Much has been written about the manner in which champion Brooks Koepka handled the pressure of a U.S. Open on the back nine Sunday at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club. He performed with equanimity. “Pressure,” though, can be a relative term.
Forty-one years earlier, in 1977, Hubert Green won the U.S. Open at Southern Hills in Tulsa, Okla., where the torrid June heat dialed up significantly once Green stepped off the 14th green in the final round. It had little to do with the temperature.
There, Green was pulled aside by Sandy Tatum, chairman of the U.S. Golf Association’s competition committee, and a Tulsa police officer overseeing course security and told that a woman had called the Oklahoma FBI office to say that Green would be shot during his final round.
What did Green decide to do? He played under the threat of death, even through the uneasiness that he thought he was about to be shot as he stroked his putt on the 15th green. He kept playing and eventually won, reasoning that at a U.S. Open, "a man can only be so scared."
Green, who died Tuesday night at age 71 in Birmingham, Ala., was tougher than fresh sandpaper. He had a home-concocted, makeshift swing, his hands starting low and the club held flat, used a hickory-shafted blade putter and split-hand grip, and chipped with the touch of a master jeweler. It was a combination that led him to two major titles (1977 U.S. Open and 1985 PGA) among 19 PGA Tour victories and, in 2007, an overdue induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame, entering through the veterans category.
Green battled oral/throat cancer for 15 years. Treatments made his voice gravelly at times, soft at others, but he always spoke his mind. He’d talk sometimes in rapid-fire spurts that could be difficult to follow. He was honest and candid to a fault. Green also had a sneaky, dry sense of humor.
Shortly before his hall induction, when radiation had atrophied the muscles in his left shoulder – tightening up a turn that never had been pronounced – Green quipped, “I was never long. Now, my short game is my tee shots.”
He once was paired at the old Bob Hope Classic in Palm Springs, Calif., with Hope, U.S. President Gerald Ford and Clint Eastwood. A starter whom Green knew named Moose approached him on the first tee and told Green that his group would have to keep pace of play moving that day.
“Let me get this straight,” Green later recalled in Golf Digest. “You want me to tell the host of our tournament, the president of the United States and Dirty Harry to pick up their balls and get moving? I think not. We’re not playing fast, and we’re doing it very slowly, if you get my drift.”
When Green no longer could compete as he wanted to (he made only a handful of starts after 2008), he quietly stepped away from the Champions Tour. He never wanted to be a “filler,” one of those guys who shows up and finishes at the bottom. That wasn’t his style. It was Green, and not the fictional NASCAR driver Ricky Bobby of “Talladega Nights” fame, who famously said, “Second place is first loser, in my mind.”
Green, competing in an era that gave us Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Raymond Floyd and Tom Watson, always was a gritty competitor who let opponents know he was there. They knew he wouldn’t back down. Green won three consecutive PGA Tour starts in 1976, twice edging Nicklaus. He went 3-0 in Ryder Cup singles.
He refused to back down at Southern Hills on that torrid Sunday in 1977, winning his national open with a final-round 70 to finish at 2-under 278, holding off 1975 U.S. Open champion Lou Graham. Tom Weiskopf finished third; Watson, Nicklaus and Player all were in the top 10. Death threat and all, Green later would acknowledge he was prouder after taking down Trevino at Cherry Hills in Denver at the 1985 PGA Championship, Green’s last victory on the regular tour. Then 38, Green wasn’t mentioned among the favorites that week, but his experience would push him across the line. He was hitting his fairway woods poorly at the time, and he didn’t want to be tempted to try to reach any of Cherry Hills’ three par-5 holes in two in that final round. So, he astutely hit irons off the tee at all three par 5s.
When doctors discovered an abnormal growth on the back of Green’s tongue in April 2003, diagnosing it a month later as Stage 4 cancer, Green started his own website and titled his fight “A nine-hole match with the devil.” Know this: The devil never met a tougher foe.
Dave Stockton, who played alongside Green in the 1977 Ryder Cup, once called Green exactly the type of man with whom you’d like to step into battle.
“He wasn’t intimidated by anybody,” Stockton said. “He wasn’t intimidated by any golf course. He wore his heart and wore his emotions on his sleeve, and it rubbed some people wrong. But Hubert never said a word he didn’t believe was true.”
Shortly before his induction into the Hall of Fame in 2007, Green shared stories about his father, Albert Huey Green, a semi-pro baseball player who went on to become a doctor in Birmingham. Huey seldom praised his son, but he did impart some lessons that would stick with Hubert through his life. Huey Green told him that if you’re going to cut the grass, cut all of the grass. And if you one day choose to dig holes for a living, then dig a good hole.
Hubert Green would choose another profession, and he became good enough to reach that game’s Hall of Fame. He was an underrated player, and he seemed content to allow others to dominate the spotlight. Green never was one to focus much on the past, which served him well as a golfer. Any bad shot left him looking ahead to the next one.
“Like surviving cancer,” Green said in 2007. “You take one day at a time and keep on working at it.”
On Tuesday, Hubert Myatt Green ran out of time. Even the devil would have to call that one a hard-fought draw.
Jeff Babineau is a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America who has covered golf since 1994, writing for such publications as The Orlando Sentinel, Golfweek and Golf World. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @jeffbabz62