Al Espinosa stunned both himself and the huge gallery with a 39-foot birdie putt on the 72nd hole to win The Great Depression Tour’s seventh stop, played at Bethpage State Park’s Black Course. It capped a final round of 66, and gave him a four-round total of 8-under par 272 (67-71-68-66), edging Ed Dudley by a single shot.
“To be perfectly honest, all I wanted to do was lag it (the putt) within a couple of feet”, said the Monterrey, California native, as he relaxed with a beverage on the clubhouse veranda. “I was already thinking about tomorrow’s playoff with ‘Big Ed’. But the green was running faster than I thought, and I mis-read it. But this time the rub of the green was with me.”
Although having begun the day three strokes, and no fewer than eight golfers between himself and Espinosa, the third-round leader, Dudley, the long-time pro at the prestigious Augusta National Golf Club, was the leader in the clubhouse, having put together the round of the tournament, a six-under par 64 – six birdies that included putts of 36, 20, and 16 feet on the fast and sloping greens for which the Black Course is notorious.
As Dudley closed in on Espinosa, the last of the remaining challengers, Lawson Little and Byron Nelson were fighting a losing battle on the slick greens, and were unable to fashion a charge. They finished at 274 and 275 respectively, good for third and fourth places on the leaderboard.
Dudley, playing four groups ahead of Espinosa, took a short-lived lead after he followed a deft 6-iron approach at the 490-yard 16th hole, with a birdie putt. But Espinosa, playing Number Twelve, another of the Black’s long and tough par-4’s, answered back with a 17-foot birdie of his own to stay even.
At the tricky par-3 17th, Dudley, not wanting to overshoot the hole and land in dense brush, left his 2-iron short, buried in a fronting bunker. But he blasted out to within six feet and made par, and when Espinosa could only manage a par 5 at the 13th, the Black’s easiest hole, Dudley’s prospects were looking good – especially after he had birdied 18, a 430-yard par-4, but playing short with a favourable northwest wind. In the words of Red Barber, the Georgian was now “walkin’ in the tall cotton.”
Espinosa had five holes left to pick up that one stroke and draw even. Since none of the golfers, including himself, had had much success on 15, 16,or 17, the equalizer would have to come at the 153-yard fourteenth – and it did – with a near-perfect 9-iron off the tee that left him only a tap-in. He then finished his round in championship style: Three hard-won pars followed by the miraculous putt that won all the marbles. “The Black” had met it’s match – at least on this day.
Although he was one of the top golfers on the fledgling tour of the late 1920’s, Espinosa was never a household name. The Mexican-American is perhaps most noted for his playoff with Bobby Jones for the 1929 U.S. Open Championship. The 36-hole playoff was played on a Sunday – and the magnanimous Jones had asked for a delayed starting time so that his opponent, a Roman Catholic, could attend Mass. But it was Espinosa who didn’t have a prayer that day – soundly beaten by 23 strokes – a playoff record.
Bethpage Black and its gruelling 7,400+ yards was touted to be the venue where The Great Depression Tour’s longest hitters would make their mark – and a few did have their moments:
Craig Wood wasn’t one of them, but he did record a unique double: Longest off the tee, (averaging 310 yards), and the worst for accuracy, as barely one-third of his tee shots found the fairway. Never in contention, he finished in a tie for 28th place.
Transplanted Scot Jimmy Thomson managed a rare and electrifying double-eagle during the final round, carding a deuce on the par-5 thirteenth. Aided by a following wind, he ripped a 330-yard drive, and followed that up with a 3-wood that travelled 245 yards in the air, took three long bounces – and after a short roll squeezed between the flagstick and the cup; 277 yards in all. They got him to even par, but those three strokes were given back before the end of the round, and Thomson tailed off to end up in 15th place.
The most successful of the big belters was Lawson Little, one of the finest amateurs of all time. Only one shot off the lead at the start of the final round, and tied with Espinosa at one stage, Little was done in – as was Nelson – by his failure on the greens. He wound up two shots off the lead, at 6-under par; his best finish in the 7 events. Only a raft of missed short putts throughout the four rounds cost a him the tournament.
Bobby Jones, the man who hired Dudley for Augusta National, posted his seventh consecutive top-ten finish, thanks to a 66 on the last day. But his failure to put a few of his superb rounds together has prevented him from claiming a title. Nelson, who ranks first overall among the forty in driving, greens in regulation, ball striking, and fewest three-putt greens, has been done in by his mid-range putting. Lord Byron has three top-5 finishes in the seven stops, while ranking near the bottom in several putting categories..
Four of the previous tour winners found the going extremely tough at Bethpage: “Wild Bill” Mehlhorn, winner at Turnberry, finished in 38th place, +17 to par. Other winners, Jug McSpaden, Mac Smith and Johnny Revolta all ended up at the bottom quarter of the leaderboard, at +7, +9, and +10,well above the average score for the tournament which was four over par.
After seven events which have been won by seven different golfers, the Tour remains in New York, heading far upstate to Rochester’s Oak Hill Country Club. Although founded in 1901, Oak Hill didn’t host an important event until 1941 (won by Sam Snead), so the forty golfers of The Great Depression Tour have had little experience with the course.
As fans of the sport continue to anticipate a Jones or a Nelson triumph, there are several others in the field who have yet to hit their stride. Two-time PGA winner Paul Runyan, who was ranked at the top of the PGA Tour in 1932, 1933, and 1934 has been plagued by erratic iron play and has had only one top-ten finish. The “Silver Scot” Tommy Armour has struggled more than usual with his putting game, but remains a viable threat.
Given Espinosa’s unexpected win at the “Black”, all 40 golfers pose as viable threats.