How D.A. Weibring Stole the Western Open; or, What Everyone Else Was Doing While He Did

The deluge that struck the Butler National Golf Club two weeks ago dictated both that the Western Open be shortened from the normal 72 to 54 holes–with two rounds, or 36 holes, played on Sunday–and that two water-damaged courses be combined to create one complete course. What this meant was that, as the tournament drew to a close on Sunday afternoon, players would be finishing up on two different courses at the same time. Not only was there not enough time to set up the scaffolding and lay the wiring to televise the extra set of holes, but there wasn’t enough equipment at hand to do so even if there had been the time. The front nine, drawn from holes at the Oak Brook Golf Club, was, for all intents and purposes, blacked out to the television audience. In the worst nightmares of the tournament organizers and ABC television directors, someone finishing up on the front nine, at the Oak Brook golf course (a much easier set of holes), would charge and win the tournament outside the view of the television cameras and the great majority of the gallery, which concentrated on the nine holes used from the Butler course, considered the back nine. The worst nightmare manifested itself when D.A. Weibring brought in a nine-under-par total, finishing on the Oak Brook course. Weibring was, throughout the day, little more than a rumor, a name attached to a score that kept rising. What follows is a description of a golf tournament as observed by a person who failed to see the eventual winner hit even a single shot. It’s not quite a tale told by an idiot, but if it seems a little pointless, remember that ABC, the network that broadcast the tournament, also failed to catch Weibring in the act of winning.

Watching tournament golf in person requires knowledge of the players and the course, acumen in the fine points of golf strategy, and most of all a good deal of luck. With action taking place all around, the spectator must concentrate on the important players (the leaders) in the important places (the easier or more difficult holes) at the important times (as the round comes to a close). Watching golf on television, the viewer has all the action brought to the screen; in fact, nowadays, when two players are putting on different holes at the same time, the screen can be split so that the viewer can watch both putt. Of course, one of the pleasures of seeing a tournament in person is not only that one sees what the television audience doesn’t–the practice swings, the choice of clubs, the pouting expression of a pro as he considers a shot from a sand trap–but that, on occasion, through knowledge, acumen, and luck, one finds oneself just where one ought to be, watching a pro play a hole he must birdie for a share of the lead. Of course, sometimes it doesn’t turn out that way.

We arrived out on the northwest corner of the Butler National Golf Club a week ago last Sunday at about 8 AM, a ridiculously early hour, except when one considers that some players had been on the course for 90 minutes already. We were fortunate enough to pick up the first-round leaders almost immediately. Greg Norman–the Australian whose pointy nose and chin, jaunty gait, and almost albino-blond hair (which has won him the nickname “Great White Shark”) make him so easily identifiable–had shot 69 in the first round, Saturday, along with six other golfers, including his two playing partners, Bob Tway and Ed Dougherty. We found them on the 15th hole, with Norman at five under par and Tway at four under and Dougherty already falling off the pace. Norman, in fact, had already picked up two strokes on the day in only four holes, as he and his group had started the day at 7 AM on the tenth hole. They were to open the morning round on 10, play through 18, then play the front nine on the Oak Brook course to call it a second round. In the afternoon, they would play the course in the “usual” manner, beginning at the first hole and playing through 18. Other players–most with higher scores–played their second round (and first of the day) from one through 18, then started the final round on the back nine, at Butler, and finished up on the front, at Oak Brook. The field had been pared after only 18 holes for the final day’s double round, and the cut was to have come at the top 50 golfers. Yet 44 players broke par, and with ties at 72–par for the course–fully 75 players were eligible for Sunday, sent out in 25 groups of three. All began the day within three strokes or fewer of the lead and with 36 holes in which to make a move. As D.A. Weibring would later say, it was a shoot-out.

Norman bogeyed immediately, at the 15th hole, to join Tway at four under, and we decided to follow the group in, both to reacquaint ourselves with the back nine of the Butler course–where we figured the tournament would be won–and to work our way into the center of the activity in the most efficient fashion. Norman knocked one stiff at the 17th hole and sank the putt for birdie and parred the difficult 18th, meaning that, with his day a quarter done, he had gone out in 34 and was now five under par and tied for the lead, as we learned at the leader board back at the press room.

The press room, next to the clubhouse, was located exactly between the two courses the Western was using. Imagine the Butler and Oak Brook courses as gas stations kitty-corner from one another at an intersection, with the clubhouse at the center of the intersection, and the layout should be apparent. The leader board showed that early starters Dave Barr, Mike Reid, and Kenny Perry had gone out well on the Oak Brook nine and were now finishing up their first 18, so we hurried back out to Butler and the 17th hole to watch them go by, picking up Perry on the 13th hole on our way.

