The day the white flag flew
How many times have you seen a replay or read about the round of golf played in 1984 featuring Fuzzy Zoeller and Greg Norman? That round featured the waving of a towel as the day neared its conclusion.
The talk entering the 1984 U.S. Open marked a 180-degree turnaround from a decade earlier. As it had then, the previous year’s Open was played at Oakmont, except this time the USGA was being criticized somewhat for the brutal rough they let grow at the Pittsburgh club in 1983. With those comments still ringing in their ears, and remembering the penal conditions at Winged Foot in 1974, the USGA officials decided to set the West Course up to play more reasonably in 1984. The resulting scores were considerably lower than previous Opens in Mamaroneck, although only the embattled leaders managed to break par over 72 holes. Still, it was the first time this under-par feat had ever been accomplished during an Open at Winged Foot.
Hale Irwin and Hubert Green both holed out from bunkers to help them share first-round leads with Jim Thorpe and Mike Donald at two-under 68. A total of 11 golfers broke par in the first round, four more than during the entire 1974 Open. Local traffic was so bad that a number of golfers, Irwin and Tom Watson included, came close to missing their tee times.
Irwin took the second-round lead with a second 68, becoming the first golfer in four Opens at Winged Foot to finish his round with birdies on each of the three closing holes. He enjoyed a one-stroke lead over Fuzzy Zoeller, who fired a 66, the lowest round ever in an Open at Winged Foot — and two strokes over Greg Norman. Playing together, Irwin and Zoeller had matching 69s in the third round to enter the final day with Irwin still one up. Norman kept pace with a 69 of his own.
On Sunday, Zoeller birdied four holes in a row on the front nine to take a three-stroke lead, while Irwin uncharacteristically faltered and eventually shot 79. Zoeller made two bogeys over the last five holes, and Norman responded with a birdie at 14, then played like Houdini down the stretch with spectacular par saves on the last three holes.
After driving to the roots of a tree in the right rough and being forced to chip sideways back to the fairway, Norman hit a beautiful 6-iron close enough to save his par at 17, and when Zoeller bogeyed the same hole a few minutes later, the players were on even terms going to Winged Foot’s great finishing hole.
In the cauldron of pressure, Norman pushed his second shot into the grandstand area, then pitched back all the way across the green, 40 feet from the hole. Somehow, he managed to sink the putt, part of which retraced Jones’ line from 1929. Zoeller, who was standing in the fairway at the time, assumed it had been for a birdie. He walked to his golf bag, took out a white towel and waved it in surrender, one of the lasting images of U.S. Open history. After learning the details from the gallery, he proceeded to par the hole, forcing a playoff in which he annihilated Norman, 67-75. The turning point came quickly when Norman took a double-bogey 6 on the second hole while Zoeller was rolling in a 70-footer for a birdie.
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I have been asked more than once what is the lowest score recorded on tour during a tournament round. The answer is 59. It has been done three times.
• Al Geiberger, 29-30 at Colonial CC (par 72), June 10, second round, 1977 Memphis Classic. Geiberger had one eagle and 11 birdies and won by three strokes.
• Chip Beck, 30-29, at Sunrise Golf Club (par 72), Oct. 11, third round, 1991 Las Vegas Invitational. Beck had 13 birdies and finished tied for third.
• David Duval, 31-28, at PGA West Palmer Course, Jan. 14, final round, Bob Hope Chrysler Classic. Duval had one eagle and 11 birdies and won the event.
Hal Lenobel was a member of the United States Golf Association Rules and Tournament Committee for 25 years. He officiated at more than 150 tournaments during his tenure.