Winning a Major golf championship is all about handling pressure.
But nowhere in the history of professional golf has a would-be champion been forced to contend with the kind of pressure that confronted Hubert Green during the 1977 U.S. Open played at Southern Hills, site of this week’s PGA Championship.
Green won that championship, the third of eight Majors to be contested at Southern Hills, despite coping with a death threat. He played the final four holes believing he might be shot at any instant.
As Green held the lead on the 15th tee that final Sunday, police approached. They told him a woman had phoned an anonymous threat to the Oklahoma City FBI office that he was going to be shot as he played that hole.
He was given three choices: stop play, clear the course, and continue without a gallery; finish the round Monday, or carry on and run the risk that the threat was real. “I said, ‘I can’t be any more nervous than I am now,’” Green said. “Let’s get it over with.”
So they ”got it over with”, the uniformed officers escorting Green the rest of the way. Green snap-hooked his drive on 15 into the trees but recovered and reached the green. “When I stood over the putt I suddenly got the sensation I was going to be shot at any second,” he later told Golf Digest. “As soon as I hit the putt I knew I’d left it short. I also knew I hadn’t heard a gunshot. I said out loud, “Chicken!” And I wasn’t talking about leaving the putt short.”
Hubert Green followed up that escape with a birdie on the 16th at Southern Hills.
He stood only briefly over a three-foot putt on the final green, struck it directly into the cup and – flanked by uniformed police officers – showed little emotion as he quickly was hustled into a greenside tent.
Interviewed after finishing, Green downplayed the pressure he felt due to the threat. I don’t want some turkey getting headlines,” he told reporters. Sandy Tatum, chairman of the USGA Championship Committee, marveled at the player’s composure. “He didn’t flicker,” said Tatum, who had delivered the news to Green on the 15th tee. “He just stepped up … and hit the ball.”
No one ever figured out why Green, then a successful 30-year-old pro from Alabama, would be targeted by a caller either determined to kill or merely to pressure him. To that moment, his greatest claim to fame had been victories in three successive Tour events one season before: March 14, 1976, at Doral, March 21 at Jacksonville, and March 28 at Sea Pines.
The 1977 Open had been Green’s most of the way, but it was a close struggle. He led Terry Diehl by one stroke after 36 holes, and led Andy Bean – his final day playing partner — by the same stroke with 18 holes remaining.
Lou Graham, playing ahead of Green, birdied four of the final seven holes to post a score of 279, meaning Green had to par the final four holes to win. The birdie on 16 extended his lead to two strokes, handy since he dropped his approach on 18 into a bunker. Despite the threat, he had managed to play those last four holes in even par for a total of 278.