Oak Hill in 1989–a story of Seve, two college kids, Bruce Edwards, and Thirsty’s Bar
In June of 1989, Oak Hill CC in Rochester, site of this week’s PGA Championship, was hosting the US Open and that particular week it had morphed into “Soak Hill” due to torrential rains. So much so that play on Saturday was delayed until 12 noon and the groups went off both the 1st and 10th tees, and if I’m not mistaken that was a first when it came to the Open.
In attendance that day were two college kids (namely myself and my childhood buddy “Smitty”) and we had arrived on Friday night after a 5 hour drive but missing a couple of key items. First, we had no place to stay. But that was quickly solved by looking up my college housemate’s girlfriend who was home for the summer in nearby Pittsford and even though I called at 9:00 Friday night we were set up in her parents’ basement by 10:00. We had no place to drink but we were quickly pointed in the direction of Thirsty’s Bar (a must-visit for anyone there for the PGA this week!) and we had no problem closing down the bar. And though thankfully the heavy rains delayed play on Saturday which allowed us to get at least a little bit of sleep, we woke up Saturday morning without tickets to the Open.
Back in those days however I very much viewed having tickets into golf tournaments as “optional” especially since I had no money! The golf course boundaries were, um, not exactly secure. But even though our plan was to park about a mile from the course, walk to one of the neighborhoods, and go through someone’s backyard, the Friday late night shenanigans at Thirsty’s left us in little mood to walk that distance.
As fortune would have it though, when we drove out of my friend’s girlfriend’s parents’ neighborhood there was a plaza nearly across the street, where a bunch of people wearing obvious US Open Marshal/Volunteer uniforms were standing waiting for a shuttle bus to take them to the course. We drove over, parked the car, and got in back of the line. That I was wearing a torn “Dayton” sweatshirt with jeans, and my buddy Smitty didn’t look any less conspicuous, didn’t bother me in the least.
Sure enough a school bus pulled up and we just walked on behind everyone else and sat in the back. The bus pulled out, made a couple of turns, and then made a right turn into the main entrance of Oak Hill Country Club. We drove all the way up to the circular clubhouse road, where the bus stopped right in front of the ivy-covered canopy by the clubhouse front door. We walked right off the bus, attracting no special attention from anyone, and we were in. And we thought nothing of it, except to remark that it sure was convenient that we had chosen that particular bus!
One of the first groups off the 10th tee that Saturday included my favorite player, the late, great Seve Ballesteros who had just barely made the cut, and though I don’t remember all that much from that afternoon at the course, I do remember vividly Seve hitting a wild hook on the par 5 13th hole outside of the ropes, because me and Smitty were able to claim the spot right behind where the ball came to rest. And as Bob Rosburg would have described, he had no shot. Ball lying down a bit where the spectators had trampled down the rough. Tree branches hanging low in front of him. Creek crossing the fairway about 100 yards up. So of course the magnificent swashbuckler pulls out a 1 iron, takes a full swing, and hits a stinger missle that somehow stays under the overhanging branches, seems to rise a bit after that, carries the creek by 5 yards, and even squeezes some roll out of the squishy fairway. It was unbelievable and it didn’t get more than 10 feet off the ground at its pinnacle. Seve’s walk after hitting the shot was part of his swing, just one smooth motion from swing into brisk walk into holding out his 1-iron in his left hand for his caddy to put back in the bag. Except he didn’t hand it to his caddy. He handed it to yours truly and I managed to even put an interlocking grip on it for a split second before his caddy snagged it away. Every magical recovery I have pulled off since has been attributed to that transfer of magic.
At the end of Saturday’s play Tom Kite at -5 held a one-shot lead over Scott Simpson with Curtis Strange three shots back. After the round we got right back on the volunteer shuttle, drove straight to Thirsty’s and at the end of the bar was a somewhat forlorn-but-very-familiar-looking patron, one who was sitting there unnoticed but was quite famous to this observer. It was the late Bruce Edwards, who with so many people rooting for him fought an epic battle against Lou Gehrig’s disease alongside longtime-employer Tom Watson in 2003. But in 1989 Bruce was on Greg Norman’s bag and not Watson’s, and Norman’s Saturday 73 left him at +3 for the tournament and 8 shots back.
In those uninhibited days of youth I had no problem going right up to him and saying “Hey Bruce, how’s it going?” He looked up and smiled and seemed genuinely happy to be recognized and the first thing he said was “aw, we’re out of it”. I spent the next 10 minutes arguing that a 63 would get Greg at least into a playoff but Bruce thought that low number still wouldn’t do the Shark any good. Me, Smitty, and Bruce just went on from there to have a few beers and a few laughs and then I told him how we had snuck in that day. “Really?” he said? Not in a disapproving way (though as a father of five these days I could understand if he did!), but more out of concern. “Are you going back tomorrow?” he asked. “Yep.” “How are you getting in this time?” “We’ll just do the same thing.” “Wait right there” he said.
Bruce got up and left the bar. After about 30 minutes we figured he wasn’t returning but sure enough he came back and he was holding two hard plastic badges. “Here, these are for you.” The badges said “US Open, Oak Hill, PLAYER GUEST”. He went that far out of his way to go grab two of Greg Norman’s personal badges and give them to two jokers sitting at a bar in Pittsford, mainly us.
At that point we passed on our sincere thanks and he left for good. Even at that invincible-stage of our lives, we were keenly aware of how cool that gesture was. We entered the course Sunday through the main gates, got our TV angle by the first tee next to the old Rainbow-hair-wig guy (anyone with a VHS of Sunday’s round in the ’89 Open? Just look for the “Dayton” sweatshirt behind the players hitting off #1!), saw Kite make triple on 5 on his way to a 78, watched Curtis walk up the 18th as the first repeat champion since Hogan, and then drove back home late that night. Strange won with a final round 70 that left him at 2-under for the tournament. Which, happened to be what Greg Norman would have ended up with had he shot 63. Alas he shot 76 and didn’t come close, but I did wonder if Bruce remembered that lucky guess on my part.
Anyway, this is a story that is a privilege to share and not because two goofball college kids managed to attend Saturday and Sunday of the 1989 US Open for free. This tale goes right to the heart of what kind of person Bruce Edwards was, and how he treated people in general and not just the famous, the connected, or the top golfers of the day. Thank you again Bruce for that act of kindness, I was so saddened when you lost your battle and am grateful for the opportunity to bring up your name once again.