Thirty-five years ago today Greg Norman waved the white flag. Actually, it was a white towel.
He did it while walking onto the 18th green of Winged Foot Golf Club — and the 18th playoff hole of the 1984 U.S. Open — in Mamaroneck, N.Y. It signified his “surrender” to New Albany’s Fuzzy Zoeller, who had made a similar — and misguided — gesture on the same hole the day before.
That Monday afternoon, on June 18, 1984, Zoeller shot a 3-under-par 67 to beat Norman by eight shots in an 18-hole playoff to win the U.S. Open.
“I’m not a great player, but I’m a damn good one,” Zoeller famously said after the victory.
He was that weekend, and especially that day, as he captured his second major championship in five years. It was also his last. However, it was also the beginning of a friendship between Zoeller and the golfer affectionately known as “the Shark.”
Norman entered Winged Foot on a good foot. Just two weeks earlier he had recorded his first-ever PGA Tour win — a five-stroke victory at the Kemper Open. Zoeller, meanwhile, hadn’t won since September of the previous year.
On June 14, 1984 — two days after the Boston Celtics beat the Los Angeles Lakers 111-102 in the seventh game of the NBA Finals to win their 15th world title — Mike Donald, Hubert Green, Hale Irwin and Jim Thorpe carded 2-under-par 68s to take the first-round lead of the U.S. Open.
In the second round, Zoeller fired a sizzling 66 to pull within one shot of Irwin, the 36-hole leader at 4-under. Norman, who was tied with David Canipe, lurked one shot behind Zoeller.
After 54 holes Irwin led Zoeller by one shot and Norman by two after all three shot 69 in the third round.
In the final round Irwin, who previously won the Open in 1974 and ‘79, fell apart, shooting a 79. That opened the door for a memorable down-the-stretch duel between Zoeller and Norman.
Zoeller led Norman by three shots at the turn before the latter rallied. Each entered the 72nd hole at 4-under after Zoeller bogeyed the 17th.
Norman appeared to have the momentum, especially after his 300-yard tee shot came to rest in the 18th fairway. However Norman, in a possible harbinger of collapses to come later in his career, drove his second shot into the grandstand. After a free drop, Norman shanked his next shot, putting him on the fringe, more than 40 feet from the hole. The then-blond-haired Norman, though, proceeded to bury the long putt to send the crowd into a frenzy.
Zoeller, playing with Irwin in the final twosome, saw and heard the reaction of the crowd from the 18th fairway. He then walked over to his golf bag, pulled out a white towel and waved it in Norman’s direction.
“I looked at my caddie and I said, ‘My God, he just beat us,’” Zoeller told the New York Times in 2006. “One of the USGA guys, God bless their souls, told me that was for a par. I immediately looked over. ‘For a par?! Where did he hit his second shot to?’ He said, ‘In the stands.’ I said, ‘You’re kidding.’”
Zoeller followed suit with a par of his own to set up an 18-hole playoff.
As it turned out, though, the two wouldn’t have to wait until Monday to meet again. By happenstance, Zoeller and Norman had dinner that Sunday night at the same hotel. Zoeller even sent a bottle of wine to Norman’s table.
The next morning on the first tee of the playoff hole Zoeller was at it again. This time he pulled out a telephone from his golf bag.
“Would you like to make your last call?” he asked Norman.
It was Zoeller, though, who had the last laugh. After both birdied the first hole, Zoeller rolled in a long birdie putt on the second while Norman double-bogeyed it for a playoff-turning 3-shot swing. Zoeller led by five at the turn and by as many as nine on the back before settling for the 8-shot triumph. As Norman approached the 18th green he began waving his own white towel before shaking hands with, then embracing Zoeller.
“Now returning the surrender towel of yesterday, Greg Norman saying, ‘OK, I give in.’ But with honor and with sportsmanship,” legendary broadcaster Jim McKay said on the ABC telecast that day.
A few minutes later Zoeller sank his par-putt, lifted both arms above his head and said “Thank you,” as the crowd roared.
“Frank Urban Zoeller, age 32, of New Albany, Indiana, is the United States Open champion for 1984,” McKay said.
While he would never win another major, Zoeller won four more times on tour to finish with 10 PGA victories all-time. Norman, meanwhile, would go on to win 19 more times on the PGA Tour and finish with 20 career victories. However his second-place finish to Zoeller was the first of seven runner-up finishes in major championships for Norman, who did win the British Open in 1986 and ‘93. After their duel, however, Zoeller and Norman remained friends. The latter even played in Zoeller’s Wolf Challenge in the early 2000s.
For those five days 35 years ago, though, Zoeller ruled the professional golfing world.