Looking Back: 1971 U.S. Open at Merion
Lee Trevino’s Playoff Victory Over Nicklaus Affirmed Jack’s Prediction
By Dave Shedloski
This is the 18th and final story in our series looking back at every USGA championship and international team competition contested at Merion Golf Club, site of the 2013 U.S. Open.
This spring in suburban Houston, Jack Nicklaus played in an exhibition outing, “The Greats of Golf,” in conjunction with the Champions Tour event at The Woodlands. In the first round he was paired with one of his favorites from his bygone era, Lee Trevino, whom he has never deemed a nemesis – even though Trevino got the best of Nicklaus in a couple of head-to-head duels, most notably the 1971 U.S. Open at Merion.
“He’s still the same Trevino,” Nicklaus said with a widening smile. “He still hits it great, and he still talks all the time.”
Trevino, a Texan who emerged from a hardscrabble background to become one of the game’s legendary performers, proved early in his career just how well he could “hit it,” his shot-making exploits yielding a victory in the 1968 U.S. Open at Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y.
But it was his 1971 U.S. Open triumph at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., where Trevino defeated Nicklaus in an 18-hole playoff, that was the most significant win in a career that included six major titles and 29 PGA Tour victories overall.
“That win at Merion was the most important win of my career, hands down,” averred the man known as the Merry Mex. “After that, I knew I didn’t have a lot to prove.”
The irony is that Nicklaus contributed to his own demise, though not necessarily with his play. Rather, it was the encouragement that the Golden Bear offered – both publicly and privately – that buoyed Trevino.
In early 1971, Nicklaus mused aloud that he hoped, “Trevino never finds out how good he is.” In the spring, after Trevino skipped the Masters for the second year in a row, Nicklaus pulled him aside and told him, “You just don’t know how good you are. You can win anywhere.”
“For the best player in the world to tell me that filled me with confidence,” Trevino said. “He didn’t have to do that, but that’s the kind of person he is.”
The 1971 U.S. Open was contested June 17-21, and Merion was back in the national championship spotlight for the first time since Ben Hogan won in 1950. Like today, it was thought to be too short, playing 6,544 yards. As the players prepared for the championship, they spoke aloud of extracting sub-par scores from the proud old layout, especially considering that rain early in the week had left the par-70 course relatively defenseless, save for the punishing rough.
Sure enough, there was a stampede of sorts into red territory, with pro Larry Hinson setting the early pace by getting to five under through 13 holes and giving the field hope that Merion wouldn’t be Merion. By the time he holed out on 18 Hinson had shot 71, playing those last five holes in six over par. The lead was left to Labron Harris at 3-under 67, but he followed with 77 and never was a factor, finishing 46th. Jim Colbert shot a second straight 69 and led at the midpoint at 138 with Bob Erickson, who shot a second-round 67. Trevino stayed in touch with 70-72 while Nicklaus was one ahead of him after 69-72, tied with Pennsylvania native Arnold Palmer, whose second-round 68 included an eagle at the short par-4 first hole.
Merion finally relented in the third round, giving up a masterful 65, then one off the U.S. Open record. But it wasn’t authored by Trevino or Nicklaus or Palmer or Johnny Miller or Ray Floyd or defending champion Tony Jacklin (who missed the cut). Amateur Jim Simons was the culprit. Simons, 21, was a Butler, Pa., native and member of the Wake Forest golf team, and he led everyone at 3-under 207, while Nicklaus, after a 68, was the ominous pursuer at 209 and Trevino had fashioned a 69 to lurk at 211.
Amateurs excelled in this Open. Lanny Wadkins ended up tied for 12th at 286. University of Texas All-American Ben Crenshaw shot three strokes higher and tied for 27th with a large group that included 1965 U.S. Open winner Gary Player.
Simons, playing with Nicklaus, didn’t realize he wasn’t supposed to win until midway through the final round. He still led at the turn and was only a stroke back heading to 18, but he suffered a double bogey while trying to make birdie and submitted a 76 for 3-over 283, tied for fifth – which is still the third-best finish by an amateur since 1960, trailing only Nicklaus’ own second-place finish in ‘60 and his tie for fourth in ‘61.
In fact, Nicklaus likely wouldn’t have even made the playoff if it weren’t for a return to form down the stretch, holing a series of improbable par putts of five feet or longer on Merion’s triple-cut greens.
“I don’t remember much, but I do remember that,” Nicklaus said.
He also remembers his 14-foot birdie putt at the 72nd hole that would have won the championship outright, but that he missed, leaving him to settle for a 71 on the round and an even-par 280.
