WHEN I HEARD ABOUT Kevin Na’s 16 in the first round of the Valero Texas Open two weeks ago, I thought of Ray Ainsley. Ainsley holds the record for the highest single-hole score in the history of the U.S. Open: 19.
It occurred in 1938 at Cherry Hills Country Club outside of Denver, the first National Open played west of the Mississippi River. Ralph Guldahl was in the midst of a four-year tear during which he won three consecutive Western Opens, two consecutive U.S. Opens and a Masters. Guldahl was cruising to a six-stroke victory as the field played the customary 36 holes on the final day.
The lanky Texan strolled along the par-71 layout without a hair out of place. Guldahl, you see, was a compulsive hair comber. It was his way of easing tension. “On an important shot,” he said, “I try to steady my nerves. That comb has saved me many a stabbed putt.”
(Photo: Ralph Guldahl. While Guldahl won the Open, Ray Ainsley won notoriety.)
Yet it was Ainsley, a club pro from Ojai, California, who may be best remembered from that first U.S. Open played in the West—and for all the wrong reasons. He dunked his approach shot into a creek that bordered the green on the par-4 16th. You can probably see what’s coming. The club pro was determined to hit out of the creek. There was a problem. The ball was completely submerged in water.
According to a Cherry Hills historical account, Ainsley attacked the ball like a “wild man.” This went on for 30 minutes. That’s right, half an hour.
You might be asking yourself, “Why didn’t the goofball simply take a drop?” Because he forgot that he could take relief from a water hazard. “I thought I had to play the ball as it lay all the time,” Ainsley later told a rules official.
Bud McKinney, Ainsley’s playing partner, said that once during the tragic ordeal scorekeeper Red Anderson laughed so hard he fell to the ground. At that point, Ainsley had taken nine swings at the waterlogged ball. On a few occasions, the ball made it to the bank, only to roll back in the water. Spectators screamed, “There it is! There it is!” when the ball crawled upon dry land. But it wouldn’t stay.
The water was flowing, too, so by the time Ainsley finally hit the ball out of the creek on his 17th stroke he had lost 75 yards in distance. He pitched onto the green and one-putted for a 19, although some thought he took a 21 or a 23. Ainsley finished his round with a 96.
It has been nearly 75 years since Ray Ainsley splashed down in that creek on the 16th at Cherry Hills. He still desperately needs someone to make a 20. But I don’t think it’s going to happen any time soon.
−The Armchair Golfer