Perry was unfamiliar to us, but we took an immediate liking to him. He had hit his drive on the par-four 13th into a fairway bunker, but he played the shot out nicely and got on the green, getting down in two for par. We saw from the group’s scoreboard that Perry had picked up yet another stroke and was now six under par, which to our knowledge put him in the lead. We followed him to the par-three 14th, with an eye on examining his swing for signs of tension. His swing was most unusual: his backswing was all arms–his legs never moved, his weight was already back–then, with a sway of the knees like a baseball player flinching at a curveball, he moved the weight forward and brought the hands and the club through. He hit the ball squarely in the center of the green, then three-putted for bogey. We let Perry go on to the 15th and 16th as we crossed the rough to the nearby 17th hole, figuring that we’d watch Barr and Reid go by and then follow Perry in.

The 17th–which is usually the 16th on the Butler layout, but as the 18th was unplayable other holes were inserted and the 16th moved up to 17th, with the 17th now the 18th–is one of my favorite holes on the course. A short par four of 381 yards, it should be a birdie hole for the pros, except that it is laid out with some subtlety; birdies are possible, but they must be earned. The fairway faintly swings down and to the right around a single tree that pokes out into the fairway on the right side. The green, meanwhile, points to the left, guarded by two sand traps. The green opens to drives played left, but the left rough is nothing but a thick line of trees. Anything played too far left means taking an extra shot just to get out into the fairway. Most players use irons off the tee, with the ones shooting farthest and most left–without going into the trees–most rewarded in the approach to the green. I felt that if the tournament was to be won on a single hole, it would be here, where a birdie was possible, because the last hole–a 459-yard par four–was an almost impossible hole to birdie.

As we sat down on the 17th, we had just missed Weibring, who would birdie the 18th hole to finish 36 at five-under-par 139, which turned out to be a very popular score. Barr came through at five under and birdied the hole to go six under. Then a short little player named Brian Fogt came through at five under. He had driven long but right. He was fidgety, changed clubs twice while testing the wind, eyeing the tops of the trees, and put his shot on the green but far from the hole. He made the putt, to go six under, eliciting one of the first crowd roars of the day. “He’s been making those from all over all day,” said someone behind me who had followed Fogt to 17, then held on to watch other groups go through. Still, I thought him a little too nervous to be a serious contender, although it turned out that I had just watched the two second-round leaders go through. Both Barr and Fogt finished 36 at six under par, having taken 138 strokes for the tournament. The frightening thing–which we didn’t find out until later–was that 11 golfers were at 139, a stroke off the lead, after 36 holes.

Perry came through still five under, but he had driven into the right rough. He hit his approach on line but a little heavy, and it fell into the trap in front. We followed him down the fairway. He almost sank the sand shot on the fly, but it missed and rolled 10 feet past the hole, and he missed the putt for par. Obviously, we weren’t very good luck for Perry, and after following him through 18 we left him to go out on his own and headed for the Oak Brook course to pick up Norman’s group as it began the second round of the day.

It was noon, we were halfway home, and the galleries and the wind were increasing. After the rain of the previous week, the weather had cleared. Clouds were laid out as in the Georgia O’Keeffe painting in the Art Institute: close together at the horizon, but spaced far apart overhead. Norman’s gallery was by far the largest on the course. If a spectator is going to follow only one group, while hoping to see the most important shots of a tournament, he or she is well advised to see Norman, and it’s obvious many people recognized this. He is a charismatic player who always plays exciting golf, whether he is striking the ball well and knocking down the flags or hitting the ball poorly and scrambling for pars. He has the energy and aggressiveness of Arnold Palmer, but with the precise swing of today’s modern pros. Following him through the full nine would be an excellent way to reacquaint myself with Oak Brook.

We knew we were in the right place when we saw the Tribune’s Bob Verdi skulking along inside the ropes, watching the golf while trying to keep the gallery apart, in the manner of someone watching fireworks while trying to close his ears to the oohs and ahs of the crowd. I have a friend who says that Verdi would be the best sports columnist in Chicago if he didn’t have the misguided impression that golf is a sport. I’d argue, on the other hand, that he is the best columnist at either of the dailies precisely because he writes about golf and writes about it so well. In trying to ignore the gallery, however, he was missing one of the main attractions. Golf galleries are where herd psychology is manifested in the most refined manner. There is ignorance (in the morning round, on his way from one green to the next tee, Tway dropped a golf ball in the hand of a boy he was passing. A middle-aged woman turned to her companion and said with exasperation, “What did he do that for? That kid probably doesn’t even play golf”), but there is also excitement and–unusual for a crowd–politeness. There is nothing quite like when a gallery numbering in the thousands quiets itself before a putt, then explodes with a roar when it goes in. As for taste, well, golf galleries have it in abundance: at the Western Open, Dove bars must have outsold beers four to one.

