ST. LOUIS – The U.S. Open was the easiest tournament Peter Jacobsen ever won.
“All I had to do was hit one shot and beat two 15-handicappers,” Jacobsen said, reminiscing on the phone recently while taking a break from his NBC golf announcing duties.
The 15-handicappers were actors Kevin Costner and Don Johnson. The movie was “Tin Cup,” a 1996 romantic comedy. That U.S. Open was fictional, of course, and Jacobsen, appearing as himself, won a cinematic-fake-news national championship after Costner’s Roy McAvoy character suffered an infantile last-hole meltdown.
Jacobsen did not get a movie-prop trophy to take home, but he still has a “Tin Cup” poster signed by Costner and co-star Rene Russo stashed somewhere at home in Naples, Fla.
Winning a U.S. Open in real life is a lot more difficult. Or it’s supposed to be. Jacobsen made that look easy, too, when he captured the 2004 U.S. Senior Open at Bellerive Country Club.
Bellerive is hosting this week’s PGA Championship (tee times), which makes Jacobsen a valuable source of course knowledge, given that Bellerive is a bit of an unknown. Its only big non-senior event since the 1992 PGA Championship was a 2008 FedEx Cup playoff event.
Most of today’s top players never have seen Bellerive. What Jacobsen wonders is whether his course knowledge has an expiration date due to advances in technology and how much farther today’s players hit a golf ball.
“I turned 50 in 2004 and had won in Hartford on the PGA Tour at 49,” Jacobsen said. “I remember feeling a resurgence in my game then because of the new equipment. I was driving the ball longer at 50 than when I came out on tour. It helped me stay competitive.
“Back then, you could hit a 350-yard drive only if you got lucky and hit a hook, hit a cart path and had it run down the path 70 yards. Nowadays, 350-yard drives are common, not freak occurrences. There are no real par 5s anymore. For big hitters like Rory McIlroy, Dustin Johnson and Brooks Koepka, it’s not par 72; it’s par 68. We used to say that about Tiger Woods, but now these guys hit it so ridiculously far, it’s true for a majority of the field.”
Despite the distance gains, Jacobsen thinks driving still will be important at Bellerive.
“It’s not just length that matters at Bellerive; it’s the position,” Jacobsen said. “The greens are big and tricky and well-bunkered; they can lull you to sleep. You need to put your ball in the correct side of the fairways, into certain corners, so you have a good angle to shoot at the flags. I’m not sure it’s as difficult as a second-shot golf course as it is off the tee. I had such a good driving week in ’04 that I put myself in position to attack.”
The approach shots at Bellerive are more challenging than they appear to be because of elevation changes, some of them not readily apparent. “You traverse a lot of hills and have uphill shots and downhill shots,” Jacobsen said. “It’s not as significant as Augusta National, but you’ve got sneaky ups and downs there. It’s hard to get the correct distance on those approach shots.
“Some courses, you can go out fast and then try to hang on, like [recent British Open site] Carnoustie,” Jacobsen said. “The most difficult part at Bellerive is probably the middle, holes 6 through 12. Then you do have some scoring opportunities coming home.”
Bellerive is considered to be a ball-striker’s track, and that suited Jacobsen in ’04. He was a surprising champion, however. He was coming off surgery on his left hip and took his family to Ireland the week before so he could play at Northern Ireland’s Royal Portrush in his first British Senior Open. His hip wasn’t ready, however, and he couldn’t play, but the family stayed and enjoyed a wonderful vacation on the Emerald Isle.
Jacobsen was going to pull out of the U.S. Senior Open, too, because of his hip. His wife, Jan, staged an intervention on the return flight and reasserted her authority.
“I told Jan, ‘There’s no way I can play at Bellerive,’ and she said, ‘You’re going to play; you’re going to have a good week; you’re going to have fun; you’re going to gut it out, and you’re going to win,” he said.
“When we checked into our hotel room – I don’t remember which hotel – the room number was 1111. Jan said, ‘See, that’s a good sign – all 1’s. You’re going to win.’ ”
Jacobsen shot a superb 65 in the first round and took the lead. Frank Conner, who was paired with Jacobsen during the first two days, told him, “That’s the finest ball-striking I’ve ever seen over two rounds.” Jacobsen thanked him and replied, “My new hip must be working.”
A heavy rainstorm wiped out Friday’s play. That’s when USGA president Walter Driver made an old-school but controversial decision to play a 36-hole final Sunday. Thirty-six holes for the over-50 crowd on a hilly course in hot, steamy St. Louis?
Asked about the call then, Jacobsen said, “I’m sure he [Driver] can walk 36 holes, but what’s he going to shoot? This is a major championship, not an endurance contest.”
Looking back, Jacobsen recalls seeing Driver on the first tee of Sunday morning’s first 18. “I told him, ‘Walter, I don’t know many holes I can go, but I’ll do my best,’ ” Jacobsen said. “He looked at me like I was kidding. But I got through. It was hotter than blazes, and after the third round, I took off my wet clothes in the locker room, took the coldest shower I could and lay down on the floor in the shower. Mentally, I thought, This is a new day.”
After the shower, Jacobsen changed into fresh clothes and had just enough time for a quick sandwich and a few putts before he was back on the first tee.
“I really thought each time, This shot may be my last,” Jacobsen said. “I just focused on each shot. As my colleague Roger Maltbie likes to say, ‘Golf is an easy game until you care.’ That last day, all I cared about was putting one foot in front of the other.”
He flagged a 7-iron on the final hole, knowing he needed par to win, then lagged his 25-foot birdie putt to 2 feet. “It was a 2-footer that looked like an 8-footer,” he said. “But I made it. Honestly, during that afternoon I felt I like I had already won simply because I was able to finish all four rounds.”
As for who might hold the Wanamaker Trophy on Sunday, Jacobsen likes the chances of two more aging, often-ailing veterans.
“Since I won in ’04, maybe we’re going to see a winner with aches and pains, like Phil Mickelson, with his psoriatic arthritis, or Tiger Woods, with his back fusion. If Tiger drives it in the right places, he’s going to have a shot like he did at Carnoustie. He’s one of the best iron players in the history of the game.”
One thing of which Jacobsen is certain is that the PGA Championship, unlike his “Tin Cup” Open, will not be easy.
“Bellerive has always proven itself,” he said. “It’s a good test.”
Gary Van Sickle has covered golf since 1980 for Sports Illustrated and Golf.com, Golf World and The Milwaukee Journal. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org; Twitter: @GaryVanSickle