Prime turf for one-round wonders Upstarts have had flings with fame and notoriety through annals of Open

THE BALTIMORE SUN

BETHESDA -- The leader boards at Pebble Beach for the opening round of the 1992 U.S. Open had an unfamiliar name on top of them and an unprecedented feat in progress. DILLARD, they read, followed by a succession of red numbers to signify consecutive birdies from holes one through six.

"As I got to the fifth hole, people started coming up over the hill, asking 'Who is this guy?" Andy Dillard recalled recently. "I was kind of laughing because after all the places where I had been, here I was leading the U.S. Open. I was also flat broke. I had 400 bucks to my name and I had charged a plane ticket there for my girlfriend."

Dillard, then an obscure 30-year-old mini-tour player from Oklahoma, would start his trek back to reality that day and finish at 4-under 68. But unlike so many one-day wonders who have taken the lead at major golf championships and disappeared into obscurity as quickly as they came, Dillard hung around a bit longer.

After shooting 70 in the second round, a player who had earned part of his income hustling games at famed Oak Tree Country Club finally vanished with a third-round 79. He would wind up tied for 17th, one spot away from automatic qualification for the next year's Masters and two spots off being invited back to the 1993 Open.

"It was very gratifying," said Dillard, still an obscure mini-tour player who failed to qualify for this year's Open. "If I never play golf again, if I quit tomorrow, I could always say that I held a U.S. Open record [for birdies to start a tournament] and finished in the top 20 in the only major I ever played."

His brief fling with fame had both positives and negatives attached. The people at Titlelist who saw him on television wearing one of their caps gave him a check for more than the $18,069 he made in the tournament. But some of the folks back in Edmond whom he had taken for a few bucks on the golf course stopped playing him.

"After that, I had trouble getting games," Dillard said with a laugh.

When the 97th Open begins Thursday here at Congressional Country Club, there will be a handful of players in the field of 156 trying to do what Dillard did five years ago. Or what Lee Mackey did in 1950. Or what Roland Hancock did in 1928. Or maybe what Francis Ouimet did in 1913.

Randy Wylie will be one of them.

Wylie, 32, has lived the life of a professional golfer far removed and much more typical than many of the big-name players in the field. A former college player at Texas A&M;, Wylie has scratched out a living on mini-tours in the U.S., as well as in South Africa and, most recently, Asia.

"I think it's possible [to win the Open]," said Wylie, who will be playing in the Open for the second time and will play a practice round today with Nicklaus -- Gary Nicklaus. "That's the great thing about the tradition of this tournament. Everybody has the same chance. I think it would be extremely hard, but I think it can be done."

Wylie's first Open, at Medinah outside Chicago in 1990, was an interesting experience. He shot an opening-round 70, and made the cut with a second-round 75. He wound up 68th -- well, last -- among those who hung around for the weekend.

As he stood outside the pro shop yesterday, a young woman came up to Wylie with a piece of paper to sign. He thought it was another form to fill out. Actually she was looking for his autograph.

Making the cut

It was at Merion Golf Club in Ardmore, Pa., that Lee Mackey, at the time a 21-year-old unemployed club pro from Birmingham, Ala., set a U.S. Open record with an opening-round 64 to take a four-shot lead. After being asked several questions by the media, Mackey had one for Joe Dey, then the USGA's general secretary and later the commissioner of the PGA Tour.

"What do you think will make the cut?" said Mackey, who would despite shooting 81 the next day.

Hancock got a lot further, but not quite far enough. The 21-year-old Hancock needed 5s on the last two holes to beat the legendary Bobby Jones and the near legendary Johnny Farrell at Olympia Fields in Matteson, Ill.. But Hancock took 6 on each, and Farrell went on to beat Jones in a 36-hole playoff. Hancock played in five more Opens and never made the cut.

Perhaps the most famous player to come out of nowhere at the Open was Ouimet. A 20-year-old amateur who grew up across the street from The Country Club in Brookline, Mass., Ouimet beat two British stars, Harry Vardon and Ted Ray, there in an 18-hole playoff.

Other well-known amateurs have done the same, most coming in an era when amateurs were often even more accomplished than pros. There was Chick Evans, who in winning the 1916 Open in Minneapolis became the first player ever to break 140 for 36 holes. There was Johnny Goodman, who had beaten Jones in the 1929 Amateur, winning the Open outside Chicago in 1933.

Some relatively obscure pros have also won the Open. There was Sam Parks, a local club pro who often practiced at Oakmont before he went to work and won there in 1935. There was Jack Fleck, a fringe PGA Tour player, using a set of Ben Hogan signature clubs while beating Hogan in a playoff at the Olympic Club in San Francisco in 1955.

Even Steve Jones, whose comeback from a career-threatening finger injury was highlighted by last year's Open victory at Oakland Hills outside Detroit, won before and since. "The great thing about the Open is that anyone can win," said Jones, who will be looking to become the first player to repeat since Curtis Strange in 1988 and 1989.

Moments in spotlight

When the movie "Tin Cup" was released last year, Tommy Valentine heard from friends all over the country. They compared the rise to sudden celebrity of Roy McAvoy, the driving-range pro played by Kevin Costner, to what Valentine did in the 1981 Open at Merion.

"They were saying, 'That is you' and 'We know where this movie came from," said Valentine.

It wasn't quite the same, since Valentine had played the tour beginning in 1977 and would, on and off, through 1989. But the part about the fast lifestyle of Costner's character impeding on his career was what many felt about Valentine, a former All-America at Georgia.

Two weeks before the Open, Valentine was on the verge of a breakthrough. He nearly beat Tom Watson in a playoff at the Atlanta Golf Classic, losing on the third hole of sudden death after the then world's No. 1 player holed out putts of 10 and 30 feet for par.

"I then hit my tee shot on the next hole in the lip of a trap," said Valentine, who is now a head pro at a club in Grosse Pointe, Mich. "You never know what kind of difference winning a PGA event would have on your life."

Or winning the Open. After being in the hunt the first two days with rounds of 69 and 68, Valentine found himself paired with Jack Nicklaus for the third round. "The introduction they gave him on the tee seemed like it took 30 minutes," recalled Valentine. "And I just stuck my tee in the ground and hit."

Despite hitting out of bounds on the 14th hole, Valentine wound up shooting 2-over 72. He was still only a couple of shots off the lead going into the 11th hole Sunday. After a good drive on the par-5, Valentine had a similar decision to the one the character played by Coster had in the movie.

With his ball in heavy rough after his second shot, Valentine had only 128 yards to the green.

"I should have laid up, but I went into the water and double-bogeyed," said Valentine. Valentine wound up three-putting the 12th hole for bogey and shooting 77 to finish tied for 26th. Though he would come in ninth in the PGA later that year at the Atlanta Athletic Club and finish the year ranked 39th in earnings, Valentine's moment in the spotlight had passed.

"It was a great two weeks," said Valentine.

Bill Murchison's moment didn't even last that long.

"I led the Open for a couple of hours," said Murchison, recalling a portion of the first round two years ago at Shinnecock Hills Golf Club on Long Island.

Murchison, then a 37-year-old Nike Player with eight children, found himself in the same situation as many other one-day wonders. Despite the fact that he was "hooking them in practice", Murchison got it to 2-under early and was 1-under through 11 holes. He then fell apart with a double bogey on 13, a bogey on 14, before finishing with a quadruple bogey and a 6-over 76 on his scorecard.

"It's like a roller coaster at an amusement park," said Murchison, now the father of nine who missed the cut that year but came back to make the cut last year at Oakland Hills. "It's fast. It's fun. But it's over before you know it."

Pub Date: 6/10/97

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