A couple of items of issue. The decision to use the Oak Brook back nine as the Western Open front nine was a wise one. There were holes on Butler that were quite nearly destroyed by the rain; I don’t believe they could have been played upon even if the course hadn’t received additional rain Friday morning, just as they were preparing to tee up for the first round. Oak Brook is right next door, and although it is not a championship course it was the best that could be had, and the organizers toughened it up by leaving the grass off the fairways long and tangled (the rough was much longer and thicker than at Butler) and by sticking the pins in some touchy spots. The directions for the spectators, meanwhile, were easily understandable; a layout of the Open’s hybrid course was printed on the starting-times sheet, available at all gates for 50 cents, and it was easy to follow. Spectators who spent the day solely on the Butler course because they believed Oak Brook was too far away, or that the holes would be too difficult to follow, were wrong in both cases.

That said, let’s point out that the Western Open in no other circumstances belongs on the Oak Brook course. I played it a year ago, and although it is a respectable municipal course, there are any number of better layouts in the area. It’s nothing spectacular. No par four measures 400 yards on the back side, a flaw that was made obvious when Bob Tway hit the green with his drive on the par-four, 312-yard third hole. The greens, meanwhile, in all fairness to the pros, were not in decent shape. The softly rolled putts that glided across the greens at Butler went bouncing across the Oak Brook greens like pickup trucks down a dirt road. I saw no lengthy putt made in my entire stay on the Oak Brook course. While Norman’s group went down the nearly inaccessible par-five sixth hole Sunday afternoon, I waited for it at the green of the par-three seventh and saw all three players in a group get bogeys, as two three-putted and one missed a middle-range putt after hitting out of the sand. The gallery nearly booed them off the green.

Norman parred the seventh along with Tway, as both stood five under, meaning Norman had now played 16 holes Sunday on this drive-and-pitch nine without breaking par. He changed that on eight, sticking his approach stiff and ramming in the putt for birdie. The gallery, which had waited all day for him to begin his charge, roared. He went to nine, a par five that turns left at a 90-degree angle about 250 yards out from the tee. Two large trees guard the corner, sentinels trying to stop the players from cutting off the angle, but there is a gap between them, and Norman drove directly through the gap, cutting the corner and putting him within reach of the green in two. He pulled a wood from his bag and smashed it, but the ball went right, beyond the green, and as the marshals yelled “Right! Right!” it bounced straight into the line in front of a concession stand behind the green. The gallery cleared a corridor to the green, Norman examined the shot, went back to the ball, and we saw it bound up over the heads of the people in front of us and onto the green. He made the putt–the longest of the group–for birdie, and Tway and Dougherty did the same. Norman had momentum for his last nine holes, going on to the back nine at Butler at seven under par.

This was the pivotal moment. It was awfully tempting to just follow Norman, because he is a great show when he gets going: the rest of the tournament pauses while he shoots. Yet we decided to stop at the press room, to pound down a quick sandwich and examine the leader board. Fogt and Barr had led after 36 at six under par. Most players had played an additional nine since then, and the leaders had now climbed to seven and eight under par. Most of these players were, as the tournament organizers had planned, finishing up on the Butler course. Larry Nelson and Bruce Lietzke, who had shot par Saturday and had started in the final groups Sunday morning, had both put together good morning rounds and were among the leaders, even though they hadn’t yet finished the first nine of the final round. They were on Butler, but would finish much later on Oak Brook. The main group of leaders–Lennie Clements, Hal Sutton, Davis Love III, and Norman–were midway through their final nine of the day, on the Butler course. Obviously, we would have to catch up with these groups. Only one player gave us pause: D.A. Weibring. Weibring had started in the first group of the day, at 6:30, and was even now finishing up on Oak Brook. He was the only player on the Oak Brook course with a shot at winning. When one considered that following Weibring would mean following Weibring alone, without any other contenders nearby, and with no leader boards on the Oak Brook nine, there was never any serious thought of heading out in his direction. (My notebook, however, contains the biting but ambiguous entry: “Weibring? Oh shit.”)

