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Hinkle returns to scene of tree controversy

A quarter of a century since it appeared overnight at the U.S. Open, the Black Hill spruce still stands sentinel at Inverness Club.

It has served its purpose: thwarting a journeyman pro named Lon Hinkle and anyone else who dares to outsmart the U.S. Golf Association -- the sport's blue-blazered ruling body.

At the 1979 U.S. Open, the tree stole a lot of the thunder from eventual winner Hale Irwin and labeled Hinkle as a maverick to some and a cheater to others.

Hinkle will return to Inverness for this week's U.S. Senior Open, touching off another wave of questions, jokes and nostalgia. The tree has grown in some memories to a gigantic redwood. In truth, it was about 15 or 20 feet tall when it made its appearance.

``In a row of 60- or 70-year-old trees, it looked pretty puny,'' Hinkle said with a chuckle. ``But it's all mine.''

It all began with the opening round of the 79th Open, set at a classic old, tree-lined course set on the outskirts of Toledo.

Hinkle and playing partners Greg Norman and Chi Chi Rodriguez were early starters and arrived at the par-5 eighth tee on Thursday. As they waited for the group in front to hit their second shots from the fairway on the 528-yard dogleg hole, Hinkle noticed that the players ahead were hitting them at a right angle to their drives.

``I started looking at the hole and noticed it was a wide-open shot from the 17th fairway,'' Hinkle said. ``Chi Chi got pretty animated, as only Chi Chi can. He got real excited by the idea.''

Hinkle stared down the eighth fairway, then refocused on the 17th fairway while imagining a line to the eighth green from the landing area of each. Then he adjusted his stance so he was hitting the ball at a 45 degree angle left of where the tee box was pointing him.

``I estimated what I thought it would take to get to the middle of the 17th fairway, maybe 230 or 240 yards, and I hit a 1-iron to there,'' he said. ``My caddie and I walked down to the ball, and we had no idea what the distance was to the eighth green. I picked out a 2-iron and hit it into the middle of the green and two-putted for an easy birdie.''

Rodriguez also took the shortcut and made par.

``We never noticed the opening,'' said Tom Fazio, who had been brought in to tweak the course design for the 1979 Open.

Hinkle completed his round in a five-way tie for the lead after a 1-under-par 70. When he went to the interview tent, he calmly recited the details of his birdies, his bogeys and his happiness at being atop the leaderboard. When he got to the description of how he shortened No. 8 by about 60 yards, the reporters knew they had a good story.

``They made a really big deal out of it,'' Hinkle said.

By the end of the day, Hinkle's cagey move dominated the headlines and the talk in Inverness's wood-paneled locker room, not to mention the meetings of tournament officials. The USGA, which sets up courses for its events, was not amused.

Jim Hand, chairman of the USGA's Competition Committee, said Hinkle's shortcut would hold up play and could be a danger to spectators. He also acknowledged there was no precedent for changing a course in the middle of a major championship.

``There will be put into the left end of the tee tonight a tree which will hopefully prevent this condition,'' Hand ruled.

The USGA contacted Dr. Bob Yoder, Inverness' longtime greens chairman, and asked him a question. Could he go out and buy a large tree to block the shortcut? Oh, and could he have it in place before the second round?

Yoder called Bancroft Evergreen Nursery to see if the owner had any trees that might work. She said she did -- a Black Hill spruce about 20 feet tall that she was trying to get rid of. But she also said she didn't have a way of planting it.

Yoder paid her $500, then contacted a tree service in Detroit -- an hour away -- because it had the equipment needed to plant it.

At 5 a.m. Friday, before the first golfer had appeared at the course, the tree was planted.

The Black Hills spruce -- one of the most popular types of Christmas trees -- can grow to 100 feet. It was the reason that the Black Hills of South Dakota got their name; from a distance, the plains looked like black hills because there were so many evergreens sprouting from the landscape.

Now, suddenly, a tree grew in Toledo.

Word of the transplant spread around the course before Hinkle, Norman and Rodriguez got to the eighth tee in the second round.

``It was as big a tree as you could plant,'' Hinkle said.

Not a man to shirk from a challenge, Hinkle decided that he wouldn't let the USGA make him back down. He was 4-over through his first seven holes and wasn't in a good mood to begin with.

Rodriguez, again paired with Hinkle, hit first.

``I sharpened up a pencil and put my ball on the top of the pencil and hit it over that tree,'' Rodriguez recalled from his home in Puerto Rico. ``It made then-commissioner Joe Dey so mad that he came over and said, 'You guys are holding up the game.' And I said, 'No, we're waiting for the guys on the green to get off first.'''

Dey did not laugh.

Then, Hinkle shot.

``There was maybe a couple hundred people at the tee, waiting to see what I would do,'' he said. ``I used the full size of the teeing ground and went to the left corner of the tee box. The tree wasn't really even in the way. This time, I used a driver and flew it over the tree and had only a 6-iron to the green.''

Again he made birdie, but it was his last hurrah. He ended up 20 shots behind Irwin.

Still, Inverness members don't point out any Irwin landmarks to their guests. Almost every time a group outing reaches the No. 8 tee, someone asks, ``Which one is the Hinkle tree?''

``Once in a while, when I'm playing on a Sunday with my friends, someone will mention it,'' Yoder said, proud to be a part of the story. ``You can talk all you want about controversy, but Jim Hand said it was the best publicity they could have gotten.''

Hinkle won three PGA Tour events and finished in the top 10 in 57. He earned more than $1.5 million traveling the world. After successfully going through qualifying earlier this week, he's looking forward to returning to Inverness.

``It'll be interesting going back,'' he said.

Rodriguez said the USGA should have held a spot for Hinkle in the Senior Open even if he hadn't made the field on his own.

``They should invite him back just to see how high that tree has gotten,'' Rodriguez said with a laugh.

The tree is now approaching 30 feet and continues to thrive.

``A few years after that Open, I played in an outing at Inverness,'' Hinkle said. ``The locker room and clubhouse is like a museum. They have a history of golf on the walls, all the great players who have played there and the championships they hosted in the 1930s, '40s and thereafter. Every legendary player is represented: Hagen, Sarazen, Snead, Hogan, Jones, Nelson, Nicklaus.

``I walked around and looked at all the pictures and clubs and scorecards. All of a sudden, I came across a picture of me at the eighth tee,'' he said. ``When all's said and done, I'm very proud and honored to be a small part of it all.''

 

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