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Souchak toasts as mark falls

[A look back at Hubert Mizell's 1998 Times story about John Huston topping Mike Souchak's 27-under standard.]

Mike and Nancy Souchak watched the Hawaiian Open on TV, enjoying sips of vintage French wine in the Pinellas County elegance of their Harbor Bluffs home. History was evolving.

Forty-three years ago, Mike was setting PGA Tour records. After a first-round 60 in the 1955 Texas Open, with an incomparable 8-under 27 on the back nine, the former Duke tight end kept flourishing with rounds of 68-64-65. The final round was played in 27-degree cold.

A startling 27-under-par 257.

Ben Hogan had achieved a 27-under 261 on a par-72 course at the 1945 Portland (Ore.) Invitational. But after the Souchak artistry in San Antonio, the 27-under standard became untouchable through the golfing glory ages of Palmer, Nicklaus, Player, Trevino and Watson. Nobody matched the magic 27.

Stalkers came close. Nearly every year, somebody threatened. But, always, in Scottsdale or Memphis or wherever, contenders would fall shy on Sunday of the ever-aging record of Bantam Ben and Big Mike.

But not this time.

Beneath swaying Oahu palms, with Pacific surf pounding, John Huston had rounds of 63-65-66 to threaten Hogan/Souchak. To break the record, Huston needed 66 Sunday.

With the Souchaks watching, Huston wavered at the par-5 13th hole. A bunker shot wildly flew the green. He struggled to bogey, falling back to 26 under. Nancy wasn't eager for Mike to lose the record. But he, at age 70, would say, "Hell, cripes, it's time for somebody to do it."

Huston rebounded with his 30th birdie of the week. Then he arrived at the last hole, an easy par 5, needing one final bird to finish 28 under. After a splendid drive, he put a 4-wood onto the green. Two putts from immortality.

"Right there," Mike said, "I told Nancy, John's got his 28 under. It's been great, but after 43 years it was time."

They would toast Huston's two-putt birdie with clinking wine glasses.

There's more to the story.

Huston grew up in Dunedin, a few miles from the Souchaks. John turned 36 last summer, but half a lifetime ago, when he was at Dunedin High School, one of Huston's toughest and friendliest golf rivals was Frank Souchak, son of Mike and Nancy. Another of their kids, Chris, is a pro at Innisbrook, where Palm Harbor resident Huston has played much of his golf.

"John is almost like family," Mike said. "It's better that somebody you know breaks that old record. Huston is a great fellow, although somewhat misunderstood due to his low-key personality. It was another nice element that John's sister was his caddie when the 28 under happened."

Souchak was a meteoric PGA Tour entity in the 1950s. He was personable, classy and blessed with star potential. But when his ultimate opportunities came, except for the 27-under wonder of 1955, Mike was more a silver medalist than a gold.

Three times he came close to winning the U.S. Open. Mike led the 1959 Open at Winged Foot going to the final nine holes but lost to Billy Casper. Same deal in 1960 in Denver, where Souchak led until the closing nine but was outdueled by 30-year-old Arnold Palmer.

"Much the same a year later," Souchak said, "at the 1961 Open on my home course at Oakland Hills. Leading it into the final nine, I got whipped that time by Gene Littler."

Not a trace of regret in Souchak's voice. His life has been rich, stylish and quite extraordinary. Mike became club professional at Oakland Hills, then "wrote my own ticket" in becoming the original golf director at Innisbrook Resort in northern Pinellas.

A multimillionaire, Souchak in recent years has co-owned and managed Golf Car Systems, which has contracts to maintain 7,000 golf carts at courses nationwide. Souchak still has tour records.

His 27 for nine holes was tied by Andy North in the 1975 B.C. Open but is yet to be erased. Even with the 27 under being bettered, Mike keeps the all-time 72-hole score of 257 (on the par-71 course). Also, Souchak is the only PGA Tour golfer to win a tournament by birdieing the final six holes. That happened in 1956 at St. Paul, Minn.

When those, too, are broken, Mike will open a grand bottle from his extensive wine cellar and hoist another toast.

Souchak toasts as mark falls 07/10/08 [Last modified: Saturday, July 12, 2008 9:49pm]

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