On Dec. 22, 2014, the USGA celebrates its 120th anniversary as the national governing body for golf in the United States, its territories and Mexico. A lot of history has been made in the first 120 years and the Association continues to evolve in exciting ways. In that celebratory spirit, we are revisiting USGA milestones in a four-part series divided into 30-year segments. The third part reviews the years from 1955 to 1984.
With TV starting to replace radio as the primary medium for fans to enjoy sports in the 1950s, golf was presented a prime opportunity to capitalize on the latest technological advancement. Majors such as the U.S. Open (starting in 1954) and the Masters (1956) were now being televised, but with Byron Nelson retired and Ben Hogan and Sam Snead in the latter stages of their careers, the game stood to benefit from an injection of new blood.
Enter Arnold Palmer. A relative unknown from Latrobe, Pa., Palmer introduced himself to the golf world with his victory in the 1954 U.S. Amateur at the Country Club of Detroit. His Madison Avenue looks, Main Street appeal and go-for-broke style made him an instant hit with fans. His aggressive nature was on full display in the 1960 U.S. Open, when he rallied from seven strokes back at Cherry Hills Country Club with a final-round 65 to edge a 20-year-old amateur by the name of Jack Nicklaus by two strokes. Palmer’s comeback is still considered one of the greatest feats in U.S. Open history.
The 1960 U.S. Open brought together the past, present and future of the game. Four-time champion Hogan contended for a final time at the age of 47. Nicklaus, who claimed U.S. Amateur titles in 1959 and 1961, would become one of Palmer’s chief rivals, winning four U.S. Open titles, including two (1962 and 1967) in which Palmer finished second.
Along with South Africa native Gary Player, who in 1965 at Bellerive Country Club in St. Louis became the first foreign-born U.S. Open champion in 38 years, Nicklaus and Palmer ushered in a new generation of golf fans. They formed golf’s Big Three and dominated the game’s landscape through much of the 1960s and ‘70s.
Palmer’s influence on the USGA went beyond the golf course. In 1974, he became the volunteer chairman for the newly created USGA Associates program (now the USGA Members program), a role he continues to hold today. The first Member was U.S. President Gerald Ford, who joined during a ceremony in the White House.
Palmer was able to build on his legacy when the USGA added the U.S. Senior Open to its stable of championships in 1980. The inaugural championship (won by Roberto De Vicenzo) was for golfers age 55 and older, but it was lowered to 50 and older in 1981 to create a more competitive field and mirror the fledgling Senior PGA Tour. In his first year of eligibility, Palmer won the 1981 U.S. Senior Open at Oakland Hills Country Club in a playoff over Bob Stone and Billy Casper. Casper had defeated Palmer in an 18-hole U.S. Open playoff 15 years earlier at The Olympic Club.
Palmer fittingly played in his final U.S. Open in 1994 at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club, near his hometown and where he lost a U.S. Open playoff to Nicklaus 32 years earlier.
Nicklaus, meanwhile, matched Hogan, childhood idol Bob Jones and Willie Anderson for the most U.S. Open victories with four. He nearly won a fifth in 1982, only to see Tom Watson hole out a shot from greenside rough on the 71st hole at Pebble Beach (Calif.) Golf Links to edge him by two strokes. It was at the same hole 10 years earlier where Nicklaus cemented his third U.S. Open triumph by hitting the flagstick with a 1-iron tee shot, leaving it within inches of the hole.
Nicklaus finished his career with eight USGA titles (two Amateurs, four Opens and two Senior Opens) and two Walker Cup appearances. He also held the 72-hole scoring record at the World Amateur Team Championship – 269 at Merion Golf Club in 1960 – until Spain’s Jon Rahm (263) broke it this year in Japan.
USGA Expands Championships Docket
The idea for the World Amateur Team Championship originated in 1957 from a suggestion that the USGA sponsor a match between the USA and Japan. The USGA could not accommodate all of the inquiries from countries seeking a competition, so it proposed a competition that would bring together multiple nations. In January 1958, the USGA Executive Committee approved a plan for a new championship. After a meeting with The R&A, it was suggested the inaugural competition take place that year on the Old Course at St. Andrews, Scotland. U.S. President Dwight D. Eisenhower received delegates from 35 countries at the White House and he agreed to lend his name to the trophy.
