U.S. Open Primer: New Jersey's Contribution to our National Championship
Story by Kevin Casey
Photo Courtesy: Baltusrol Golf Club
With the 2019 U.S Open week upon us, let’s take a quick look at the rich contribution that New Jersey courses and people have made to our national championship.
New Jersey has hosted eight U.S. Opens, starting in 1903 when Baltusrol Golf Club’s original course (since replaced) was the site of the ninth Open. To a large degree the Open’s history in New Jersey is Baltusrol’ s story; seven of the state’s eight Opens were played at this extraordinary Springfield club.
While each Open has a special story, here’s a look at two of the most compelling.
1915– An Amateur New Jerseyan’s Unlikely Open Win
Widely regarded the country’s best amateur, New Jersey’s Jerry Travers was not a favorite in this Open, despite having won four U.S. Amateur championships. A member of Upper Montclair Country Club, he was a local and quite familiar with Baltusrol, having had won two NJSGA Amateurs and one Metropolitan Amateur on the same course. In fact, he was a match-play maven, and had only passing interest in competing in the medal-play Open. But, lamenting a stretch of slow business, he decided to sign up shortly before the tournament.
The Open in those days was a two-day, 36-hole-a-day ordeal.After day one, playing consistently, Travers was at 148, just two shots off the lead held by two pros, Louis Tellier of Canoe Brook Country Club and “Long Jim” Barnes out of Whitemarsh Valley Country Club outside Philadelphia. On the second day of play, Travers’ 73 in the morning gave him a one-shot lead with only 18 to go and the surprising realization that the Open trophy was within his grasp.
Doing some quick math focused on the four folks immediately behind him, Travers concluded that he could shoot 78, break 300 and win. He had managed his game to that number, but his calculus was shattered when, on the fifteenth hole, he got word (remember, there were no on-course scoreboards in those days) that Tom McNamara, a Boston professional and twice an Open bridesmaid (1909 and 1912), had leapfrogged the field with a 75 for a 298 total and the clubhouse lead. All of a sudden, Travers realized (for some this would be a mixed blessing) that he needed to play the last four holes one under part to take the title.
Channeling his best match play mindset, Travers promptly birdied fifteen and took a conservative route to par on the remaining three holes. With his tap-in par on 18 for a 76, Travers’ total of 297 slipped by McNamara by one shot. The crowd rushed the green and carried this New Jersey amateur – the U.S. Open Champion – off on their shoulders.
1967 – Arnie, Jack and White Fang
This was the year Jack Nicklaus and his new putter, White Fang, took on the most popular golfer of the era, Arnold Palmer. Palmer had not won a major since the 1964 Masters and had won two events earlier in the year, but had notably collapsed in a duel with Billy Casper for the title at the 1966 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club. Palmer yearned for another major and thought Baltusrol (Lower) in June would be the time and place.
Nicklaus had designs of his own. A Wednesday practice-round match with Palmer yielded a 62, $15 in their Nassau, and the confidence that Baltusrol could be conquered. White Fang, an Acushnet Bulls-Eye putter custom painted white, yielded nine one-putt greens in that practice round and was soon to make Open headlines throughout the country.
But there were 140 other players in the event. One of them, Marty Fleckman, an amateur bomber from Texas, stole the show with a first round 67, two ahead of Palmer and defender Casper. Nicklaus signed for a one-over 71, a round he considered satisfactory.
Palmer’s second round, 17-greens-in-regulation 68 captured the lead, just one ahead of Nicklaus, whose 67 featured several clutch White Fang putts. While other players – Fleckman, Casper, Deane Beman, Don January and newcomer Lee Trevino – lurked in the shadows, to the casual fan the Open had become a King Arnie vs. Jack the Pretender title match.
In the third round, and as so often happens in head-to-head matches, both players didn’t fare well. Nicklaus’ 72 bested Arnie’s 73 by one, leaving them both at even-par 210. However, their sloppy play allowed amateur Fleckman (69) to take the lead by one and battle-tested Billy Casper to join them at even par. It was a leaderboard for the ages.
In the final round, Nicklaus and White Fang regained their practice-round form. Playing with Palmer in the second-to-last pairing, Nicklaus birdied five of his first eight holes and went on to card a 65 to Palmer’s otherwise fine 69. Nicklaus placed an exclamation point on the round with a 230 yard, one-iron third shot on the par-five 18th hole to set up a White Fang birdie and a four-shot win. That 1-iron shot has been commemorated by Baltusrol with a plaque on the site of the divot.
At the end, Nicklaus (275, -5) and Palmer (279, -1) were the only players to finish under par. Nicklaus’ 275 was a new Open record. His ’67 title was Nicklaus’ second of four U.S. Open wins and the seventh of his 18 major championships. Palmer remained a huge force in the game, but never won another major championship. And, notably, it was the last of White Fang’s major championship triumphs.