Toledo, Ohio – The final hole at Inverness Club has been the scene of some heroic golf over the years. In the 1931 U.S. Open, George Von Elm made a pair of championship-extending birdies on the 18th hole – first in regulation, then at the end of the scheduled 36-hole playoff, tying Billy Burke both times. Von Elm couldn’t summon a third crucial birdie during the second 36-hole playoff, which he lost to Burke by one stroke.
In the 1957 U.S. Open, both Dick Mayer and Cary Middlecoff made birdies on the 72nd hole to force a playoff, won by Mayer. Bob Tway holed a greenside bunker shot for birdie to win the 1986 PGA Championship.
And in the final round of the 2009 NCAA team championship, Bronson Burgoon hit a wedge shot from deep rough that stopped within tap-in distance on the final hole. The dramatic birdie clinched the first-ever national title for Texas A&M.
Like the other 155 competitors in the 2011 U.S. Senior Open at Inverness, 58-year-old amateur Dr. Joe Viechnicki would love to add to the history of drama and memorable shots at the 18th hole. He just hopes he didn’t deplete his supply of heroics in order to make it into his first United States Golf Association championship.
During sectional qualifying at the Country Club at Woodmore in Mitchellville, Md., Viechnicki, an orthodontist from Bethlehem, Pa., chipped in for birdie on the 18th hole to get into a six-way playoff for the third of three qualifying spots. In the playoff, he was the only player to make a birdie on the first playoff hole, No. 10.
Viechnicki’s chip-in from about 40 feet from the hole gave him a score of 72, and he had to wait about two hours to see whether anyone would post a lower number. When no one did, he warmed up quickly for the playoff, ending the session with three swings with a 9-iron, the club he had used on the 10th hole during the round.
The first one, I skinny it, said Viechnicki. The next one, I hit right. The third one was perfect. I said, ‘That’s it. We’re going to the tee.’
On the 10th hole, Viechnicki faced an uphill second shot of 128 yards – perfect distance for his 9-iron. His well-anticipated, well-executed shot finished 4 feet below the hole. After the other two players in his group missed their birdie attempts, Viechnicki made the relatively easy putt.
But he wasn’t sure that he had qualified until officials congratulated him and handed him an envelope containing a card with information about the 2011 U.S. Senior Open. It was surreal, said Viechnicki, who played in the second threesome during the playoff. There were guys standing around and I didn’t make eye contact with any of them before my turn. I thought the putt was to tie.
Once Viechnicki realized he would be heading to Toledo, Ohio, his initial reaction was unexpected. One of my first thoughts was, ‘My staff is going to kill me,’ he recalled. Because we’re going to have to cancel and reschedule patients for the whole week.
His successful practice is the main reason Viechnicki is such a latecomer to competition. He hasn’t had much time to play tournaments and until this week, his biggest golf accomplishment was winning back-to-back club championships in 1995 and 1996 at Saucon Valley Country Club in Bethlehem.
Of course, that feat isn’t exactly a gimme considering the high level of play among members at Saucon Valley, which has hosted six USGA championships, including the 1992 and 2000 U.S. Senior Opens. Including Viechnicki, the eastern Pennsylvania club boasts four members who have qualified for the Senior Open. In fact, one of the five participants Viechnicki beat in the playoff was fellow Saucon Valley member Gary Daniels, who played in the Senior Open in 2000 at his home club.
The experiences of Daniels and Robin McCool, who qualified for the Senior Open in 2001, will help Viechnicki as he prepares for his 2:35 p.m. starting time for Thursday’s first round. Their main advice was to not get worn out, said Viechnicki, who has been a Saucon Valley member since 1989. Because it’s so user-friendly. You can play all you want. And if you want to go hit balls, you can hit balls for as long as you want.
In 2000 Gary Daniels played nine holes on Wednesday morning. Then Jack Nicklaus asked him to play 18 holes. He was pretty worn out by the first round. That’s what I’m trying to avoid.
A weekend golfer for most of his life, Viechnicki is trying to build up endurance for a long week at Inverness. I just don’t play that much golf, said Viechnicki, whose Handicap Index® is currently 1.7. It’s a marathon. I’ve been trying to play every day for the last couple of weeks. And I just won the Lehigh Country Club member-guest. But it was a four-day event and I was a little tired by the last day.
The late bloomer hopes to build on his newfound success by devoting more time to the game in the future. Viechnicki’s son, Bryon, will join the practice next year following his residency at Temple University.
Although Bryon won’t be able to make it to Toledo, Viechnicki will be surrounded by plenty of other tooth experts at Inverness. His wife, Margaret, is a dentist; his brother Bill, also an orthodontist, will be his caddie for Tuesday’s practice round. On Thursday and Friday (and hopefully through the weekend), his looper will be lifelong friend Edmund Magann, with whom Viechnicki has played hundreds of rounds. Magann, of course, is a dentist. On Thursday afternoon, anyone at Inverness with a toothache will want to follow Viechnicki’s group.
While the pressure of playing in their first national championship may cause some players as much stress and agony as the prospect of newsContent-canal surgery, Viechnicki will be relying on his biggest strength, his on-course equanimity, as he makes the transition from the small pond of Saucon Valley to the oceanic expanse of the national championship.
I realize I’m leapfrogging a lot of levels, said Viechnicki. But I’ve always had a good demeanor. I’m not a hothead. I don’t get upset. People say they don’t know whether I’ve just made a birdie or triple bogey.
Even so, chances are Viechnicki will be celebrating if he were to make a final-hole chip-in at Inverness.
Hunki Yun is a senior staff writer for the USGA. E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.