North played the last five holes in 4 over par, managing to get up and down from a greenside bunker on No. 18 for a bogey, a 1-over 285 total and a one-stroke victory over Snead and Dave Stockton. The clinching 5-foot putt was North’s 114th of the week, which at that point tied Billy Casper’s record for the fewest putts in a U.S. Open.
“Thank heavens we didn’t have any more holes to play,” said North.
North struggled with shoulder, elbow, neck and knee injuries for much of his career, which led to six surgeries on his knees alone.
“I never knew how my body was going to react,” said North. “I had days where I woke up and it just wasn’t going to work, and other days I’d feel good, and I had no idea why. My 1984 season was about just getting back and being able to play.”
1985 U.S. Open
North’s 1985 season showed promise, but he was inconsistent. “I shot some really good rounds on good courses,” said North. “Then I went to Westchester and missed the cut the week before the Open.”
The early departure for Oakland Hills Country Club triggered by the missed cut proved a godsend.
“I got there Saturday night, and I went out Sunday morning to hit some balls, and suddenly, it was there,” said North with a snap of his fingers. “I hit the ball great. For the first three days of the championship, I was No. 1 in greens in regulation. It felt easy.”
Even though North shot a 5-under 65 bracketed by a pair of 70s, he trailed T.C. Chen of Chinese Taipei by two strokes entering the final round. The unheralded Chen had equaled Open records for 36 and 54 holes (65-69-69), but his infamous quadruple-bogey 8 on the fifth hole on Sunday, when he double-hit a pitch shot, gave North a huge opening. Unfortunately, he had a hard time seizing it.
“Saturday had been as miserable a day as you could play in, and I shot 70,” recalled North. “I still tell people, that’s the day I won the Open. On Sunday, it was rainy and cold again, and I didn’t have it at all. For the first 11 holes, I was barely hitting it on the clubface.”
On No. 12, North drove into a fairway bunker, and he credits the 5-iron shot he hit there with getting him back in sync.
“All of a sudden, it was back to what I had been doing all week,” said North, who steadied himself, birdied No. 13 and reached the 18th tee with a two-stroke lead. A cautious two-putt bogey gave him a 1-under total of 279 and his second major, by one stroke over Chen, Dave Barr of Canada and Denis Watson of Zimbabwe.
“That’s the nature of this thing: you have to somehow figure out a way to survive those periods when you’re terrible,” said North. “And we all do it. Even the great players go through five- or six-hole stretches where they don’t lay the club on it. But if you are somehow able to get through it in 1 over par, you’re OK.”
North won the 1978 World Cup with John Mahaffey, and he competed in the 1985 Ryder Cup. But injuries continued to dog him, and in 1992 he became a TV analyst for ESPN and ABC, a role that continues today. Playing part-time, North won several PGA Tour Champions team titles with good friend Tom Watson (4) and Jim Colbert (2).
North believes his Wisconsin roots played a role in his success, which included 50 top-10 finishes in his career on the regular Tour.
“People look at growing up in cold weather as a negative, but I think we all considered it a positive,” said North. “We got involved in other sports — Steve [Stricker] was a good basketball player, Jerry [Kelly] played hockey. Golf ended up being the thing that we all got halfway decent at, but it was a real advantage to get away from the game, come back mentally fresh, get physically better and be excited about playing again.”
Halfway decent, indeed.
Ron Driscoll is the senior manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.