In a 1994 issue of Golf Journal, Byron Nelson wrote an article called “My Home Course” in which the five-time major champion stated, “Anytime you start talking about golf courses, Inverness always comes to my mind, always.”
That is because despite growing up and retiring to Texas and playing courses around the country, Nelson most felt at home at the Inverness Club in Toledo, Ohio. He was the head professional there from 1939 through 1945, and as was the sentiment among even the leading tour players of that era, he felt fortunate that he could augment his modest earnings with income from a club.
Nelson managed his shop well, becoming friends with most of the members. Not only was Nelson beloved at Inverness, he was proud to represent the club with a long tournament history. Inverness was the site of the 1920, 1931, 1957 and 1979 U.S. Open, 1986 and 1993 PGA Championship, 2003 (and again in 2011) U.S. Senior Open, and the 1973 U.S. Amateur.
Nelson admired every aspect of the course: its narrow fairways, heavy rough, beautiful Donald Ross bunkering, as well as the individual holes like the 18th, one of the best short par 4s in golf. And he especially liked the firm, fast greens, which were always in wonderful condition.
Those difficult putting surfaces helped to sharpen Nelson’s stroke for competition. Given the way he played during the last couple of years of his tenure at the club—26 PGA Tour wins in 1944 and ’45—it is easy to see why Nelson held the challenging course in such high esteem.
But Nelson was far from the first golfer to be enamored by Inverness, which began with nine holes in 1903 before Donald Ross designed another nine holes in 1919. At the same time, he reworked the original holes.
The changes were good enough that the U.S. Golf Association brought the U.S. Open in 1920. They played in shirts and ties, and the winner earned the grand sum of $500.
That year saw a fascinating meeting of the old and new. It was the last U.S. Open for Harry Vardon and the first for 18-year-old Bobby Jones, who finished tied for eighth. For much of the tournament, Vardon, who was 50, outplayed the youngster (and everyone else), and held a four-stroke lead in the final round. But he collapsed in the closing stretch, playing the last seven holes in seven over par.
Had he held on, Vardon would still be the oldest major championship winner in history. Instead, his countryman, 43-year-old Ted Ray, became the oldest U.S. Open champion. (Since then, his mark has been eclipsed first by Ray Floyd in 1986 then four years later by Hale Irwin, who still holds the record.)
Other players had good chances to win, most notably Leo Diegel, who topped his drive on the 14th hole, making double bogey. Vardon, Diegel, Jock Hutchison and Jack Burke Sr. finished one shot behind Ray.
Inverness’ following Open, 11 years later, produced an equally fascinating, if more drawn out, finish to the tournament. Billy Burke (no relation to Jack) and George Von Elm were tied after 72 holes, leading to a playoff. And what a playoff it was!
At the time, the Open ended on Saturday, and playoffs were 36-hole affairs held on Sunday. Burke and Von Elm were once again tied on Sunday evening, so they played another 36 holes on Monday. Burke finally won by one stroke—after 144 holes. (After that ordeal, the USGA switched to an 18-hole playoff.)
While many of the holes on which Vardon, Jones and Burke competed are the same as those that contestants will face in next year’s U.S. Senior Open, the course has been revised and lengthened several times since Ross’ day. First, Dick Wilson made minor renovations in 1957, followed by major changes to the routing by George Fazio in the 1970s. He and his nephew Tom built four new holes and rerouted the course prior to the 1979 U.S. Open, won by Irwin.
In the 1990s our firm, Arthur Hills/Steve Forrest and Associates, lengthened the course with new tees on eight holes, bringing the total distance to 7,255 yards. And there are plans to add more length on two holes: the 7th, which will measure 495 yards, and the 17th, which will be 485 yards.
One of the holes that we did well to leave alone was the 354-yard 18th, which has proved that a finishing hole doesn’t need to be a long par 4 or have water hazards to provide plenty of drama.
The 18th hole has been the scene of the most exciting finishes in the history of not one but two of golf’s biggest events. Everybody knows about Bob Tway’s holed bunker shot to beat Greg Norman in the 1986 PGA Championship. More people should know about Bronson Burgoon’s wedge from the rough to within two inches that gave Texas A&M the 2009 NCAA Championship.
During our work, we found Inverness to be a remarkable course. Sitting on a property crossed by several valleys, the course has several creeks that come into play. There are no forced carries off the tee, and all but two of the greens, some of which are elevated, are open in front, so players of all abilities can bump shots onto the putting surface. This is typical of a Ross design.
The greens, which average only 3,600 square feet in size, are sloped, offering resistance against low scores. From above the hole, the player faces serious challenges.
Indeed, Inverness is a championship course. And the members feel a debt to the game and are honored to give back when asked to host a major tournament, even though it means giving up the course for a time.
They are proud to share with the golf world their traditional layout, which is understated, beautiful and challenging. But to truly grasp the appeal of Inverness is to see in person the joy that the club and the course have offered members and guests for more than 100 years.
One person who certainly understood was Byron Nelson.
By: Arthur Hills and Chris Wilczynski