Andy North overcame injuries to win two U.S. Opens

By Gary D'Amato
Published on
Andy North overcame injuries to win two U.S. Opens

CAMBRIDGE, Wisc. -- Andy North, standing inside his cottage on Lake Ripley, motions for a guest to enter through the screen door. He's moving slowly, gingerly, wincing with every step. His face is drawn and pale.

"Double hernia surgery," he says, an explanation and an apology conveyed with a broadcaster's economy of language.

Pardon the pun, but it's par for the course. North, 67, of Madison, is the only golfer from Wisconsin to win the U.S. Open, and he did it twice. But he was waylaid by an assortment of injuries, surgeries and illnesses, the cumulative result of which left him a shell of the golfer he could have been.

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There were back and neck problems, which plagued him throughout his career. Five surgeries on his left knee. One on his right knee. One on his neck. Skin cancer. Plastic surgery to rebuild his nose. Prostate cancer.

"I had surgery every year from 1986 to '93," he says. "I was going through operations every year. You know, it's Labor Day, let's go have surgery."

It's been more than 30 years since North won his second U.S. Open title in 1985 and he has played little competitive golf over the past decade. Most golf fans today know him more for his astute observations as an analyst and reporter for ESPN than for his playing career, which effectively ended in the early 1990s.

How good could he have been if his medical chart didn't look like the Green Bay Packers' weekly injury report?

"Who knows?" he says. "I truly feel I could have had a lot better career if I had been just a little bit healthier. But at the same time, you go out and do what you can do and deal with it the best you can."

Some make light of his resume because he won just one regular PGA Tour event, the 1977 Westchester Classic. He's been called a fluke U.S. Open champion, but only by those who have no idea how hard it is to win one of them, let alone two.

"Some people want me to apologize for doing something twice that almost everyone out here is still dreaming of doing once," North said in a 1996 story in Golf Digest magazine. "That can be a little hard to take."

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North is one of 21 men in the 116-year history of the U.S. Open to win the title multiple times. Only six men won have won it more than twice and all are in the World Golf Hall of Fame except for Tiger Woods, who will be.

North grew up in Madison, the son of Stewart North, a successful high school football and basketball coach who returned to college, got his doctorate and then taught education administration at the University of Wisconsin.

Whether he inherited the competitive gene or it was learned behavior, young Andy North played every sport under the sun and was good at all of them. But just like that, it was all taken away.

When he was in the seventh grade he was diagnosed with a degenerative bone disease in his left knee. He was non-weight-bearing for two years, on crutches the entire time. So much for the budding athlete.

"My world ended," North says.

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His doctor allowed him to play just one sport -- golf -- and he had to do it on crutches and from a motorized cart. As fate would have it, his parents had joined Nakoma Golf Club and the pro there, Lee Milligan, convinced the board to let 13-year-old Andy use a cart.

"They had a great junior program at Nakoma and Lee really cared about the kids," North says. "You could have been 100 other places where it wouldn't have turned out that way."

North threw himself into golf and in short order was a good player. Two years after taking up the game he was a '"4 or 5 handicap." He won the state high school title as a sophomore at Monona Grove High School and at 17 made it to the championship match of the 1967 State Amateur before losing to Dick Sucher.

He attended the University of Florida on a golf scholarship, was a three-time All-American and turned pro immediately upon his graduation in 1972. He breezed through Q School that fall and set off on the PGA Tour in '73 with his bride, Susan, and a bunch of goals and dreams.

"We filled up the car with whatever we had and took off," he says. "You just kind of take on the world. I thought it was the greatest deal."

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He finished 64th on the money list as a rookie and improved in each succeeding year: 53rd, 37th, 18th, 14th.

"I felt like I got a little bit better every year and was figuring it out," he says. "I had a couple chances to win. I thought I played really well in '76. I had a ton of top-10, top-12 type finishes."

In '77 his touchy back flared up and he spent most of the year fighting the pain and rigging up traction in his hotel room at night. After a tournament on the West Coast, he was so miserable that he was going to withdraw from Westchester, but Susan already had flown to New York and urged him to play.

"And then I went out and won the tournament," he says. "You see it all the time. Guys are playing terrible and they figure it out and, boom, they win. After that, I didn't see any reason I couldn't win a bunch of times."

At the 1978 U.S. Open at Cherry Hills outside Denver, North held the lead after the second and third rounds.

"I was in complete control of the tournament the entire week," he says. "I hit the ball great. I really didn't make any mistakes. In the final round, I had a 15-footer for birdie on the 13th hole and if I made it I would go up five. I was lining up my putt and I told my caddie, 'If I make it, this thing's over.' "

He made it. But the thing wasn't over.

"I didn't hit a good shot the rest of the way," North sighs.

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He held on to win by a single shot, besting a field that included Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Johnny Miller, Hale Irwin, Tom Weiskopf and Tom Watson -- all of whom finished in the top 10.