While the Golden Bear was lining up that potential game-winner, Trevino was sitting in the locker room in Merion’s quaint clubhouse, listening. He had done everything necessary for the win, closing with another 69 for his own 280. But he was ruing the par he had failed to convert at the home hole. After his 3-wood second shot ran through the green, Trevino had hacked out of the hay to 7 feet, but had failed to coax it in from there. Prior to that, he had birdied the 12th and 14th holes to nose into the lead, and had then made his own heart-stopping save with an eight-footer for par at 15.
The next day Trevino scored the first point – before the playoff began. It is part of U.S. Open lore that Trevino unnerved Nicklaus on the first tee by throwing a rubber snake at his feet. The truth is, Trevino had kept the three-foot toy in his bag for two months after his daughter had bought it at the Fort Worth Zoo, and he had even used it as a prop in a pre-championship photograph by one of the news wire services to help show how high Merion’s rough had been cultivated. When he saw the snake in his bag that morning while rummaging for a fresh glove, he pulled it out and the crowd roared. Nicklaus, sitting on the other side of the tee box, asked Trevino to toss it over. Nicklaus picked it up and laughed as well, and then went out and birdied the first hole while Trevino suffered a bogey.
It was the only hole he led all day. The Bear bunkered approaches at the second and third holes and at each he left his first blast in the sand. The resulting bogey-double bogey gut punches allowed Trevino to edge two strokes clear. If those breaks weren’t enough, Trevino received another at the sixth. The rain returned, forcing a one-hour delay.
“Had it not rained, I would not have won that playoff,” Trevino said. “As soon as it started raining I was saying, ‘Keep it up baby, keep it up. Now my low ball’s going to stop. I’m not going to try to go at the front of every green.’ I knew it wasn’t going to hurt him and it’s not going to help him, but it was going to help me. I was a low-ball hitter, and the rain softened things up enough for me to be able to hold the greens with my approach shots. That was a huge break for me. Merion was the hardest damn course I had ever seen.”
When play resumed, Trevino tacked his way around Merion and held on, answering every Nicklaus salvo. Nicklaus had cut the deficit to one stroke with a birdie at the fifth, but Trevino birdied the eighth. When Nicklaus birdied the 11th, Trevino answered with a 20-foot birdie at the 12th. He stole Jack’s thunder with another birdie at 15. A three-foot par save at 18 sealed it. Trevino’s 68 was good for a three-stroke victory. He said he was lucky. Nicklaus knew better.
“Lee had skipped the Masters a couple of years, and I just told him that he didn’t have to do that,” Nicklaus said recently, recalling the talk he’d had with Trevino. “I knew he was too good of a ball-striker to think he couldn’t win at Augusta, or anywhere, and I simply told him that.”
A little more than a month older than Nicklaus, Trevino defeated the Golden Bear at the height of his prowess. In a run of nine majors from the 1970 British Open at St. Andrews to the ’72 British Open at Muirfield, Nicklaus won four times, was runner-up in three others and didn’t finish worse than sixth. But Trevino had clearly moved into the realm of perennial threat, and he proved it by winning the Canadian Open two weeks after Merion. His first British Open victory came at Royal Birkdale the week after that, and he repeated it in 1972 at Muirfield, edging Nicklaus by one stroke.
Nothing compares to those five steamy days in Pennsylvania. Trevino compared the playoff with the heavily favored Nicklaus as “a fistfight with a guy that’s taller. … I loved it.”
And it meant a great deal when he KO’d not only the course, but the champ, too.
“Merion gave me my career,” he said in a recent newspaper interview. “Up until Merion, the way this played out, I never felt comfortable. I never thought that I belonged. I was a professional golfer, and I had won a few tournaments, but I didn't really feel like I was in the fraternity. When I got into the playoff and I beat Jack, I beat the best player in the world. It wasn't so much that I had won the Open for the second time, it was who I defeated to do it. It finally made me feel like I belonged in the fraternity.”
This year’s major championship sites allow Trevino a chance to enjoy an eternal summer of reminiscences. Following the U.S. Open at Merion, the British Open returns to Muirfield, in Scotland, where he halted Nicklaus’ bid for the Grand Slam in 1972. In August, the PGA Championship visits Oak Hill Country Club in Rochester, N.Y., site of Trevino’s breakthrough U.S. Open triumph in ‘68, where he won by four strokes over none other than Nicklaus.
“It’s a very special year for me,” he said. “I haven’t stopped talking for months.”
Can’t fault a guy for that when there is so much to talk about.
Dave Shedloski is an Ohio-based freelance writer whose work has previously appeared on USGA websites.