Bob Jones agreed to be the USA’s first captain and Australia edged the USA in a playoff, with Great Britain and Ireland finishing a stroke back in third. A women’s equivalent began six years later, with France taking the inaugural title at St. Germain (France) Country Club by one stroke over the USA. The two biennial stroke-play championships are rotated between three world zones: North and South America; Europe and Africa; and Australasia.
In addition to the Senior Open, four more national championships were created by the USGA during this era. The U.S. Senior Amateur, for golfers 55 and older, began in 1955, and seven years later, the U.S. Senior Women’s Amateur was started for players 50 and older. The Senior Women’s Amateur was a 54-hole stroke-play event until 1997, when it followed suit with all of the other USGA amateur competitions – 36 holes of stroke play followed by six rounds of match play.
Responding to the growth of women’s golf, especially in the public arena, the USGA created the U.S. Women’s Amateur Public Links Championship in 1977. In its first year, the WAPL received more entries than the U.S. Women’s Open, U.S. Women’s Amateur and U.S. Girls’ Junior combined. It also became the first championship for females to receive more than 1,000 entries and produced several prominent champions, including Jill McGill, Candie Kung, reigning U.S. Women’s Open champion Michelle Wie, and five-time major champion Yani Tseng.
In 1981, the USGA created the U.S. Mid-Amateur Championship for players 25 and older. Jim Holtgrieve won the inaugural event at Bellerive Country Club in his hometown of St. Louis.
The Mid-Amateur has become one of the most popular USGA championships, producing champions such as nine-time Walker Cup competitor Jay Sigel, four-time champion Nathan Smith, future Champions Tour winner David Eger and 1994 U.S. Amateur runner-up Trip Kuehne. Since 1988, the Mid-Amateur champion has received an invitation to the Masters.
A women’s equivalent was added in 1987, with Cindy Scholefield earning the first Women’s Mid-Amateur title.
Surprises, Superlatives and Standardization
This era of USGA history began with one of the U.S. Open’s most stunning upsets. NBC, which televised the 1955 U.S. Open at The Olympic Club, anointed Hogan with his record fifth title before it went off the air. But an unheralded pro from Iowa named Jack Fleck spoiled the party. He tied Hogan with a birdie on the 72nd hole and outlasted him in the 18-hole playoff, winning by three strokes.
This period featured several surprises in addition to Fleck’s feat. Jackie Pung thought she had won the 1957 U.S. Women’s Open at Winged Foot, but was disqualified for signing an incorrect score card, giving the title to Betsy Rawls.
In 1959, William Wright became the first African-American USGA champion when he claimed the U.S. Amateur Public Links title at Wellshire Golf Course in Denver. Anne Quast Sander defeated Phyllis Preuss by a record 14-and-13 margin in the 1961 U.S. Women’s Amateur final at Tacoma (Wash.) Country & Golf Club.
Ken Venturi won the 1964 U.S. Open while suffering from heat exhaustion during the marathon 36-hole finish at Congressional Country Club in Bethesda, Md. Venturi advanced through local and sectional qualifying just to get into the field. Five years later, Orville Moody also advanced through local and sectional qualifying to win the U.S. Open, at Champions Golf Club in Houston. He is the last player to advance through both stages of qualifying to win the Open.
In 1965, the USGA voted to expand the U.S. Open from three days to four, eliminating the traditional 36-hole Saturday conclusion. The idea had been formulated before Venturi survived the searing heat to win the 1964 Open.
That same year, the U.S. Amateur transitioned from match play to a 72-hole, stroke-play competition. This format lasted for eight years until the championship was restored to a match-play format in 1973.
Also in 1973, Johnny Miller shot a record final-round 63 to win the U.S. Open at Oakmont. He became the first champion of the U.S. Junior Amateur to win the U.S. Open, a feat that would be matched 27 years later by Tiger Woods.
