At noon yesterday an all-points bulletin was disseminated among the woodland creatures in the vicinity of Congressional Country Club. Squirrels were to stay in their holes, baby birds were ordered to their nests. Throughout the 484 acres of Congressional, tiny animals could be seen huddled together in the remote branches of great oaks and beneath the safest bushes.
Finally, nearly six hours later, an old owl near the 16th green relayed a message to a wandering grackle who told a chipmunk and soon the word spread that it was safe to come out again. The bombardment was over. The bears could stop shaking.
Fred Couples had made an 18-inch putt to win the Kemper Open.
Finally, somebody had a shot so simple he couldn't hash it up.
Couples' tap-in birdie on the second hole of a five-way playoff--against Scott Simpson, T.C. Chen, Gil Morgan and Barry Jaeckel--ended one of the longest, most complexly theatrical and most ludicrous days of full-retreat golf in the history of the PGA Tour.
"I'm just glad it was that close and no farther," said Couples, who'd seen Simpson miss a four-foot par putt on the 72nd hole, which would have won this slapstick tournament.
As far as can be determined from the PGA Tour's spotty records, there's never been a playoff involving more than five players, and there's never been a tour-event winner who shot a worse final round than Couples' scattershot 77, a score that gave him a one-under-par 287 total. "I definitely choked. I'll be the first to admit it," said the disarming Couples. "(But) I'm thrilled to death."
It's an even safer bet that no trio of last-group leaders has ever staggered through as agonizing and interminably embarrassing a final round as Couples, Simpson and Chen, who shot 77, 77 and 76--each begging the others to take the cash and crystal. Of the 79 other players in the field, 63 shot better than 77 and seven more tied it.
"It's one of the biggest disappointments of my life," said a stunned Simpson, his eyes glazed from strain, "because I could have won so easily."
Couples' splendid deuce on the 183-yard par-3 16th gave the 23-year-old his first victory in three pro seasons, plus a $72,000 prize.
As Couples saw his putt disappear into the cup, his wife came running. Over the rough, through the traps and into her husband's arms came blond, blue-eyed Deborah Morgan-Couples, tennis professional, in her little blue dress and her white cowboy hat. The flying four-limb embrace she whipped on her husband was enough to make a moose take a tranquilizer.
It was the perfect end to a day that was both comic and dramatic for 35,000 spectators, painful and even humiliating to the participants, and hyperbolic in every respect. It also brought sad thoughts to many a player who could or should have won.
The Taiwanese rookie Chen, whose slow play was principally responsible for leaving three open holes ahead of the last group, bogeyed the 16th hole, then double-bogeyed the relatively easy 17th to fall from the lead that he had held or shared for most of the day. His demise brought little sympathy from those who watched him line up 70-foot putts from all four directions on the compass.
In truth, Chen was the last to start folding, playing the first 10 holes in par; however, at the 11th, the driver slipped in Chen's hand and he hit a 125-yard hook that ended five yards from the 10th green. That piece of slapstick started a slide that became a nosedive. At the 16th, he bladed a sand shot over the green, then chili-dipped a chip and had to make a nine-foot putt for bogey. At the 17th, he drove into rough, air-mailed the green by 20 yards with a five-iron shot, then three-putted. His response to every misfortune was a practiced, reflexive grin: shank drive, smile; miss putt, bow to crowd.
Simpson bogeyed four of the last six regulation holes after taking the lead alone with a birdie at the 12th; he climaxed his car-crash round by missing that remember-it-forever one-pace putt on the 18th. "I read it go straight and it broke right," said Simpson who, on the first playoff hole--the 554-yard par-5 15th, had a free run at a flat 15-foot putt for all the cash after Couples, Morgan and Chen had all tapped in their par putts after near misses for birdie. "That putt on the first playoff hole looked good all the way."
Even Couples said, "I don't know how that one stayed out. It looked like it rolled right over the hole."
When Simpson missed his apparently "routine" putt at the 18th to force the playoff, Jaeckel was drinking in the bar and Morgan had his clubs all packed in his car. In fact, as the leaders played the 16th, Lon Hinkle told Jaeckel, "Hey, Barry, you better not have too many of those. You might be in a playoff."
When Jaeckel arrived last on the tee for the playoff, he said, "Good luck, boys. Anybody got a beer?" then hit his drive dead left into a tree that might never have been hit before. "That's me," he said. After a chip back to the fairway, Jaeckel took bogey and was the only player eliminated on the first playoff hole.
Others with aching heads will be George Burns (remember him?) who, as it proved, could have won with three 74s after his opening 64. Instead, he had 77-75-74 for 290, 13th place and $7,733.33. Burns may have felt like David Ogrin (296) who walked down the 18th fairway yesterday waving a white towel tied to his club and announcing, "Congressional wins. I surrender."
Almost lost in the wild shuffle was the fact that Craig Stadler (75--291, tie for 16th), could have won this tournament for the third straight year if he had shot a humble 70 in the last round. Andy Bean (72), John Mahaffey (76) and Burns (74) could say the same. More surprising, consistent Tom Kite (75--289) needed only an even-par 72 yesterday to win outright.
In the end, it was Couples--who drove the ball into ankle-deep rough three times, who hit two other drives so deep into the trees that he had to wedge back to the fairway, who sliced an iron shot off the forehead of a spectator at the 15th hole, who missed shot putts and went into funks--who survived.
Only those who take on mammoth challenges--like playing Congressional at its toughest on national TV--know how difficult a day like this can be to a player of modest natural talents like Couples. His last victory in a golf tournament was in the Washington State Open in 1978.
To the throngs at Congressional, this was a day for humor, a goofy sweaty day for the shaking of heads in disbelief. There was Couples' bubbly wife, smuggled inside the gallery ropes, murmuring between shots, "Oh, this could change his whole career," then screaming, "Way to go, babycakes. I love you." And there was the guy in the rainbow wig yelling a split second after every playoff tee shot, "Praise the Lord."
However, to the men inside the ropes, this was not a day for easy jokes, but for the hardest, cruelest sort of athletic work. Listen to Couples, a victor so exhausted he hardly seemed to know he'd won.
"It was a long day . . . I birdied the first hole, (but), after that, it was all mainly a struggle . . . All the pressure heaps down on the last few holes . . . (None) of the three of us wanted to win in regulation . . . Every shot felt like the toughest shot of the year . . . When I bogeyed the 15th, I felt like I'd lost all chance. I felt like cryin' on 17 (also a bogey) . . . It's just a lot of pressure. The people know it and you know it and they'll let you know it . . . When I quit college (Houston) to turn pro, my parents didn't think it was too good a move. Now, I gotta call 'em and see what they say."
They'll probably say Couples should get a good night's sleep. He has to get up before dawn on this morning so he can make his early tee-off time at Bethesda Country Club. He's trying to qualify for next week's U.S. Open.