The late Joaquin Andujar was a 20-game winner and volatile personality for the St. Louis Cardinals in the mid-1980s. His favorite expression was “youneverknow,” always delivered in one-breath rhythm, sans space bar.
Andujar was talking about baseball, but he could have been talking about match-play golf. The one-on-one format is the oldest and purest in the game, a competitive place where gamesmanship matters, concessions get made and legends are born.
Stroke play has become the standard for major championships, where the golf course is the adversary and the disposition is measured. In match play, the opponent is another human being and the outcome can be unpredictable. Match play isn’t about an 18-hole score. It’s about one hole at a time, however many it takes.
And frankly speaking, youneverknow.
Match play is in the forefront of golf this week. The U.S. Amateur got down to business Wednesday at Riviera Country Club in Los Angeles, where 64 players began a match-play march to a 36-hole final (scores: http://bit.ly/2wWNUN6). Meanwhile, the Solheim Cup starts Friday at Des Moines Golf and Country Club in West Des Moines, Iowa (http://bit.ly/2wPLPTO).
The matches could be lengthy, such as last week’s U.S. Women’s Amateur quarterfinal played by Lauren Stephenson and Chia Yen Wu. That baby lasted a record 30 holes, and it featured more twists and turns than a funnel cake before Wu prevailed.
Then again, match play also can be relatively quick, if not painless. Four matches in U.S. Amateur history have ended in 10 holes, most recently in 1973 when Bill Rogers beat Rick Cain, 9 and 8, at Inverness. The halfway house was still in sight.
Matches are enigmatic because people are enigmatic. They can bring out the worst in people, the best in people and sometimes, the greatness in people.
At the 2015 Solheim Cup, Europe’s Suzann Pettersen and Charley Hull were all square with Americans Brittany Lincicome and Alison Lee after 16 holes. On the 17th green, Lee missed a birdie putt that rolled some 18 inches past the hole.
As is customary when a putt is conceded, Hull and her caddie picked up and walked away, heading to the 18th tee. At the same time, Lee scooped up her ball without putting out, thinking a concession had been made. Think again.
To the surprise and dismay of everyone, including her teary-eyed partner Hull, Pettersen stepped in to say the putt had never been awarded. Thus, Lee’s gesture forfeited the hole and Europe won the match on 18. Although it was debatable whether Lee’s putt was a “gimme” length, Pettersen was vilified afterward.
“I have never seen anything like it in my career,” U.S. captain Juli Inkster said. “It’s just not right. You don’t do that to your peers. It’s disrespectful.”
As it turns out, Inkster might have sent Pettersen a “Thank You” note. The Americans, down 10-6 entering the final day, used “ConcessionGate” as motivation for the biggest comeback victory in Solheim history. The embattled Pettersen apologized on Instagram: “I've never felt more gutted and truly sad about what went down Sunday on the 17th at the Solheim Cup.”
But for every Pettersen predicament, there are numerous episodes of honor and sportsmanship. One of the most memorable took place at the conclusion of the 1969 Ryder Cup at Royal Birkdale. The competition had been especially contentious, with lots of gamesmanship and boorish behavior. The players nearly came to blows at one point.
With the outcome riding on their final match, Jack Nicklaus and Englishman Tony Jacklin were all square going to the par-4 18th hole. Both hit the green in two. Nicklaus then rolled his birdie putt 5 feet past the hole, while Jacklin’s attempt stopped 2 feet short. Nicklaus made his par coming back, assuring that the U.S. would retain the cup with a tie.
Meanwhile, Jacklin still faced a knee-knocker to halve the match and deny the visitors an outright victory. A miss would be a humiliating moment for the ’69 British Open champion, one that would live in Ryder Cup infamy.
But before the home-crowd hero had to ponder all of that, Nicklaus picked up Jacklin’s marker and conceded the putt, ending the acrimony and assuring that the match and the tournament ended in a draw (video: http://bit.ly/1vqrqhq).
Some U.S. members, notably captain Sam Snead, were less than enthralled. “We went over there to win, not to be good ol’ boys,” Snead said. But the gesture by Nicklaus has resonated ever since, advancing the true spirit of the matches and the game.
"We had a battle all day, and it came down to an incredible moment," Jacklin told ESPN years later. "I was as much shocked as relieved … I was expecting to have to putt it. And when I didn't have to, I was very happy about that.”
So it is in match play. Youneverknow.
Take the 1994 U.S. Amateur on the Stadium Course at TPC Sawgrass. A skinny 18-year-old kid in shorts and a straw hat, Tiger Woods, was trying to become the youngest to win the championship, and the first black ever to win.
He faced 22-year-old Oklahoma State star Trip Kuehne in the 36-hole final, and it wasn’t going well. Woods trailed from the outset – by six after 13 holes, by five with 12 holes remaining, by three with nine holes to play.
But when Woods birdied No. 16, the match was even. His tee shot at No. 17 flirted with the water on the famous island green. But instead of going in, it spun back to 14 feet, and he made the putt for birdie. His mother, Kultida, was in the gallery.
“That boy almost gave me a heart attack,” she said. “All I kept saying was, ‘God, don’t let that ball go in the water.’ That boy tried to kill me.”
When Kuehne three-putted the 18th green, Woods’ incredible comeback was complete. The following year, he came from three holes down to beat Buddy Marucci in the ’95 final. And the following year, he rallied from two down with three to play and beat Steve Scott in the ’96 final, his third U.S. Amateur title.
It’s funny. Since turning pro, Woods has won 14 major championships, but he never has come from behind to win one. Then again, that’s stroke play.
In match play, youneverknow.
Dan O’Neill, who covered golf for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch from 1989 to 2017, is an editorial consultant on golf for Fox Sports. His articles have appeared in publications such as Golfweek, Golf World, Golf.com and The Memorial magazine. Email: email@example.com; Twitter: @WWDOD