Strange Things Can Happen in U.S. Opens
A train wreck that resulted in toxic chemicals spewing from overturned tank cars, an earthquake, a plane crash, a severe storm that nearly caused serious injury to a famous golfer and a drunk driver crashing his motorcycle through the side of the press tent were notable distractions during the United States Golf Association's 1986 Women's Open at the NCR Country Club in Kettering, Ohio.
A year later, a severe storm felled huge trees on the Plainfield Country Club course in New Jersey, causing a 24-hour interruption in the Women's Open that led to the longest Open -- men or women -- in USGA history. That 1987 Women's Open lasted six days, one day longer than any USGA Open Championship before or since.
In addition to suffering these considerable interferences from outside influences, the 1986 and 1987 Women's Opens had one thing in common -- an 18-hole playoff.
At Plainfield in 1987, Sunday's fourth round had to be postponed until Monday since the grounds crew spent Sunday clearing the magnificent Donald Ross course of trees and other debris left from the violent summer storm of late Saturday afternoon. Then came the three-woman playoff on Tuesday.
Everyone at the NCR (National Cash Register) course outside Dayton in 1986 had just about enough of that place and wanted to get out of town as soon as possible by the time an earthquake struck Sunday morning before the fourth round. But Sally Little and Jane Geddes, the eventual champion, finished in a tie, necessitating a Monday playoff.
The USGA, acting at its annual convention last month, put an end to such a thing as an extra day for an 18-hole playoff in the Women's Open. Starting this year, a tie after 72 holes will be resolved then and there with a three-hole medal score playoff. Should there still be a deadlock after three holes, there will be sudden death starting on the fourth extra hole. The USGA retained the traditional 18-hole, extra-day playoff to resolve ties in the Men's Open.
Thus an earthquake, train wreck, plane crash, drunk cyclist or tie score after four rounds will not cause anyone to stick around an extra day at Pine Needles Lodge and Golf Club where the 62nd U.S. Women's Open is to be held, June 28-July 1. Of course, another severe storm such as the one that struck Plainfield in 1987 could postpone play for a day and thus force Monday action.
There have been numerous untoward incidents during the Men's and Women's Opens that distracted from the tournaments. I covered a lot of those zany affairs. But there was never one that had such a plethora of misadventures as that NCR Women's Open in July of 1986.
The tournament was almost a sideshow to a long list of daily mishaps that started Tuesday afternoon when a freight train, rolling along the banks of the Great Miami River south of Dayton, derailed. A couple of tank cars began spilling dangerous, toxic chemicals a mile or so from the NCR course.
Police and fire officers ordered us to evacuate the NCR CC, and everyone to vacate nearby homes, stores, offices, hotels and motels. This order lasted until an all clear at Noon, Wednesday. But some of the golfers such as Jan Stephenson and Beth Daniel sneaked back into their rooms Tuesday night by climbing the fence at the rear of their motel. They wanted a good night's sleep and not a sleepless night spent in a school gymnasium temporary shelter.
The tournament got under way on schedule, Thursday. Shortly thereafter a small plane, obviously in trouble, buzzed over the course and caused players and spectators to look skyward. Then we all heard the crash in a nearby field. Fortunately, no one was killed.
After more than 24 hours of peace and quiet and after chemicals in the air had dissipated, a sudden and strong thunder storm targeted the NCR Course, late Friday afternoon. Golf carts were dispatched to get the women golfers off the course and to safety. But the cart with Japan's Ayako Okamoto slid out of control and down a short, grassy hill, slamming into a big tree. Okamoto was thrown from the cart but not seriously injured. She was able to complete the Open tournament.
Shortly after noon on Saturday, the intoxicated motorcycle rider drove right through the side of the press tent. I never missed a syllable on my lap top. What concentration!
But because of all the events of the week, a couple of Dayton reporters arrived at the press tent Saturday afternoon wearing hard hats. Considering what had taken place and what was still to come no one could blame them for that gag.
As the sun rose the next morning, the ground rolled and rumbled shaking things off the bureau in my motel room and scaring a few thousand folks in the area of Dayton. The 4.0 quake was centered near Bowling Green, about 100 miles northwest of Dayton.
What more could happen at this Open? We all wanted out.
Not so fast there. We had to stick around because Miss Geddes and Miss Little would not let us leave as they each finished with one-under 287 for 72 holes. So it was on to Monday. What a dull day that was as nothing happened other than two golfers going head-to-head for 18 holes.
Jane Geddes shot one-under 71 while Sally Little had one-over 73.
The following year, Miss Okamoto finished in a tie with JoAnne Carner and a newcomer from England, Laura Davies, who was about the only person who could outhit Carner in those days.
Because the storm postponed the Plainfield fourth round to Monday in 1987, it was Tuesday when this Open was finally decided with Miss Davies the winner by two shots over Okamoto and three over Carner.
Four times in its history, the US Men's Open needed two playoff rounds and thus two extra days in order to establish a champion. These playoffs were in 1925, 1931, 1939 and 1946. But since the Open's regulation four rounds were conducted in three days back then, each of those four playoffs extended the tournament only to five days.
There have been 10 18-hole playoffs in the first 61 US Women's Opens, including one last year when Annika Sorenstam beat Pat Hurst for the Swede's third US Open title. In each of these playoffs, a winner was established after 18 holes.
Although I feel an 18-hole playoff is the way to settle the USGA Opens, the most prestigious men's and women's tournaments in the world, I will admit that back in 1986 and 1987 I would have appreciated the three-hole playoff immediately after the 72-hole event was completed.
In each of those years everyone who worked the Women's Open was simply tired and exhausted because of all the extraneous events that took away from the tournament play.
Gordon White served 43 years as a sports reporter for The New York Times. His e-mail is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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