When asked about his career in golf, Andy North’s response is typical of the self-effacing Wisconsin native: Boy, was he lucky.
“A lot of people talk about it being a golden age in our game,” said North, 67. “I had the chance to play a lot of golf with Sam Snead. I played against Arnold [Palmer] and Jack [Nicklaus] in their prime. From Gary Player to Lee Trevino, all the way up to Tiger [Woods] and Phil [Mickelson], it was a great time. I’m proud that I managed to win something that meant something, and lucky enough to do it twice.”
North won three times on the PGA Tour, and two of those victories were U.S. Opens, in 1978 and 1985. This week, the native of Thorp, Wis., welcomes the 117th edition of the championship to his home state for the first time.
“It’s going to be a really fun week – there’s going to be a gazillion people out there,” said North. “The one question is that you don’t have any idea how the golf course is going to play. You think it’s going to play a certain way, but until you get there and see what happens, you don’t know.”
North has mentored and encouraged many of the homegrown players who succeeded him, including 12-time PGA Tour winner Steve Stricker – who is in the field this week – as well as three-time PGA Tour winner Jerry Kelly and Sherri Steinhauer, who hails from the same club as North and won eight times on the LPGA Tour, including three Women’s British Opens.
“They tease me all the time, telling me the first time we met was when I did a junior clinic when they were 12 years old,” said North. “But it’s been really fun to see how well they’ve done, how they’ve handled themselves. They’ve all said that watching me, seeing that someone could do it, helped them believe that they could.”
North’s formative years were enhanced by club professional Lee Milligan, who began tutoring Andy, then 12, at Nakoma Golf Club in Madison. When Milligan took a position at Barrington Hills Country Club outside Chicago, North’s father drove Andy more than 100 miles each way to continue his lessons.
On Mondays, Milligan took North to play some of the Chicago-area courses that have hosted major championships. “The first time I played Medinah, I couldn’t hit a shot the first eight or nine holes because I didn’t want to take a divot,” said North with a laugh. “I was probably 15 or 16, and I was a good enough player that I should have been over that, but the fairways were so perfect.”
North finished as runner-up to John Crooks in the 1967 U.S. Junior Amateur at Twin Hills in Oklahoma City, and his best finish in three U.S. Amateurs was a tie for 14th in 1969 at Oakmont. After earning All-America honors three times at the University of Florida, he turned professional.
“I was never the kind of player who could just let it go and play relaxed — the way you would think that a guy like Fred Couples plays,” said North. “I had to really grind it out. I had a lot of confidence in my short game; if I hit a poor shot, I could still manufacture a par somehow, which really fit USGA golf.”
In fact, North’s first PGA Tour victory came on a golf course, Westchester Country Club, which was known for offering conditions similar to those in a U.S. Open. He edged George Archer by two strokes in the 1977 American Express Westchester Classic, which served as something of a springboard to his first U.S. Open win the following June at Cherry Hills Country Club.
“Along with my win at Westchester, I had a couple of second-place finishes,” said North. “One of those was at Charlotte in my last event before the Open, then I took a week off in between.”
North opened with a pair of 1-under-par 70s at Cherry Hills for a two-stroke lead over Nicklaus, Player and J.C. Snead. A third-round 71 gave North a one-shot lead on Player entering the final round. As Player struggled to a 77, North extended his lead to five strokes over the field with birdies on Nos. 11 and 13.
“As we lined up the birdie putt on 13, I told my caddie, if we make this one, it’s over,” said North. “When I made it, it was like someone unplugged me. From that point on, I never hit another shot.”
North played the last five holes in 4 over par, managing to get up and down from a greenside bunker on No. 18 for a bogey, a 1-over 285 total and a one-stroke victory over Snead and Dave Stockton. The clinching 5-foot putt was North’s 114th of the week, which at that point tied Billy Casper’s record for the fewest putts in a U.S. Open.
“Thank heavens we didn’t have any more holes to play,” said North.
North struggled with shoulder, elbow, neck and knee injuries for much of his career, which led to six surgeries on his knees alone.
“I never knew how my body was going to react,” said North. “I had days where I woke up and it just wasn’t going to work, and other days I’d feel good, and I had no idea why. My 1984 season was about just getting back and being able to play.”
North’s 1985 season showed promise, but he was inconsistent. “For example, I made an 11 on a par 3 on the next-to-last hole at the Honda, and I made a 6 on the last hole at Bay Hill when I was in contention,” North said. “But I shot some really good rounds on good courses. Then I went to Westchester and missed the cut the week before the Open.”
The early departure for that U.S. Open at Oakland Hills Country Club triggered by the missed cut proved a godsend.
“I got there Saturday night, and I went out Sunday morning to hit some balls, and suddenly, it was there,” said North with a snap of his fingers. “I hit the ball great. For the first three days of the championship, I was No. 1 in greens in regulation. It felt easy.”
Even though North shot a 5-under 65 bracketed by a pair of 70s, he trailed T.C. Chen of Chinese Taipei by two strokes entering the final round. The unheralded Chen had equaled Open records for 36 and 54 holes (65-69-69), but his infamous quadruple-bogey 8 on the fifth hole on Sunday, when he double-hit a pitch shot, gave North a huge opening.
Unfortunately, he had a hard time seizing it.
“Saturday had been as miserable a day as you could play in, and I shot 70,” recalled North. “I still tell people, that’s the day I won the Open. On Sunday, it was rainy and cold again, and I didn’t have it at all. For the first 11 holes, I was barely hitting it on the clubface.”
On No. 12, North drove into a fairway bunker, and he credits the 5-iron shot he hit there with getting him back in sync.
“All of a sudden, it was back to what I had been doing all week,” said North, who steadied himself, birdied No. 13 and reached the 18th tee with a two-stroke lead. A cautious two-putt bogey gave him a 1-under total of 279 and his second major, by one stroke over Chen, Dave Barr of Canada and Denis Watson of Zimbabwe.
“That’s the nature of this thing: you have to somehow figure out a way to survive those periods when you’re terrible,” said North. “And we all do it. Even the great players go through five- or six-hole stretches where they don’t lay the club on it. But if you are somehow able to get through it in 1 over par, you’re OK.”
North won the 1978 World Cup with John Mahaffey, and he competed in the 1985 Ryder Cup. But injuries continued to dog him, and in 1992 he became a TV analyst for ESPN and ABC, a role that continues today. Playing part-time, North won several PGA Tour Champions team titles with good friend Tom Watson (4) and Jim Colbert (2).
“It’s funny — people talk about Tiger changing the way things are done out here,” North said. “We had a fitness trailer and lots of guys who worked out before him, because some of us had to. It really helped me because I could go to the same guys every week, instead of trying to find some doctor in town who knew nothing about you and would just offer you an injection. I’d say, no thanks, I’ve had plenty of those.”
All in all, North believes his Wisconsin roots played a role in his success, which included 50 top-10 finishes in his career on the regular Tour.
“People look at growing up in cold weather as a negative, but I think we all considered it a positive,” said North. “We got involved in other sports — Steve [Stricker] was a good basketball player, Jerry [Kelly] played hockey. Golf ended up being the thing that we all got halfway decent at, but it was a real advantage to get away from the game, come back mentally fresh, get physically better and be excited about playing again.”
Halfway decent, indeed.
Ron Driscoll is the manager of editorial services for the USGA. Email him at email@example.com.