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Published: Wednesday, 6/25/2003

Hinkle no sap

BY DAVE HACKENBERG
BLADE SPORTS WRITER

Hogan and Sarazen were honored with bridges. Nelson - Byron, not Larry - has a tournament. Palmer has a hospital and an airport, Nicklaus a museum.

Lon Hinkle has a tree.

Seems fair.

“You know, it's sort of funny to me,” Hinkle was saying yesterday. “I really enjoyed my days as a contender. And I have some great memories. But the defining moment of my career appears to be the tree out on the eighth tee at Inverness, and that is just the way it is.”

But is that good or bad?

“I think it's a good thing,” he said. “I was really happy with my career in the late '70s and early '80s. But it is the tree that people associate with my name. I hear about it on a regular basis. It's not like I did something wrong. And it is kind of a clever story.”

Indeed it is, so let's tell it.

Hinkle is in town as a qualifier for the U.S. Senior Open, which begins tomorrow at Inverness Club. And he was in the same place 24 years ago as one of the favorites in the 1979 U.S. Open.

“I finished second [in Los Angeles] and I won the Crosby, and I came here as a real legitimate contender,” said Hinkle, who later in '79 would add the World Series of Golf title at Firestone Country Club in Akron.

In the first round of the Open Hinkle was playing with Chi Chi Rodriguez. He was playing well when his group came to the tee at the long, curving, wood-lined, par-5 eighth hole. Wood-lined in all spots except for one, that is.

“We had to wait for the group ahead of us to clear the fairway, so Chi Chi and I were just standing there chatting,” Hinkle said. “Chi Chi was talking about a shortcut and I just kind of looked over there to the left and said, `Man, there's a fairway over that-a-way. But where is the green and how far away is it?' There was a big gap in the trees. I looked over and the group on 17 had just arrived at the tee, so the fairway was wide open.

“The group ahead of us cleared and Chi Chi said, `You're up, Lon.'”

And that was that. If Rodriguez had had the honors we'd be calling it the Chi Chi Tree.

Hinkle drove through the gap with a 1-iron, landing his drive on the 17th fairway. Guessing at the yardage to the No. 8 green - he came up with 220 - Hinkle laced a 2-iron shot onto the green and two-putted for birdie.

Rodriguez followed suit. Word spread and others did the same. Before the first round of the '79 Open had ended, a steady trickle of golfers had played the eighth hole via the 17th fairway.

Playing to the interior of the course, there was no out of bounds. No rules were being violated. The United States Golf Association had to be equally creative to put a stop to it.

So members of the Inverness grounds crew, under orders from the USGA, planted a 25-foot Blue Hills spruce tree in the dark of night to plug the gap.

Voila, the Hinkle Tree.

The next day Hinkle reported to the locker room well before his tee time and saw his picture, with a light bulb superimposed above his head, in The Blade's sports section.

“I thought it was kind of cute,” he said. “I put the paper down, grabbed my orange juice, looked up and there were a bunch of guys from the press standing there asking me about the tree. What tree? I didn't know anything about a tree at that point.”

But Hinkle talked and talked and talked and, suddenly, it was his tee time. Without adequate warm-up, he set off on round two.

“By the time I got to the eighth tee I was 4-over and fairly disappointed in myself for letting the tournament get away. I looked at that tree as though it somehow ruined my Open.”

Perhaps. But as long as that tree, now lush and about 40 feet tall, lives on, so will Hinkle's name in golf lore. And it will be his alone - because the tee box has been moved back from where it was in '79, the same shot today is not possible.

The Montana resident has never qualified for the Champions Tour, although he plays sporadically as a past PGA Tour champion, and has a beef with some of the tour's eligibility categories. He feels he has the credentials to receive more sponsor exemptions than he does.

“Maybe in the letters I write to sponsors, instead of describing my PGA Tour career and what I won and where I ranked on the money list, maybe I should just say I'm the guy with the tree in Toledo. Maybe that would ring a bell.”



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