This is the first in a series of stories about USGA champions at Congressional Country Club, site of the 2011 U.S. Open.
Tom Weiskopf was a 21-year-old kid fresh out of Ohio State when he was introduced to famed Congressional Country Club at the 1964 U.S. Open. A little more than 30 years later, he would win his one and only national championship on the parkland course in suburban Washington, D.C.
The guest of Jim DeLeone, the man who would become his first agent, Weiskopf still remembers entering Congressional that day.
“It was only the third professional tournament I’d ever attended,’’ Weiskopf recalled. At that time, the par-4 17th served as the 18th hole, with the unique par-3 18th playing as No. 10 – “the way we played it during the Senior Open (in 1995); and not like the members play it, or the way they played it during the (1997) U.S. Open when (Ernie) Els won, with it ending on the par 3.’’
Weiskopf said he and DeLeone entered the course near the 18th tee and recalled “quite vividly’’ watching as two contestants teed off to complete their third round.
“The first guy on the tee, he had this Harley-Davidson grip and this flippy-floppy swing, and he starts the ball out way right and it hooks all the way across the fairway into the left rough. The second guy, I can see that he’s using a baseball grip, and he takes a big swing, starts the ball out way left and then it slices all the way across the fairway into the right rough.
“I remember being in kind of a state of disbelief, so I asked Jim, ‘Who are those guys?’ And he said the first one is Terry Dill and the second guy is Bob Rosburg. Well, I’d heard of Rossie, but I’d never heard of Terry Dill. And then Jim says to me, ‘Tom, he’s a guy who cashes a check every week.’ ’’
Weiskopf, who was born in Massillon, Ohio, and became a highly touted prep golfer at Benedictine High School in Cleveland before going on to Big Ten and All-American acclaim for the Buckeyes, had seen enough. The personal debate that had been burning inside him over whether or not to turn pro had been resolved.
“The next day Jim DeLeone wrote the letter to the USGA, informing them that I was giving up my amateur status,’’ said Weiskopf, laughing at the thought. “Basically, I’d walked into Congressional as an amateur that day and walked out a pro.’’
Oh, yes, and there was one other “fond memory’’ about that early visit to Congressional.
“I can still remember what I was wearing that day,’’ said Weiskopf, chuckling again. “I was a sharp-dressed kid in white pants and a madras shirt, and it was so hot and humid that my madras bled all over my pants. What a mess!’’
From that U.S. Open at Congressional, won by Ken Venturi, until Weiskopf captured the 1995 U.S. Senior Open at the same venerable venue, a lot happened to “Tom Terrific,’’ who also earned the nickname “Towering Inferno’’ because of a terrible temper and the fact that Weiskopf “couldn’t stand mediocrity.’’
As Charles Coody once said of Weiskopf: “He was his own worst enemy.’’
There were four near-misses at the Masters, where he was the runner-up in 1969, ’72, ’74 and ’75 – two of those coming to his longtime nemesis, Jack Nicklaus, three years his senior and a fellow Ohio State alumnus. Weiskopf also had a second-place finish to Jerry Pate in the 1976 U.S. Open at Atlanta Athletic Club, as well as a third-place finish to Nicklaus in the 1975 PGA Championship.
Weiskopf did, however win 16 times on the PGA Tour, including his only major, the 1973 British Open at Royal Troon. But all those close-but-no-cigar encounters with Nicklaus took their toll, and Weiskopf’s competitive career ended – at least to his peers – a bit prematurely at 53.
“The Senior Tour, or the Champions, that never really appealed to me all that much,’’ said Weiskopf, who became better known for his golf course designs with the likes of Troon Country Club and Troon North (Monument and Pinnacle courses) in Scottsdale, Ariz., Forest Highlands in Flagstaff, Ariz., and Scotland’s Loch Lomond.
“The only big exception was the U.S. Senior Open. That was my only goal as a senior, to win that national championship. To me, it was a pure test of golf on championship courses with a 36-hole cut, four rounds versus the senior standard of three (rounds), and you … had to walk. All that other stuff was just age-group golf, plain and simple.’’
While Weiskopf did win five times on the Champions Tour – playing part-time in a little over three-plus seasons – the only victory he gets excited about is that “W’’ at Congressional. Adding to that moment, Weiskopf had lost to Nicklaus by a stroke in his first appearance at the U.S. Senior Open two years earlier at Cherry Hills, and tied for fourth at Pinehurst No. 2 in 1994.
“I think the thing I remember most about that Senior Open at Congressional is that I kind of knew I was going to win it right from the get-go, I was playing that good,’’ said Weiskopf. “Plus, I had practiced prior to the tournament, and I never practiced for most of my senior career.
“I guess I remember that Jack finished second that week, but I don’t remember how many strokes I won by. Considering it was Jack that I beat, heck, that was good enough.’’
Weiskopf, who actually prevailed by a comfortable four shots, said everything is a blur because he was “so focused that week.’’
“Do I remember who else was in the running? No, not really. About the only other thing I remember is I was in one of those really great moods, and those didn’t come along often enough,” he said. “The only other time I probably played as well, at least when it came to hitting fairways and greens and really controlling my ball and my patience, was a couple of those runner-up finishes at Augusta (National).’’
Weiskopf opened with a pair of 69s at Congressional and held a one-shot lead over Tommy Aaron at the midpoint. On Saturday, several rain delays left the leaders stranded at the 15th tee when play was suspended. The following day Weiskopf added a third consecutive 69 to his aggregate and then polished off his march to the Francis D. Ouimet Trophy with a brilliant 68.
“I loved the way the course set up from the beginning, and the rain made it play longer, which was to my advantage. Congressional is such a neat course, a long hitter’s course, with a lot of elevated tees that favor the high-ball hitter,’’ said Weiskopf. “Plus, it’s a shotmaker’s course, where you have to maneuver around corners and really move the ball in order to score.
“I had almost won that first U.S. Open at Cherry Hills, where Jack got me by a shot. You can look it up, but I believe I shot a record 30 on the front nine in the final round that year,’’ said Weiskopf of his memory that is dead-solid perfect.
“So winning at Congressional in ’95 was one of my biggest moments in golf. As I recall, I believe I was only the second guy in Senior Open history to ever shoot all four rounds in the 60s, and I’m pretty proud of that.’’
It is a feat he shares today with Gary Player, who accomplished it at Brooklawn Country Club in Connecticut in 1987, and Fred Funk, who joined them with a record-low performance at Crooked Stick Golf Club in Indiana in 2009. No doubt that place in history is important to Weiskopf, but chances are it ranks a distant second to his biggest victory ever over Nicklaus.
Not that Weiskopf, who has mellowed from a lion to a kitty cat these days, would ever say it in those terms. No, he’s too happy building golf courses and sharing his life with his new wife, Laurie, to make a lifetime rivalry as important as it once was.
“You always felt great any time you could beat Jack,’’ he said, again chuckling at the thought. “I guess that’s because it didn’t happen very often.’’
Bill Huffman is an Arizona-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.