Monday, Oct 15, 2018
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David Briggs

With endorsement from pros, Inverness' major championship momentum builds

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    Fans watch golfers on the practice range as they prepare for the U.S. Senior Open at the Inverness Club in Toledo in July, 2011.

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    Arnold Palmer lines up a putt on the 18th green at the Inverness Club during the U.S. Open in June, 1979.

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  • InvernessNewsSlide-6

    Inverness Club has been rehabbing features across its course, including returning several holes to architect Donald Ross' original design. The 10th hole has large hummocks that are typical of the original architect.

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    Hale Irwin tees off on the 12th tee at Inverness Club in June, 1979 during the U.S. Open Championship.

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DUBLIN, Ohio — Paul Azinger has not returned to Inverness Club since his victory there at the 1993 PGA Championship.

But the fabled Dorr Street course and its home city still hold a special place in his heart — and on his head.

“I wear my Mud Hens hat all the time,” he said. “I love Toledo.”

On the 25th anniversary of the last major championship to pass through town, Azinger warmly reflected on the week that changed his life.

It was a window of time he calls nothing short of destiny.

Azinger, you see, came to Inverness in 1993 followed by the backhanded tag as the best player to have not won a major. Months later, he would be diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma in his shoulder, the treatment cutting short the prime of the then-33-year-old star.

RELATED: Tiger Woods roars into contention at the Memorial

Looking back, if he was going to be a major champion, it was Inverness or never.

Folks might remember the rest of the story.

Despite a nagging shoulder ache he couldn’t yet place, Azinger indeed did best in Toledo, holding off the star-crossed Greg Norman in a two-hole playoff.

It proved the victory that keeps on giving, his raised profile opening doors he never imagined. Today he is the lead golf analyst for Fox Sports, which will broadcast this month’s U.S. Open.

“Thank God it happened in Toledo, because it wasn’t destined for me otherwise,” Azinger said at the Memorial Tournament, where he is an event statesman.

“If it wasn’t for winning the PGA, I wouldn’t have been a Ryder Cup captain [in 2008]. I wouldn’t have been an analyst at ESPN and ABC and now Fox.

“It’s all because of the PGA Championship, and I’m so happy it was in Toledo. It couldn’t have happened at a better golf course, a more respected place to play this great game.”

Azinger, a Massachusetts native who otherwise has no connection to northwest Ohio, then pumped his fist.

“Go Mud Hens!”

Here at Muirfield Village Golf Club — home of the Memorial — it was a common cluck.

WATCH: Hale Irwin recounts winning the 1979 U.S. Open at Inverness

OK, that’s not really true, although, in fact, PGA star Phil Mickelson did throw Mud Hens batting practice one day in 2003.

But what was common was the gleam seen in players past and present at the mention of Inverness.

As the 115-year-old club strives to recapture its championship heritage, we came here to talk to those who helped hallow its grounds. Better than anyone, the men who played in majors at Inverness appreciate its place in the history — and, more important, perhaps the future — of the game.

Tell Mickelson you’re from Toledo, and first, well, he couldn’t resist.

“I’m sorry about that,” he said.

He laughed.

“I’m just kidding,” said Mickelson, who as a 23-year-old played in his first PGA Championship at Inverness, where he finished sixth. “I love it there.”

While thinking back on the “severe” postage stamp greens might bring back night terrors, he said, “I do remember how much I liked [Inverness].”

Same for three-time major winner Vijay Singh, who came in fourth at the 1993 PGA.

After missing a putt to bogey his final hole in a 3-over first round Thursday, the notoriously surly Singh could not have appeared in less of a talking mood. And that was before he slammed a spectator rope to the ground in disgust and was informed of his selection for a random drug test.

Then came a question about Inverness, and the cloud lifted.

“Inverness? In Toledo!”

Singh said it’s “about time” a major returns to Inverness, preferring the classics to the come-lately millennial courses that have hosted two of the past three U.S. Opens. “Better there than Chambers Bay or Erin Hills,” he said.

The Memorial Tournament honoree agreed.

“Dead right on that one,” said Hale Irwin, who won the 1979 Open in Toledo. “I think any pro would love to see us go back to Inverness.”

Of course, maybe these endorsements mean little. Maybe it remains true major men’s championship golf — where big money talks louder than bigger tradition — priced itself out of our market. Maybe we’ve officially turned into The City That Cried Major and no one should get their hopes up again.

But ...

I don’t think that’s true.

While nothing is imminent — the USGA and PGA of America have awarded their marquee events through 2027 and 2028, respectively — my instinct tells me Inverness’ encore is coming.

There exists a growing sense in the golf community its newly unveiled restoration — which to industry acclaim reimagined the course in the original vision of designer Donald Ross — on top of the nostalgia factor eventually will carry the day.

Out of sight on the biggest national stages for a quarter century, it is easy to overlook the six-time major host’s towering perch in history.

Even now, all of four courses have hosted more U.S. Opens and PGA Championships: Oakmont (12), Baltusrol (nine), Oakland Hills (nine), and Southern Hills (seven). Inverness is where Bobby Jones and Gene Sarazen and Jack Nicklaus played their first stateside Opens and Harry Vardon played his last, where some of the game’s greatest moments rolled off the production line, from the longest playoff ever — a 72-hole battle at the 1931 Open — to Bob Tway’s famed bunker hole-out to win the 1986 PGA title.

Nicklaus, displaying his uncannily photographic memory, remembered the magic of his first Open.

“I started off on the first hole there, played with Freddie Wampler and Tommy Jacobs, and I was 17 years old,” he said. “I hit a 3-wood and a 7-iron on the green 35 feet and holed it for a birdie. Parred the second hole, parred the third hole, which was the little par-3, and then my name went up on the board. I managed to make double bogey on the fourth hole, the long par-4 and never to be seen again.”

Nicklaus shot consecutive 80s and missed the cut. Slightly better days remained ahead.

The 18-time major winner remembered Inverness — which played at 7,025 yards for the 1993 PGA — as a “little golf course that you had to think your way around.”

“I always liked Inverness,” he said. “By today’s standards, it’s probably a little short. I don’t know whether they have the ability to be able to get the length that they need.”

Told the course can now play up to 7,700 yards, his eyes widened.

“It’s what!?” Nicklaus asked.

Yes, the gilded old course is ready for a new chapter.

Asked if we’re dreaming to think a major could return to Inverness, the man who carries the echoes of the place with him every day said, “Oh, no, there’s a total chance.”

“I don’t know if it will be another PGA or a U.S. Open,” Azinger said, “but Inverness has to be back in the conversation.”

Sports Writer Kyle Rowland contributed to this report.

Contact David Briggs at dbriggs@theblade.com419-724-6084, or on Twitter @DBriggsBlade.

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