We returned to our familiar spot on 17, halfway down the fairway. The hole had been spotted even farther to the right for the afternoon round, making it even more important that a player drive left if he wanted a shot at the pin. Players shooting for the pin, meanwhile, appeared from our vantage point to be shooting almost off the green to the right; a tree blocked our view of the far-right edge of the green, where the pin was. Nelson came through–dressed, as always, in his white baseball-style cap with its high brim–at seven under par. He was on the right edge of the fairway, just in the rough, and he hit his shot farther to the right than anyone we had seen all day. We thought certain he was off the green, but a few minutes later, a roar came from the crowd around the green, and shortly after it was confirmed: Nelson had, in fact, caught the green with his daring approach and had made the putt for birdie. He was tied with Weibring at eight under. As he was in one of the last groups of the day, with another nine to play, we could watch the other leaders finish their rounds on Butler and still get to Oak Brook in plenty of time to watch Nelson finish. Weibring, again, was the only worry.

Then Lennie Clements came through at eight under, also tied for first. Hal Sutton had fallen off the pace. In the meantime, there had been a noticeable lack of roar from behind us, where Norman was winding his way along the nine. Hearing that faraway roar, with its mysterious foreboding of things already accomplished, is one of the great pleasures of the close of a golf tournament, and it was conspicuous in its absence. Clements is a short, little player who faintly resembles Ben Crenshaw, and he gave his putt for the lead a good run there at 17 as we followed him along. He missed, however, and went on to his last hole of the day. He went left with his drive–a great detriment on this long par four–and left again with his approach, off behind a sand trap. The pin for the afternoon had been placed, as usual, on the edge of a ridge toward the back of the green. The breaks of the green around this spot are as mysterious as the wrinkles around an eye, and after he’d chipped up they were too confounding for Clements: he missed the putt, to finish seven under. Weibring, we saw from the leader board next to the 18th hole, had gone through 16 holes at eight under, leaving only the short 8th and the easy par-five 9th to play. He was sure to finish at least eight under. Norman, too, was eight under. Clements was out of it.

The long-driving Davis Love followed, standing in the center of the 18th fairway at eight under par. He flew the green, however, coming to rest at the base of the bleachers beyond, and chipped out of the heavy rough for a putt of about the same length as Clements’s. He too missed it, to fall back to seven under, and when we turned to see the leader board to check Norman’s progress we saw, instead, that Weibring had birdied the 8th hole and now was the sole leader at nine under par.

At this point, Norman was the only hope to save the tournament from the embarrassment of having a man win out of sight of the audience here and at home. We had to have at least a tie, to at least get a glimpse of Weibring on a playoff hole before he was proclaimed winner. Norman was the only hope. We hustled back toward 17, meeting a friend on the way. He said Norman had made “a long-assed putt” to save par on 14. We hurried on. The gallery around the 17th green had grown immense. A woman who came rushing up just as we did said, “Has Norman come through yet?” A man kidded that he had. The woman shook her head. “He has not,” she said, “I can smell him.” Norman had already hit his drive. As he came striding up the fairway the woman said, “Ooh, those legs.” He was just left of the center of the fairway, having hit a good shot, but disturbing was the group’s scoreboard: it showed Norman at only seven under. He had bogeyed the 16th and now needed two birdies to tie Weibring–if, in fact, Weibring failed to birdie 18. Norman’s approach was excellent, just over the trap, right on line and about 15 or 20 feet short of the pin. He stroked the putt nicely but a touch too softly, and it fell off line low and missed.

He hit a long drive on 18, going for the birdie, but it strayed off course to the right. Again, the gallery cleared a corridor for a daring Norman recovery, and again he played a miraculous shot, right onto the ridge on the back of the green, about 20 feet from the pin. Norman was up to deciphering the line, and he rolled the putt up and–as those in front of us jostled for a better look–into the hole with a roar of the crowd.

It was all for second place, however. Weibring had parred the ninth hole to finish nine under.

At this point, it appeared Nelson was the last player with a good chance to catch Weibring, and so, with a quick stop at the press room to confirm the situation, it was back to Oak Brook. Nelson, we found, had somehow lost a stroke, to fall to seven under, while Brian Fogt, the nervous little 36-hole leader, was one under for his final round and seven under overall. We got to the ninth green just as he was putting out. The group’s scoreboard showed him at only six under. Back up the fairway.

Kenny Perry, the player we had followed early in the morning, when he had held the lead at six under, came through at three under, still with that odd swing, the backswing all arms, a swing that had held together, but not quite as well as he had hoped.

The following group included Greg Powers at seven under. If he eagled this par-five–a distinct possibility–he’d tie Weibring at nine under. Powers, however, had driven through the fairway, leaving him a shot of about 300 yards out of the rough to the green. It was impossible. He is a large man with a somewhat effeminate gait, an impression that was not altered by his aqua pants. He laid up and parred in and we left him behind. Now, the only player left with a chance was Nelson.

