Golf's legends recollect memories from Firestone
A few weeks shy of his 48th birthday and returning to his first PGA Championship in 12 years, Ben Hogan couldn’t find any magic in his golf game during his trip to Akron, Ohio, in the summer of 1960. Three days without a birdie left him outside the 54-hole cut. Hogan did, however, discover the magic formula for Firestone Country Club’s South Course. “He told me, the winner will be the guy who averages no more than 10 (missed fairways and missed greens combined) a day,” Jay Hebert told reporters, recalling Hogan’s words. “If you don’t think (practice rounds) with Hogan are an education, try it sometime. It’s a master’s degree. No, it’s a doctor’s degree.” On a Firestone CC test that Jim Turnesa that week proclaimed “the toughest course I’ve ever seen,” the 37-year-old Hebert averaged less than nine missed fairways and greens combined per day – and won. What? You think Hogan would have misled him? Famous for suggesting that “the secret was in the dirt,” Hogan likely would have said that the challenge of Firestone CC was no mystery. It is a sentiment that has been shared by other greats throughout the years. From Bobby Jones, who was at Firestone right after it opened in 1929 for an exhibition against Jesse Sweetser and Watts Gunn; to Jack Nicklaus, who embraced Firestone CC when he first saw it as an 18-year-old amateur in 1958; to David Duval 40 years later who triumphed in the World Series of Golf and said: “It’s just long, hard and right in front of you. There are no tricks to it.” Perhaps none of them, however, were swept off their feet by Firestone CC quite like Nick Price. He arrived in Akron in the summer of 1983 still licking his wounds from having squandered the 1982 Open Championship. Quickly, though, the aura of Firestone put him at ease. “I had seen it on TV before, but when I saw it in person, I loved it. What amazed me is how (the holes) went up and down, how except for two or three holes, everything was parallel,” said Price. “It made an impact on me because it was long and the greens were tiny for the length of the golf course.” A premier ball-striker, Price smiled. “If you were on with your irons, you’d always have a birdie putt on the small greens,” said Price. “I loved it.” He still does, and for good reason. The Zimbabwean shot 66-68-69-67 for a four-stroke victory and first PGA Tour win was timely. Not because of the $100,00 winner’s check, but for the 10-year exemption to the PGA TOUR. “You could say Firestone gave me the key to my career,” said Price, then a struggling rookie on the PGA TOUR who was exempt into the 1983 WSOG for being the leading money-winner in South Africa. “It was a special time, such a confidence boost.” Where the pride swells is when Price scans the list of past winners at Firestone CC’s South Course. The rollcall should be accompanied by trumpets blaring “Royal Entrance” because it is top-to-bottom golf royalty. When you factor in the PGA TOUR tournaments held on Firestone’s South Course (Rubber City Open, American Golf Classic, World Series of Golf and World Golf Championships-Bridgestone Invitational) and sprinkle in three PGA Championships, the list of winners across 75 tournaments includes 18 World Golf Hall of Fame members and a whopping 33 winners of major winners. Crunching further, those 18 Hall of Famers have won 38 of those 75 tournaments at Firestone, a stunning 50.6 percent. “An impressive stat, no doubt,” said Price. “It’s a testament to how great the golf course is.” It puts Firestone South right up there with Pebble Beach Golf Links (23 Hall of Famers and 32 major champions have won there) as the two PGA TOUR courses that have produced the richest pedigree of winners. “Firestone is a ball-striker’s golf course,” said Adam Scott, who won the 2011 WGC-Bridgestone Invitational. “If you miss fairways, usually you’re just pitching out. I’d hate to try and win a tournament there by scrambling.” When your club has hosted the best professional players every year since 1954, save for 2002 when the WGC-Bridgestone Invitational was staged in at Sahalee CC outside of Seattle, indelible memories stretch endlessly. There was the debut of the Rubber City Open in ’54 when Bolt said he was trying “to live down the reputation” he