Congressional Country Club wasn’t hosting PGA Tour events half a century ago, but it did serve as a sectional qualifying site for the 1959 U.S. Open. Among those making the cut at Old Blue were Sam Snead, Arnold Palmer and local amateur Deane Beman, the future Tour commissioner, who was the reigning British Amateur champion.
It might seem strange that stars like Snead and Palmer should have had to qualify, but the USGA was a lot stingier with exemptions back then. It only gave out 19 that year — to the previous five Open champs, the top 10 finishers (and ties) in the ’58 Open, the PGA and U.S. Amateur winners and the club pro at the host course, Winged Foot (Claude Harmon, whose son Butch would later tutor Tiger Woods).
Worse, the USGA instituted a new policy in ’59 that required non-exempt players to endure not one but two 36-hole qualifiers. Snead, who had just turned 47 – and was still good enough to shoot a 59 two weeks earlier – was none too pleased. A four-time Open runner-up but never the champion, he groused that it “takes too much time and costs too much money” to earn a spot in the field. The event, he sniffed, “is tops for name but not moneywise. Prestige is all it is.”
Slammin’ Sammy almost didn’t qualify in the drizzly conditions at Congressional, which measured a mere 6,558 yards in those days. Though he wasn’t aware of it at the time, he needed a birdie on the last hole or he would have been out of luck. Fortunately, he hit a pitch to within five feet and rolled in the putt.
Not that he was all that anxious to tangle with Winged Foot. “They’ve gone all overboard fixing up these [Open] courses, trying to make them tough,” he said. “The way they fix them up now, Bobby Jones or Walter Hagen would have shot over 300. Over 300!”
Snead, for his part, wound up shooting 287, 7 over, and tying for eighth with Ben Hogan. He never finished that high in the Open again.
And how much did he earn for 72 holes of qualifying and 72 holes of Open play? All of $1,350.
Maybe he was right about the Open not being very cost effective.
- Dan Daly