Exciting US Open looms on course made famous by Ben Hogan

The US Open, the most major of golf's four major championships, has its 85th edition here this week at ``The Monster.'' That nickname was bestowed on Oakland Hills Country Club's South Course 34 years ago by Ben Hogan after he fired a last-round 67 on a day when the average score was 75.

Probably never had a course been prepared so demandingly for an important tournament, and Hogan's round is widely recognized as the greatest ever.

The background went like this. In 1937 Ralph Guldahl had set a 72-hole Open record of 281 at the old course in the Detroit suburbs -- and officials feared an even lower score in 1951 unless drastic remodeling was undertaken.

So the course was toughened with 60 new bunkers that came into play much more readily than the old ones, some in the middle of the fairways. Then it was set up for the tournament with dogleg driving areas barely visible from the tees, heaving greens, and rough in which you could lose a ball, a club, or your caddie.

Someone observed that the course was so hard only one man could win: Hogan. After he did, he said, exhausted, ``I finally brought this monster to its knees.''

His victory lives in history not only for that line but also because it is the only time a golfer has improved his score in each round to win the Open. Hogan shot 76, 73, 71, 67.

This will be the fifth Open at Oakland Hills. Cyril Walker won in 1924, then Guldahl, Hogan, and Gene Littler in 1961.

Picking a winner is guesswork at best.

The leading money winner for 1985 is Curtis Strange, who has not won a major championship, having missed a grand opportunity in the Masters when West Germany's Bernhard Langer beat him out.

Tom Watson, the best player of his generation, has not won this year and is plagued by rare putting problems.

Two-time Open winner Hale Irwin found his game to win the Memorial tournament in late May. David Graham, another past champion, won the PGA Championship here in 1979.

No one will quite count out Jack Nicklaus, who is bidding for a record fifth Open victory. At age 45, he would become the oldest winner. Another 45-year-old, Lee Trevino, won the 1984 PGA and is deadly on tight courses.

Other prospects have to include British Open champion Seve Ballesteros, a hot Lanny Wadkins, an emotional Craig Stadler, and Australian Greg Norman, who lost last year's Open in a playoff.

Fuzzy Zoeller, the winner a year ago, is not in peak physical condition, but is expected to defend his title. However, Calvin Peete, the straightest hitter in golf and another potential contender, had to withdraw with a back injury.

The 6,996-yard layout isn't expected to play as harshly as it did in 1951. The fairways are wider now, and the greens were softened by recent rains. Still, it will present a strenuous challenge for the best players in the world, almost surely the toughest of the year.

The USGA believes the winner of the Open should be the man who hits the greens. It got its wish last year at Winged Foot, where Norman and Zoeller ranked 1-2 in greens hit during regulation play.

The US Open is the only tournament that still uses 18-hole playoffs to resolve ties, but the USGA shows no sign of softening its standards, holding to the belief that 18 holes is the fairest test and thus worth the inconvenience of the extra day.

The tournament will be televised by ABC for the 20th year, and one interested spectator at his home in Fort Worth, Texas, will undoubtedly be Ben Hogan, the man who slew the monster and coined the phrase 34 years ago.

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