In 1960, the USGA Green Section developed and published, Specifications for a Method of Putting Green Construction. Since then, this method has been regularly researched and improved, and is now used not only in the U.S., but throughout the world.
Twenty-two years later, the USGA initiated a 10-year, $5.2 million Turfgrass Research Program with the goal to develop grasses that require significantly less water, are more tolerant of pests and environmental stresses, and cost less to maintain. Many of these grasses developed through this research program are utilized on home lawns, sports fields, parks and public road sides. To date, 39 cultivars have been released.
On the Rules front, the USGA outlawed the croquet-style putting method popularized by Sam Snead. The USGA also introduced the golf ball Symmetry Standard to the Rules of Golf in 1980.
Testing of equipment to ensure conformity to the Rules of Golf also began in this era. Iron Byron, a mechanical golfer that emulated Hall of Famer and 1939 U.S. Open champion Byron Nelson’s swing, was designed to test golf balls for distance standards.
From a handicapping standpoint, the USGA adopted Equitable Stroke Control™ (ESC) for posting scores in 1974. ESC sets the maximum number a player can post on any hole depending on the golfer’s Course Handicap. Modifications were made in 1991 and 1998.
In 1981, the Golf Handicap and Information Network® – better known as GHIN® – was created by the USGA out of a request from state and regional golf associations to provide a handicap computation service. Today, GHIN is the world’s leading handicap computation service, with 81 associations utilizing the service.
The USGA created the Bob Jones Award in 1955 to honor one its greatest champions and ambassadors. Presented annually, the award is the USGA’s highest honor and recognizes an individual who demonstrates the spirit, personal character and respect for the game exhibited by Jones, a nine-time USGA champion. Francis Ouimet, winner of the 1913 U.S. Open and a two-time U.S. Amateur champion, was the inaugural recipient. Since then, some of the game’s greatest players have received the award, including Babe Didrikson Zaharias, Margaret Curtis, Palmer, Nicklaus and Player, who donated his 1965 U.S. Open winner’s check to the USGA for junior golf development. Recent recipients include Annika Sorenstam, President George H.W. Bush, the late Payne Stewart, Carol Semple Thompson and Mickey Wright.
As for the USGA itself, the Association relocated from its headquarters in Manhattan to the New Jersey suburb of Far Hills in 1972. The idea was to eventually construct a golf course that could host championships. The golf course never materialized, but the USGA remained in New Jersey, where the Museum, Administration Building, and Research and Test Center are now housed.
On the equipment front, the graphite shaft was introduced in 1973, and TaylorMade produced the first metal-headed woods six years later. Over the next decade, metal and titanium woods would supplant persimmon as the product of choice for golfers worldwide and create the need for the USGA to test for “spring-like effect.”
Title IX legislation passed in 1972 created unprecedented growth in women’s college sports, including golf. Nancy Lopez and Juli Inkster played a significant role in increasing the popularity of women’s golf during this period. Lopez won the 1972 and ’74 U.S. Girls’ Junior titles before embarking on a Hall-of-Fame professional career that included three major titles and four runner-up finishes in the U.S. Women’s Open. Inkster claimed three consecutive U.S. Women’s Amateur titles (1980-82) before winning a pair of U.S. Women’s Opens.
JoAnne Gunderson Carner also fueled the rise of women’s golf in this era, winning a U.S. Girls’ Junior (1956), five U.S. Women’s Amateurs (1956, ’57, ’60, ’62, ’66) and a pair of U.S. Women’s Open titles (1971, ’76). Her eight USGA championships are the most for any woman, tied with Nicklaus and trail only Jones and Woods. Hollis Stacy also claimed three U.S. Women’s Open titles (1977, ’78 and ’84) to go along with three consecutive U.S. Girls’ Junior titles from 1969-71.
Thanks to television, the U.S. Open was primed for a popularity explosion in the mid-1980s. And the USGA was ready to ride the wave.
David Shefter is a senior staff writer for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.