwright Method. Unlike a lot of USGA officials who primp and preen on television while walking with the leaders on the weekend, P.J. rode in a golf cart a hole or so behind the last group. It allowed him to study the course conditions in the afternoon, especially as the greens hardened and got crusty, so he could make his final decision on the next round's hole locations rather than at 6:30 the next morning. He'd amble out of the cart with a couple of balls and his Cash-In putter, and mark the spots with a can of spray paint. Also, riding in a cart put him in position to scoot to any rulings among the leaders, so he could backstop the walking volunteer rules officials.

Knowing how course conditions evolve during a championship helped P.J. avoid situations like last year's at the U.S. Open, when the first 19 players to finish Sunday improved by 145 strokes from Saturday. As one example, Rickie Fowler went 84–65 for a record 19-stroke improvement. That tells you more about the silliness of the course setup than Rickie's play.

This year at Pebble Beach, after too many U.S. Open debacles in a row, the USGA desperately needs to let a great golf course play as it should—and channel the cautious restraint of Purvis James.