"I was relieved it was over," North says. "There wasn't any joy at all. It was like, 'Oh my God, finally.' It's not a two-hour window on Saturday and it's over. You have to come back and do it the next day and the next day and the next day, which is what makes our sport hard. You don't sleep as well on the lead. You don't eat as well. By the end of the week, you're on fumes.

"You're excited and you're happy and all those things, but I don't think anybody enjoys it as much as they think they will, just because it's such a relief that it's over."

Winning the U.S. Open had been his No. 1 goal. Like many major champions, North stood on the mountaintop and found it difficult to sustain the drive that got him there.

"My goal from the time I was about 14 years old, I wanted to win the U.S. Open," he says. "All of a sudden, you've done it. Now what do you do? I went through a period of a couple years after the Open when I played OK, but you're a rudderless ship. You went through the motions, you did all the stuff you needed to do, but something was missing."

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The injuries started piling up, too. His back, always a problem, was getting worse. He had elbow surgery in the fall of 1983 and his swing changed.

"All of a sudden," he says, "you're just stumbling around."

Then, surprise, he went out and won the 1985 U.S. Open at Oakland Hills. He'd missed the cut at Westchester, flew into Detroit the Saturday before the championship started and studied every nuance of the course Ben Hogan had "brought to its knees" in '51.

"I felt I was better prepared for that week than probably for any tournament I ever played," he says. "I spent a ton of time on the greens late in the evenings when no one was out there, chipping and putting and doing stuff that really helped me as the week went on."

He played beautifully the first three days, leading the field in greens hit in regulation.

"And then Sunday I went out there," he says, "and I had nothing. Absolutely nothing. Scraped it around the first 11 or 12 holes, never laid the club on the ball. I was terrible."

T.C. Chen of Taiwan was in command until he staggered to a quadruple-bogey 8 on the par-4 fifth hole -- a mess that included a double-hit chip shot, which instantly immortalized him as "Two-Chip Chen."

North, coming off three consecutive bogeys on Nos. 9-11, hit a shot out of a fairway bunker on No. 12 and suddenly found what had been missing.

"I was like, 'Ooh, that felt like how it was supposed to feel,' " he says. "I missed an 8-footer for birdie but the next hole is a par-3 and I hit a 5-iron in there to about 12 feet and made that and it was like I was in complete control after that."

He bogeyed the final hole -- "because I could" -- and beat Chen, Dave Barr and Denis Watson by a single stroke.

It was to be North's last hurrah. Injuries continued to take a toll. Surgeries came, one after another.

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"I never could go practice like you're supposed to," he says. "After 1985, I never practiced again. I never did the kind of practicing I did for 15 years before that. From that point on, you faked it. You go hit a few balls and fake it. You can't beat guys doing that."

North segued into television announcing in 1993, at first on a one-year contract with ESPN. He made a seamless transition from playing to talking about it. He plays a couple of times annually on the PGA Tour Champions just to remind himself how difficult the game can be.

"If I can't tell people something they don't know, then I'm not doing my job," he says. "That's kind of how I've approached it."

North's television duties keep him involved in the game but give him wide latitude to do other things, in and out of golf.

He has designed a handful of courses, including Trappers Turn in Wisconsin Dells and The General at Eagle Ridge Resort & Spa in Galena, Ill. He and Susan are involved in several charities and his "Andy North and Friends" events have raised millions for the UW Carbone Cancer Center. He's an enthusiastic -- some might say rabid -- follower of University of Wisconsin sports. He was Watson's assistant captain on the 2014 U.S. Ryder Cup team.

"It's been nice to do a lot of other stuff," he says. "I've never been bored. Every day you get up and you're ready to go do something."

North looks back on his playing career with pride.

"There aren't a lot of people that can say they played with (Gene) Sarazen and (Byron) Nelson and (Sam) Snead," he says. "I got to see Arnold (Palmer) at his best, Jack (Nicklaus) at his best, (Lee) Trevino at his best, (Greg) Norman and (Nick) Faldo at their best. All the way up to Tiger (Woods), Phil (Mickelson) and Rory (McIlroy). It's pretty neat."

If not for all his injuries, there is a good chance North might have been mentioned in the same breath with those players. Nicklaus and Watson are among those who have said as much.

"There was no doubt in my mind I'd win eight or 10 majors," North says of his mind-set after winning his first U.S. Open title. "I loved the fact that they were harder to win. I like that you didn't have to shoot 20-under par. I just thought I would win eight or 10 of them.

"The (U.S.) Open, particularly. I thought I'd win a bunch of those."

He won two more than Snead and Mickelson, Faldo and Norman. One more than Palmer.

It's not a good resume. It's a great one.

This article is written by Gary D'Amato from Milwaukee Journal Sentinel and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to