OAKMONT, Pa. — Every once in a while, someone at the U.S. Open has the audacity to shockingly drop the “f” word. Danny Willett, the Masters champion, did just that during his news conference yesterday. He actually described the Open and the diabolical 2016 site Oakmont as “fun.”
Willett will have a long way to go, though, to match the fun that was had at this very site at this very challenging tournament by a Long Island club pro who once set the record at what some say is golf’s toughest course. Gene Borek, then of Pine Hollow Country Club in East Norwich, was on top of the world for a day at the 1973 U.S. Open.
It is one of the most forgotten great rounds in Open history: Great because his 65 beat a record that had not been broken in the previous 20 years and forgotten because Johnny Miller eclipsed it two days later with a final-round 63 that made him the champion. No matter. Among people who know golf and Oakmont, Borek’s 65 still stands tall. So does his reputation, seven years after his death.
“I’m going to break down, talking about him. He was a great man,” said Donny Jarvis, teaching pro at Wind Watch in Hauppauge, who got his start in the golf business when he was 12, selling balls that cleared the fence at Pine Hollow, into his backyard.
“One day, this very tall, burly guy comes up to me and said, ‘Young man, would you please not sell balls to my members? I’m the pro here,’ ” Jarvis said on the phone between lessons yesterday. But Borek was not unfair to the young entrepreneur. The pro bought the kid’s entire collection for his driving range. “Then he gave me a job,” Jarvis said.
What the young man learned was that Borek played the game for the fun of it, having studied under club pro Elmer Voight (father of Academy Award winning actor Jon). Borek competed in 21 majors despite never having played on the PGA Tour. As he told reporters after his round 43 years ago today (after he instructed them where East Norwich, Long Island was), he had a wife and four children to support and he needed the security of a steady job.
“He was a devout Christian, very devoted to his family,” Jarvis said.
Borek also had game. He was not a bomber, despite being a big man. “He had a game for the U.S. Open. He kept it in the fairway and his putting was just fantastic,” said Jarvis, who caddied for his mentor at the 1971 PGA Championship, when Borek was fourth after three rounds.
His brush with history at Oakmont included an exclamation point, considering Borek was an alternate who got in only after high-strung tour pro Dave Hill withdrew because he couldn’t stand the course. Borek’s 65 also had a touch of an asterisk because it occurred after a mishap with the automatic sprinkler system the night before left the greens softer than usual.
Then again, no one else shot 65 that day. Not Lee Trevino, Arnold Palmer, Tom Weiskopf or Julius Boros, with whom he was tied after the second round. Not Gary Player, the leader. Borek’s first post-round priority was to call Pine Hollow “to let them know I won’t be back for the weekend,” he said at his news conference. He entertained reporters by telling them that when he won one of his two Long Island Open titles, he called Joan, his wife, with the good news and she replied, “Make sure you bring home some milk.”
It was all part of the fun, not spoiled when he shot 80 the next day or the next day when Miller knocked him right out of the record book.
There still is a place in the heart of golf for the likes of Gene Borek. Once, years later, he attended a youth clinic given by Miller. The 1973 U.S. Open champion stopped the lesson and told the kids, “See that guy in the back there? He shot 65 before I shot 63.”