In fading health, the Hinkle Tree at Inverness still stands tallest

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    Hinkle Tree on number 8 hole at the Inverness Club.

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  • At the foot of the new stone marker, the old spruce does not rest in peace.

    Still it rises, the famed tree standing sentinel over No. 8 tee at Inverness Club.

    It has outlived all of its friends — a course that once teemed with hundreds of interior conifers is down to one — and is in fading health itself, hunched to the right at a 75-degree angle. “Like the Cindy Lou Who tree from the Grinch,” club president Jerry Lemieux said.

    WATCH: Hinkle Tree at Inverness Club still stands tall

    Now some 40 feet tall, the obstacle planted in the night to foil the as-the-crow-flies designs of Lon Hinkle during the 1979 U.S. Open looks a mean gust of wind away from arboreal heaven. But Inverness will leave its fate to a higher hand.

    The only hard rule during a just-completed restoration that further opened the course? The tree stays.

    “If God takes it down, OK,” Lemieux said, “but it wasn’t going to be us. It’s pretty cool it’s still here.”

    Indeed, there it was this week, the Hinkle Tree. Just in case its time is short — everyone hug your trees a little tighter tonight — I came out on the eve of the U.S. Open to pay my respects.

    Hinkle Tree plaque on number 8 hole at the Inverness Club.
    Hinkle Tree plaque on number 8 hole at the Inverness Club.

    With apologies to the Lone Cypress at Pebble Beach and the Lone Fir at Chambers Bay, I dare say the passing of the Eisenhower Tree — the iconic pine on No. 17 at Augusta that fell victim to an ice storm in 2014 — has left the lone conifer at Inverness as the most notorious living tree in golf.

    A tree spokesman smiled at the thought.

    I called Hinkle at his home in Bigfork, Mont. to update him on his namesake, which as of this spring beckons with a permanent marker. Although he lamented the tree looked “kind of sad,” it recalled a happy time — and, of course, an all-time story.

    “Everybody still wants to hear it,” he said.

    As many here might recall, it began in the first round of the Open. Hinkle and playing partners Greg Norman and Chi Chi Rodriguez arrived at No. 8, a par-5, 528-yard dogleg left, to find the group ahead of them waiting to hit their second shots. That left time to let his imagination run wild, and when he noticed an easy way to shave 75 yards off the hole, it did. Rather than play as convention dictated, he fired a one-iron through a gap in the trees on to the adjacent 17th fairway. He then hit a two-iron to the green and two-putted for birdie.

    Hinkle — who finished the day tied for the lead after a 1-under-par 70 — was thrilled. The USGA? Not so much.

    Fearing such mischief would make a mockery of the tournament, it dispatched Inverness greens chairman Bob Yoder to a nearby nursery. A 20-foot Black Hills spruce magically sprouted in the opening overnight.

    “Gee, the trees sure grow fast around here," Norman observed the next day.

    Just not quite fast enough.

    In a foul mood after going 4-over in his first seven holes Friday, big Lon was undeterred. He smoked a driver over the tree to set up another birdie in what proved his last hurrah. Hinkle finished 20 shots behind winner Hale Irwin.

    Looking back, Hinkle regrets he allowed his great battle with the spruce — The Old Man and the Tree — to burrow into his head. He still wonders, too, why the equally stubborn USGA went to such unprecedented lengths to thwart his shortcut.

    “All they had to do was move the tee up five, 10 yards, and it would have blocked it out,” he said.

    Still, the episode is a warm memory, his name forever a part of golf lore — and one of its most towering venues.

    Someday soon, the 68-year-old hopes to return to Inverness, where to his enduring thrill, the same grounds once walked by Jones and Vardon, Hogan and the Slammer, Arnie and Jack, also are remembered for a journeyman three-time tour winner. A photo of Hinkle — who was last in town for the 2003 Senior Open — hangs in the club’s wood-paneled locker room. 

    Imagine that. 

    “My picture on the wall!” he said. “I’m very proud of that, even if it was for something kind of silly.”

    Long live the Hinkle Tree.

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