We caught up to Nelson and his small but vociferous gallery at the par-three seventh hole. Somewhere, however, he had picked up a stroke and now stood eight under; he needed only a birdie to tie, two to win outright. He was far from the pin, but as he stroked it one person yelled, “Get in the hole!” When it missed, the entire gallery went “Ugh!” On to eight, the short par-four both Norman and Weibring had birdied. Nelson, however, appeared to be tiring. He had recently won the PGA Championship, the last major tournament of the year–where Weibring was one of his main pursuers–and has always been known for his steady play, the sort of play most rewarded by the strict Butler course; but here, on Oak Brook, his game was growing a bit ragged at the end of a 36-hole day. He drove left into the thick rough. From across the fairway, we couldn’t see the tops of his shoes as he prepared to hit the ball. The club bogged down noticeably as it came through the ball, and although he got on the green he was way short. Again the gallery urged the putt in, but without success. On to nine.

The question was, to cut across the corner, between the trees, to go for the green in two, or to play safely to the center of the fairway, lay up, and hope to stick the pitch stiff? Nelson, who is not a great driver, and who had now lost honors to the others in his group, who had birdied holes since his last birdie, hit last, and he hit right at the trees. We heard the resounding and disheartening “crack” of ball striking bark, and–as we do with our own games–searched the area with peripheral vision hoping to get a glimpse of the ball as it bounded away, but fortunately for Nelson it dropped straight to the ground and trickled just barely into the fairway, out of reach of the green but in no danger. He laid up right in the throat of the fairway, at the entrance to the green. He was now joined by an ABC portable camera–the one bit of coverage on the front nine–and examined the pitch long and hard. Then he put it nowhere near where he wanted it to go, on the green but well right, about 15 or 20 feet away. The gallery closed in, going under the ropes to get a better look at his putt. He studied it long, then hit it too hard. It never broke and passed the hole on the high side. D.A. Weibring had won the Western Open, without firing a televised shot.

If we’ve made light of Weibring’s victory on a few occasions here, we should perhaps point out that, as a winner of the Western Open, he is exemplary. Although we didn’t see him that Sunday we have seen him play before, in person and on television, and he is a steady player who thrives on the tougher courses of the PGA Tour, with Butler being one of the toughest. His only previous victory had come eight years before, in the Quad Cities Open (he joked, afterward, in the interview room, that he had now completed “the Illinois Slam”), but he has played the tour for a long time, especially well recently, and is a deserving winner. The 1987 Western will not be his last victory.

Weibring is from Plano, Texas (where they make the tackle boxes), and went to school at Illinois State. He speaks with a slight drawl. He has a cheerful attitude toward golf and, we imagine, toward most things. His round face and the gap between his teeth give him an almost bumpkinish appearance, and with the Ben Hogan golf cap he sports and the sleeveless black sweater he was wearing he was a confluence of opposites. He looked like a man just arrived from the farm, who had taken to wearing what everyone else is wearing, which, considering the pro tour, can lead to some interesting results. He looks as if he’d be much happier, however, in a pair of overalls and a Red Man chewing tobacco hat. As he is the only source, and as he speaks well and sort of philosophically about his game, we’ll let him describe the end of the round.

“I refocused from thinking ‘Today could be the day!’ to ‘Let’s get back and play golf. This is fun. People are out here to see you play, you’re playing good, it’s a nice day, it’s a wonderful opportunity, so enjoy it.’ And I began to feel better after I sort of dealt with that, on the third and fourth hole [of the final nine, when he was eight under]. I felt a lot better about myself and I began to hit some good shots. I began to hit better shots than I was before. And I felt good. So the right attitude, certainly, is the key.”

He went through the final nine without lowering his score, however, until he came to the short par-four eighth and put his drive in the fairway bunker. He said he had recently studied sand play with the great Byron Nelson: “I thought about him a little bit as I got ready to play the shot. I played a nine iron, 131 yards, and it was just one of those shots–you quiver a little bit. I hit it right on the nose and put it in there–I don’t know–about five or six feet, I guess. And I began to feel a little emotional as I walked to that green–that shot, and the situation, and so many friends here, and the people pulling for me–that I knew I had my chance. I know I’ve had my chances, the last couple of weeks, to get a significant victory, and I’ve hit good shots, but they really haven’t worked out at the time. I had to calm myself a little bit, tried to make light with my caddy, and really hit a good putt, knocked it right in the hole.

“My whole theme has been to try to keep myself relaxed and not focus so much on winning. ‘Now’s your chance!’ Just play, just enjoy the play.”