Ken Still felt omnipresent discord as soon as he arrived at Hazeltine National Golf Club for the 1970 U.S. Open.
Hazeltine was a new Robert Trent Jones layout in Chaska, Minnesota, and the second championship course in the greater Minneapolis area. Nearby Minikahda Club hosted the 1916 U.S. Open.
The defining feature of Hazeltine was its abundance of dogleg holes and blind shots.
What it became was a dogleg drag. Golfers bickered constantly about them — and that was even before the tournament started.
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Until the first round began, Still wasn’t quite sure if his red-faced PGA Tour colleagues were pulling his leg, or even trying to psyche him out.
“I didn’t know if it was negativity,” the Fircrest native said, “or gamesmanship.”
Still took it all in stride, and strolled to his best finish at a major championship — fifth — and the best U.S. Open finish ever for a golfer born in Pierce County.
Totton Heffelfinger, the former president of the United States Golf Association, wanted to build a course that could host a national championship. He convinced his membership to hire Jones, who designed the curving course adjacent to Lake Hazeltine.
“He said he was trying to out-dogleg (golf architect) Dick Wilson, who was his rival at the time,” the designer’s son, Robert Trent Jones Jr., said.
As for Jones Jr. — the Chambers Bay architect — he is in a similar situation his father was in 45 years ago. In June, links-style Chambers Bay will be the first new site since Hazeltine to host the U.S. Open.
“This course is something new, and it is like a play going to Broadway — you just don’t know how they are going to react,” Jones Jr. said about Chambers Bay. “The players will have their comments. I am ready for a few shots. I am on defense.”
Still first played Chambers Bay the day before it opened in June 2007.
“More guys will like it than dislike it,” Still said. “Plus, we are talking about the United States Open. As an American, when you play it, that flag goes higher. You are trying to win your country’s open.”
Hazeltine, which opened in 1962, hosted a U.S. Women’s Open in 1966. In 1970, the men got to play their open on the course.
They did not embrace it.
Dave Hill was the most vocal critic, saying “just because you cut the grass and put up flags doesn’t mean you have a golf course. What it lacks is 80 acres of corn and a few cows. My two kids could lay out a better course than that. The man who designed this golf course held the blueprints upside down.”
Bob Rosburg found the catchiest way to slight the course. “It’s like playing in a kennel, with all the doglegs.”
Even Jack Nicklaus, who rarely admonished anybody or anything publicly, could not help himself: “It’s like playing blindman’s bluff.”
The remarks certainly irritated the course’s creator — so much that he asked his son to walk all 18 holes before the tournament began.
“Each hole, he asked me, ‘Bobby, can you see the target?’ ” Jones Jr. said. “I could see each shot. And he asked, ‘You can see all the shots, so they are not blind shots?’ ”
The elder Jones even informally polled certain reporters during the tournament about the fairness of each hole.
“He finally stopped, and said, ‘Maybe Nicklaus is blind,’ ” Jones Jr. said.
Meanwhile, Still stuck to meticulous preparation with young caddie Buddy Greenbush, who was a teenager when the two teamed up for a fourth-place showing at the 1967 Minnesota Classic. They also won the 1969 Greater Milwaukee Open together - Still’s second PGA Tour victory.
Much of his game plan focused on driving the golf ball straight and cutting off a large chunk of each dogleg.
“Back then, I was carrying it between 250 to 270 yards off the tee. With that, I measured all the correct angles of the doglegs from the tee, so I knew which lines to take,” Still said. “Our game plan was good.”
Cool and extremely windy first-round conditions only amplified the hatred spewed toward Hazeltine. Half the field did not break 80, including Nicklaus (81) and Gary Player (80). Arnold Palmer shot 79.
Still nearly holed out from the greenside bunker at the finishing hole, leading to an easy par and an opening 78.
“A 78 was good,” Still said. “That is why I was not disappointed. I just kept plugging away.”
Over the final three rounds, Still sliced up Hazeltine with his trusty MacGregor 693 wooden driver off the tee and reliable TP Mills putter, handling the slick greens with ease. He took home a fifth-place check of $7,000.
After that opening 78, Still settled down to shoot three consecutive rounds of 71 to finish at 3-over 291. His 213 total over the final 54 holes was tied for the third-lowest in the field.
Tony Jacklin won the championship, becoming the first Englishman in 50 years to win a U.S. Open.
After the tournament, Hazeltine went through a series of renovations to smooth many of its extremely crooked holes.
“I loved the course,” Still said. “I would have loved it even if I had not finished fifth. I loved it because I attacked it properly.”