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Once a champion

With dozens of tournaments to play and millions of dollars to win, achievements in golf often run together as time passes on. The next Jack Nicklaus comes along, only to fade away without living up to potential. Golfers who once could do no wrong, suddenly can do nothing right.

Yet a golfer might put away his clubs, never again to be seen in the spotlight while living his life anonymously in some faraway place _ and not be forgotten.

The sport always remembers its U.S. Open champions.

It is Sam Parks' biggest claim to fame and one for which he is still remembered _ 56 years later. As the 91st U.S. Open is set to begin this week at Hazeltine National Golf Club in Chaska, Minn., Parks, 82, is somewhat of a local celebrity at Belleair Country Club, where he goes for lunch every day although he no longer plays golf.

"It's an amazing thing," Parks said. "Fellas that have won five, six, 15 tournaments don't get as much attention as a guy who won one U.S. Open. I've noticed that. The prestige that's been created by that one U.S. Open it lasts and lasts."

But while historians never forget who won our country's national championship, they also have a way of holding them up to higher standards, as if winning a U.S. Open means a player should win at least several more times.

Sam Parks never did. In fact, he never won a tournament of consequence other than the 1935 U.S. Open at Oakmont (Pa.) Country Club.

"I was definitely an upset winner," Parks recalled. "The newsmen were a little upset about it because they had planned their stories should (Walter) Hagen or (Gene) Sarazen win. There was a lot of meat to that. They were the Nicklaus and (Arnold) Palmer of their day.

"I had not won. But there was a famous bookie at the time in Kansas City, and people contacted him to bet. They would say, "I bet you could get 100-to-1 (odds) on Sam Parks.' He said, "No, Sam Parks is an experienced tournament tour player. I wouldn't give more than 20-to-1.'

"When I won, it wasn't such a surprise to the tour players who had been playing with me all winter for a couple of years. It was after I had been around for a while."

The United States Golf Association, which runs the U.S. Open, seeks to identify the best players in the world by playing its tournament on difficult courses with heavy rough, narrow fairways and hard, fast greens. In recent years, players have criticized Open layouts as being too harsh.

The tough conditions often have produced a surprise champion, perhaps because the superior players can't dominate the harder courses and separate themselves substantially from the pack.

Twenty years after Parks, another shocking U.S. Open winner came along. Jack Fleck, a municipal course pro from Iowa, denied Ben Hogan his fifth Open title by making birdies on two of the last four holes to tie at the Olympic Club in San Francisco in 1955. Fleck then defeated Hogan 69-72 in an 18-hole playoff the next day.

Fleck, 70, won only two more times on the PGA Tour. He lives in Arkansas and still plays on the Senior PGA Tour, but talking about what should be a fond memory for him is more like hitting a bunker shot and getting sand in his eyes. He is bitter about his treatment from the media.

"I have read so many fabricated stories in favor of Hogan," Fleck once said. "All I know is I won the U.S. Open in 1955 and hit it pretty fair. If I had won 30 tournaments, it might have been different for me. I had to live up to the expectations that since I beat Hogan, they expected me to beat everyone."

For years, Orville Moody faced the same expectations. "Sarge" was an excellent ball-striker who could hit the ball far and knock his irons close. But his putting killed him. Moody's first and only win on the regular tour was the 1969 U.S. Open in Houston, where he made a short putt on the final hole to beat Deane Beman, Bob Rosburg and Al Geiberger.

Moody, 57, was somewhat vindicated with his excellent play on the senior tour. Using the long putter, he's won nine times since turning 50 and made more than $2-million.

"I think everybody knew I could play golf as well as anyone," Moody said. "I just couldn't putt."

Andy North and Scott Simpson are often confronted with the same questions. North has won three tournaments in his career, but the last two were the 1978 U.S. Open and the 1985 U.S. Open.

Since his last win, he has never made more than $100,000 in a season and rarely has been in contention. His Open victories have been called a fluke, but the truth is he has spent most of his career battling injuries. He just returned to the tour after surgery on his nose for skin cancer.

Simpson has won more than $2.5-million in his career but only five tournaments. One was the 1987 U.S. Open, where he defeated Tom Watson by a shot. The public doesn't perceive Simpson as being a great player, but his peers do. He manages to get into contention often and made a run at the 1988 and 1990 U.S. Opens, as he did at this year's Masters.

"If you look back, there are a number of players who were unexpected winners," Parks said. "Heck, before me in 1924 there was Cyril Walker. Certainly in the case of (amateur) John Goodman in 1933. There was myself, Tony Manero (1936), Jack Fleck (1955). If you are only a few shots behind, all you have to do is get a couple of good bounces."

Parks helped make the bounces go his way by becoming very familiar with the Oakmont course. He started playing golf at Highland Country Club in Pittsburgh and took lessons from the club's pro, Gene Sarazen, in 1922 at age 12.

Ten years later, Parks turned professional and became the golf pro at South Hills Country Club in Pittsburgh. He failed to make the 36-hole cut at the Open in 1931 and 1932, did not play in 1933, then tied for 37th at the 1934 Open.

But he felt good about the 1935 Open at Oakmont. He had played the course several times and figured knowing it well might be an advantage. For more than a month before the tournament, he would arrive every morning at Oakmont to play several holes before going to work at South Hills.

He opened the tournament with a 77 but came back the next day with a 73. Back then, the final 36 holes of the tournament were played on Saturday, so many players were still in contention on the final day.

Parks shot another 73 in the third round with the help of a 9-iron pitch shot for an eagle at the ninth hole. That tied him with long-hitting Jimmy Thomson. He played several holes ahead of Thomson in the final round that afternoon, with rumors circulating on the course that Walter Hagen was making a charge.

It wasn't enough. Despite bogeying three of the last four holes, Parks shot a 76 for a total of 299 and a two-shot victory over Thomson.

He earned $1,000 for the victory.

Parks never won again, but he did compete in 14 U.S. Opens, 12 PGA Championships and 16 Masters. He played on the U.S. Ryder Cup team in 1935 and remained the pro at South Hills until 1942, when he became a salesman for United States Steel. Back then, golf was not the lucrative sport it is today.

"Lots of people have won something big and then disappeared for a few years while they try to get their equilibrium back," Parks said. "I probably would have done that too. But I couldn't wait. There still wouldn't have been any money in it. I did the right thing by getting the hell out of it.

"There's a big difference between golf and having some other kind of job. You've got a mathematical measurement of how good you were every day. Right down precisely _ 72 or 68. How did you play today? It's right there. Other professions are not so cruel."

For some winners of the U.S. Open, respect has not come easily. Sam Parks did not worry.

"It never bothered me any," he said. "My name is still on the trophy."


Begins Thursday at Hazeltine National Golf Club, Chaska, Minn.

TV: Today: Preview, 5:30 p.m., ABC. Thursday-Friday: 11 a.m. and 5 p.m., ESPN; 11:30 p.m., ABC. Saturday-Sunday: 1:30 p.m., ABC.