It was becoming abundantly clear in 1986 that if you wanted to win a golf major then experience helped. In April, Jack Nicklaus had rolled back the years to claim his sixth US Masters, the 46-year-old adding an 18th major to his mightily impressive CV. Two months later, it would be the turn of another man over 40 to win his final major.
“I always prided myself on being able to handle pressure and the ability to control myself with a chance to win a tournament,” Floyd revealed after his US Open win. “In that Sunday round at Westchester I totally blew up. On the long ride out here I talked to Maria about it. We took a bad situation and made it positive.”
Floyd had never won the US Open, with just two top-ten finishes since his 1964 debut. If he was feeling mentally fragile, then the Shinnecock Hills course could easily have pushed him over the edge. Set up in true US Open fashion, the venue was hosting its first US Open in 90 years. Nicklaus, with a glint in his eye, seemed to be relishing the challenge.
“They’ll be screaming about this course,” Nicklaus said. “Screaming about how tough it is. Screaming about the rough. Screaming about everything. You see, 90 percent of the players here have never played a course this hard.” He was not alone in thinking that experience would play a big part on a course that could bring a player to his knees.
In the Times, Mitchell Platts hinted that the young guns of American golf, such as Bob Tway and Hal Sutton, could use the tournament as part of their golfing education. “The feeling, too, is that only the proven champions will possess the courage and self-belief to sustain the iron will that will be required to win what could be the finest US Open in history.”
Tway did his best to defy this prediction on a savage first day played in high winds and torrential rain. “This course is tough if it’s calm and 80 degrees,” Tway stated, after his level par 70 saw him lead at the end of the first round. “Today you could only think about survival.” Very true. For some, simply saving face was a tricky prospect. In all, 45 players would shoot 80 or more.
Floyd would shoot a stunning round on the Sunday, but come the final reckoning he would indicate the importance of surviving that opening day. “Thursday in the inclement weather here was as trying a day as shooting that blowout round at Westchester, but I kept trying. I won the Open on Thursday. I played terribly, I had no feel, but I survived. I had 25 putts, my chipping and putting carried me.”
Fortunately for all concerned, conditions eased up over the next few days. Greg Norman, who shot 71 in the opening round, at one point held a five-shot lead, after four birdies in the first eight holes. A disappointing back nine brought him back to the field, but his 68 gave him a three-shot lead, the Australian the only player under par after 36 holes.
Norman’s closest challengers were Lee Trevino and Denis Watson, the latter trying to bury the ghosts of twelve months before. Floyd matched Norman’s 68 to sit four behind the leader, but the round of the day was shot by Joey Sindelar, who set a course record of 66, and was forced to cancel his flight home that he had booked after his opening 81.
Sindelar would not complete the miracle comeback, though, as the headlines were again dominated by Norman on moving day. An altercation with a spectator on the 14th tee threatened to overshadow the fact that at the end of the round the Great White Shark had managed to complete the second part of his 1986 Saturday Slam.
Accused of choking by a member of the gallery, Norman stepped over the rope to confront his critic. “If he'd said that to me in the car park, he'd have had a face full of fingers,” Norman said angrily at the end of the round. With the way things went for Norman on the Sunday, it was probably as well this row didn’t break out 24 hours later.
The pack were lurking behind Norman. Sutton shot 66 on Saturday and was one stroke off the lead alongside Trevino; Tway was just two behind; five players, including Floyd and Watson were three adrift; and Tom Watson, Ben Crenshaw and Bernhard Langer were definitely in the running a further shot back.
Trying to summarise the events of that final day succinctly is probably easier than playing Shinnecock Hills in the wind and rain. But only just. On a thrilling Sunday, ten different players held or shared the lead; at one stage seven men were tied at the top of the leaderboard. Cracking entertainment for anyone in the UK who watched the live coverage on Channel 4 into the early hours of Monday morning.
Lanny Wadkins and Chip Beck set the target, both shooting 65 and finishing one-over-par, and throughout the day the pair looked like they were sitting pretty, as one by one the challengers dropped out. Norman’s 75 killed his chances; Tway and Mark McCumber took 7 at the par-5 16th when in contention; Trevino and Sutton just couldn’t get on a roll to threaten; two bogeys in three holes on the back nine did for Crenshaw.
Floyd would be the last man standing. Trailing Payne Stewart by a shot playing the 12th, the next two holes would prove pivotal. With Stewart destined for a birdie, Floyd’s par saving putt from 20-feet was crucial. When Floyd birdied the next and Stewart dropped a shot, the pair were level, and the momentum was with the elder statesman.
Stewart would bogey three more holes, as Floyd righted the wrong of the previous week, on his way to becoming the oldest US Open champion at 43. His 14 pars and 4 birdies in the final round gave him a one-under-par total of 279, the only man to finish under par in the tournament.
“This was a phenomenal experience for me to be able to achieve one of my greatest desires since I became a professional golfer 25 years ago,” Floyd admitted. “I am especially proud of the way I won it, coming from behind. I've always had the reputation of being a front-runner, so this was a wonderful experience.”
“Today I felt in complete control of myself. Everything was in sync and my rhythm was in the right mode,” Floyd continued. “People tell me when I get like that that I get a certain look, like no one can beat me. Today I know I had that look.” Maria agreed, recalling how she saw her husband from behind the ropes, and saw that look in his eyes.
“I just felt that I had to do it today because it was probably my last chance,” a tearful Floyd commented on collecting the trophy and $115,000 cheque. Norman would break his major duck at Turnberry, and Tway memorably denied the Australian to clinch the US PGA later in the season. But for now, it was the turn of the golden oldies.