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The notorious Hinkle Tree from the 1979 U.S. Open has died, but the legend lives on

March 07, 2020
Hinkle Tree at Inverness

It was not the most famous tree in golf circles, perhaps trailing only the Lone Cypress that is part of the Pebble Beach Golf Links logo, or maybe the old Eisenhower Tree at Augusta National or the giant oak tree by its clubhouse.

But the Hinkle Tree at the Inverness Club in Toledo was a notorious historical golf landmark for more than 40 years until its demise earlier this week, when it was cut down after winds partially uprooted it.

“I was somewhat surprised it lasted that long,” former USGA executive director David Fay said on Saturday, recalling the tree’s appearance overnight at the 1979 U.S. Open. “It didn’t look like it would survive the week.”

The tree had stood sentry by the eighth tee at Inverness since the second round of the ’79 U.S. Open. The eighth was a dogleg par 5, and in the first round, Lon Hinkle played a 1-iron tee shot through a gap in the trees and down the adjacent 17th fairway, leaving him a 2-iron to the green.

The fact that Hinkle was co-leading the tournament helped thrust his shortcut into the news. But by the start of play in the second round, in an effort to block the gap in the trees down the 17th fairway, a 20-foot Black Hills spruce was planted there.

Fay, then the tournament relations manager and in his first year with the USGA, learned about it early the next morning.

“It certainly got the attention of then-USGA president Sandy Tatum, who did have a conversation with Jim Hand, chairman of the championship committee, and P.J. Boatwright,” Fay said. “The club was instructed to buy a tree. I got in very early the next morning, 4:30, and Bob Yoder, chairman of Inverness’s green committee, came in with a little smile and a receipt. He held it a little over my desk and it fluttered down. I said, ‘What’s this?’”

It was a receipt for $120, “for a tree your people ordered,” Yoder said.

Fay initially thought it was some sort of a joke, “maybe a rookie hazing thing,” he said. Nonetheless, Fay went out to the eighth tee box. “I see this mangy-looking thing. It was pretty rinky-dink. I was flabbergasted.”

Hinkle, meanwhile, learned of the tree via the media before he teed off in the second round. He was peppered with questions that he was unable to answer.

“By the time I got there [to the eighth hole] I was four over for the day,” Hinkle said via phone from his Montana home on Saturday. “I looked at that little tree and thought, ‘Son of a gun, this is what all that noise was about?’ ”

So he went over it with a driver and had only a 6-iron into the green. Hinkle went on to tie for 53rd in the U.S. Open. Though Hinkle, now 70, won three PGA Tour events, he’ll best be remembered for the Hinkle Tree.

“That’s probably true,” he said. “I recognized that pretty quick, that that was something I would have to deal with the rest of my golfing career.

“The best part of the whole deal, as I went back [to Inverness] years later, my picture was on the wall in the locker room along with Hogan and Gene Sarazen and Sam Snead and Walter Hagen. That was pretty cool.”

As for Inverness itself, any mention of it also likely will bring to mind the Hinkle Tree ahead of all the history that has transpired there.

“I suspect that if someone were to say the Inverness Club and the U.S. Open, they wouldn’t be talking about Harry Vardon, who almost won at age 50,” Fay said. “They wouldn’t have remembered it for Bob Jones’ first U.S. Open [in 1920]. They wouldn’t remember the longest U.S. Open of all time, Billy Burke and George Von Elm in 1931. They wouldn’t remember that that was the place the pros finally were allowed in the clubhouse. They wouldn’t know Inverness was where the concept of the USGA Green Section was created in 1920. But they would probably remember the ’79 Open and the Hinkle Tree.”

There is a postscript to the ’79 Open, incidentally. In 1980, the U.S. Women’s Open was played at the original course, now defunct, at the Richland Country Club in Nashville. During Wednesday’s practice round, Fay was out on the course and saw Beth Daniel severely cutting a dogleg, “straight-lining it,” Fay said.

He reached Boatwright on the radio and asked him to venture out to have a look.

“He ambles out of the cart and takes a look,” Fay said. “He said, ‘David, go over to the shop and get another tee sign prepared.’ He said, ‘walk forward. I’ll tell you when you to stop.’ I went 18, maybe 20 paces. ‘We’re going to play it from there.'

“He looked at me and smiled and said, ‘We aren’t going to need any f***ing tree this week.’ And he starts laughing.”