Date: June 14, 2018
Author: Martin Blake

Terrific two: Australia’s US Open champions


One lives in the serenity of the little town of Whitefish, Montana, content with his life in golf and never picking up a club. The other is about to bring an end to 18 years on the road and is returning to his native Melbourne.

David Graham and Geoff Ogilvy are Australia’s only two male US Open champions and they belong in the upper echelon of the game’s greats in this country.

Graham, now 72, took himself to America in 1969, settled in Texas and won two majors – the 1979 US PGA Championship and the 1981 US Open at Merion in Pennsylvania, ultimately earning a place in the World Golf Hall of Fame. He is one of a handful of Australians to be inducted.

His triumph at Merion, completed with a closing 67 that has been described as a masterpiece of clinical golf, was his greatest day.

Graham was a grinding golfer, methodical to a tee, and he hit 18 of 18 greens that day, missed only one fairway and his only bogey came with a three-putt at the fifth. It was a feat so remarkable in US Open conditions that he took a call from the legendary Ben Hogan that night to congratulate him.

“It was a course that you played cautiously and you never played aggressively which was kind of the way I liked to play,’’ he told a USGA documentary several years ago. “I stayed in the game plan. I was not gonna lose the tournament by making poor decisions.’’

Graham had started out three shots from the lead. He caught American George Burns at the 14th and went ahead with a birdie from close range, complete with an uncharacteristically theatrical fist pump, at the 15th. In the end, he won by three shots.  “It is the most significant victory in my career, so therefore it has to be the most special,’’ he said.

He was 35 at the time and he won $US50,000. It was the culmination of a career that worked on a slow burn, from the time he left school at 14 to pursue his dream of a job in the golf world, to his turning professional as a left-handed player (yes, left-handed!) and working in the shop at Riversdale Golf Club in eastern Melbourne.

Graham was a lefty until well into his teens, a fact often overlooked in his story, until he was advised to switch over by Riversdale’s legendary professional, George Naismith, who knew that Graham wrote and threw right-handed.

On Golf Australia’s Inside The Ropes podcast last year, he explained how the change occurred.  “The true story is I was leaving the driveway at Riversdale Golf Club one year, and I think I’d only been there for a year, I was hitting a few balls nearly in the dark on the practice fairway which ran parallel to the road. I was playing left-handed and he stopped the car and came out and said ‘let me watch you hit a couple of balls’.

“So I hit three or four balls left-handed down the fairway about 200 yards. He said: ‘I didn’t know you played left-handed. I don’t think you’re gonna be a very good player left-handed. I don’t ever want to see swing left-handed again. Starting tomorrow, you get yourself a set of right-handed clubs and I want to see you playing right-handed’. I looked at him and I said: ‘Yes, sir’.’’

Ogilvy’s victory in the 2006 US Open at Winged Foot in New York state was a drought-breaker for Australia. No male Australian player had won a major championship in more than a decade, since Steve Elkington’s victory in the 1995 PGA Championship.

As it often is, the Open was a last-man standing event that year, and it was the tall, angular Ogilvy, who grew up in the heart of the Melbourne sandbelt, riding his bicycle down to Cheltenham Golf Club with his clubs hooked to the back, who prevailed. Astonishingly, five-over par was his winning score.

Ogilvy, 29 at the time, hung tough all through the final round, starting a shot from the lead, getting to the top of the leaderboard early, then appearing to slide from contention with four bogeys in a seven-hole stretch. When he saw the board at the 14th, he was two shots back from Phil Mickelson, but the drama was only beginning.

At the 17th, Ogilvy chipped in from the fringe for a miraculous par after some trouble off the tee, then at the 18th, a shot from the lead, his flushed drive found a sand-filled divot in centre fairway, a piece of ill-fortune he found “pretty disappointing after the drive you’ve waited your whole life to hit’’.

Still, he kept his composure. Ogilvy had something of a reputation for testiness as an amateur; as a more-seasoned professional, he had learned how to find his emotional equilibrium, and he would surely need it soon. His lovely nine-iron pitch to Winged Foot’s par-four 18th hole landed on the putting surface but did not clear the ridge in the green, spinning back off the front, leaving him with a difficult chip.