had as a hothead. His near-flawless victory helped, only one year later, Bolt ripped up his scorecard 16 holes into Round 3 and walked off. “I’m sick and tired of golf,” he vented. Palmer thrilled large crowds when he won the American Golf Classic in 1957, but at the ’60 PGA his mood swung as Robert Trent Jones Sr.’s re-design of Firestone, especially of the par-5 16th, left Palmer dismayed. “As far as I’m concerned, I think it’s ridiculous,” said Palmer, of the hole stretched to 667 yards. His chance to win the PGA collapsed with a third-round triple-bogey and years later, Palmer was asked if he remembered it. “I remember all eight shots,” he snapped. Mike Souchak was another who surveyed Jones’ re-do with a jaded view. “How about that?” he said. “They added lakes (two), traps (50), lengthened the tees and pushed the greens back (adding 500 yards), and what do they do – they cut par a stroke.” Indeed, Firestone CC in 1960 was a par 70 at 7,165 yards, beefier than it had been when it opened in 1929. Designed by Bert Way – an Englishman who apprenticed under Willie Dunn before emigrating to America in 1896 – Firestone measured 6,306 yards and was a par 71 back on the day Harvey Firestone struck the opening tee shot. But the back-and-forth routing and tree-lined holes remain pretty much as Way drew them up, which adds immeasurably to the joy of Firestone. Certainly, Jose Maria Olazabal felt comfortable at the 1990 World Series of Golf, so much so that in Round 1 he birdied the first, eagled the second, then birdied Nos. 3 and 4 en route to a course-record 61. He eventually won by 12, but years later said of that sizzling round: “What I really don’t understand is how the hell I shot 61.” Nicklaus did know why he played well at Firestone and it is why he became emotional in 2013 when honored at Firestone CC as “Ambassador of Golf” by the Northern Ohio Golf Charities. “I loved coming up here. I loved playing the golf course. It suited my eye. It suited my game,” said Nicklaus, who won seven tournaments on the South Course – five times in the World Series of Golf, once in the American Golf Classic, and, of course, the memorable 1975 PGA. That was the year Bruce Crampton finished second to Nicklaus for the fourth time in a major and famously said: “I’m not a machine. Jack’s the closest thing we have to a machine.” Years later, a leaner and meaner machine embraced Firestone. Tiger Woods first saw it as a teenager when he came over from doing a minority golf clinic in Cleveland. In 1997 as a 21-year-old professional in the WSOG, Woods told of his drive at 16 that barely reached the ladies’ tees. Reporters laughed, but Woods told them, “Hey, man, the ladies’ tees are way out there.” He would finish tied for third behind Greg Norman in ’97 and joint fifth behind Duval in ’98, but after that . . . well, it became his playground. Between 1999-2009, Woods won seven of the 10 Bridgestone Invitationals at Firestone. He added an eighth in 2013. “There’s Tiger and Tiger and Tiger . . . and Tiger,” said Scott, laughing when asked about Firestone winners. But growing serious, the Aussie noted that his idol, Norman, won twice there, and when you factored in Palmer, Nicklaus, Player, Price, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino and Phil Mickelson among all the Hall of Famers and major winners, Scott smiled. “You pay attention to past winners and when the list is that impressive, you take pride in being on it.” Price still savors his 1983 World Series of Golf win. Yes, for the 10-year exemption, but also because the next five names behind him on the leaderboard were Nicklaus, Johnny Miller, Raymond Floyd, Hale Irwin and Watson. “I had a four-shot lead walking to the 18th green,” said Price, “and I saw Jack standing behind the green. I had had all these great players breathing down my neck and when I saw Jack, I thought, ‘Maybe he thinks I’m going to four-putt.’ “But he came out because he wanted to congratulate me. It was so gracious of him.” Nicklaus knew reporters didn’t know much about the young man from Zimbabwe, but insisted, “You have players here you have never heard of, but they are not no-names, I can assure you.” Certainly, not when they win at Firestone CC.
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