“In the air, both Squirrel (caddie Alistair Matheson) and I thought it was going stiff,’’ he told Inside The Ropes last year.

What happened next would define his career in a sense. Ogilvy hit the best and most significant single shot of his life, a gorgeous, spinning chip up over the ridge and coming to a stop just inside two metres from the flag.  “That’s the one I will remember,’’ he said. “The one that went in on 17, if it doesn’t go in it was going to the other side of the green. There was no down-in-two there. It was 15 feet past because that’s the way the green was. But the shot at 18 was a better shot.’’

Walking up the fairway he and Matheson saw Colin Montgomerie, the veteran Scot who was also in contention, tap in for what they thought was likely a par, or at worst a bogey. In fact, Montgomerie had made double bogey six from centre fairway at the 72nd hole, the worst collapse of his major-less career.

Ogilvy calmly rolled in his par putt, became the clubhouse leader and suddenly, for the first time in an hour or so, was a chance to win outright. It left Mickelson, who was four-over and in the group behind as the only man ahead of him, and the American lefty had not only bogeyed the 17th , he had carved his tee shot into the trees on the left of the 18th.

As the Australian signed his card and Mickelson conjured arguably the worst implosion of his career, Ogilvy began to contemplate the fact that he would win. Mickelson’s adventurous approach caught another tree, and his third plugged in the greenside bunker at the 18th

Ogilvy, watching with his wife Juli and playing partner Ian Poulter in the scorers’ area, called these moments “surreal’’. Mickelson’s explosion from the trap ran all the way across the green and into deep rough, meaning that he would need to chip in to force a playoff. Then his chip from the brutally long grass scurried past the flag around the same time some officials politely asked Poulter and Ogilvy to leave the scoring area so that the American could complete his duties.

Ogilvy walked the few steps to the clubhouse, embracing his wife and Poulter, a close friend. “I had a good idea before I even got in there that I was about to win, but you kind of don’t believe it,’’ he said. “I mean, that’s the best part of sport, that’s why we watch sport, for moments like that. Athletes put up that front or that personality that they sell to the public, but in moments like that, it all goes away.’’

Ogilvy’s win was front-page news in Australia but in America, it was reported primarily as a dreadful faux pas by Mickelson, still yet to win his native Open. Both Montgomerie and Mickelson had made double bogey at the tough final hole, which was the difference. And Ogilvy had made par from a divot, and with a devilish bounce off the green, too. He had enjoyed some help from the others, and he told the media: “I think I was the beneficiary of a little bit of charity.’’

In the days and months afterward, Mickelson reached out to Ogilvy on this point, aware that the Australian (who was ranked 8th in the world afterward, and in the top 10 for most of the next four years) had not been given due credit.  “We had a few chats about it pretty soon after it, him just making sure ‘you know, don’t’ feel guilty about it. It’s nothing to do with you that I messed it up’. He’s been really good, really gracious.’’

No one has been able to adequately explain Mickelson’s mindset at the 72nd hole – the driver off the tee when an iron would have sufficed, and the crazy-brave second shot from the trees, going for the green. Even a lay-up and bogey would have at least forced a playoff. But as Ogilvy noted, that’s Phil the maverick. “When Phil gets in that mindset you can’t stop him. He decided he was going to hit it on the green and make one of history’s great pars on the 18th at the US Open. That’s the way he thinks.

“He wouldn’t have been thinking about consequences; he was just thinking about what he was going to do. Which is probably why more often than not when he has a chance to win a tournament, he does. He’s not afraid, he doesn’t back down.’’

Ogilvy added three World Golf Championships to his resume over the next few years, got to the top three in the world, went into a lull then found his mojo again. He almost won the Masters in 2011 when Charl Schwartzel birdied the final four holes to blow everyone away, ultimately finishing fourth.

He and Juli and their three children are will be back in Melbourne by the end of this year, where he has bought into a golf architecture business with Mike Clayton, following his other passion. But from a playing perspective, that day at Winged Foot stands as his legacy. For the US Open has a character of its own, and there is a reverence afforded to its champions.

“It changes people’s perspective of you as a golfer,’’ he said. “You get a level of respect, whether it’s warranted or not. People are different around you for a long time.’’