An Alabama Golf Legend on his proudest achievement, the death threat and why he “hates” Sam Farlow

Curtis Strange, Tom Kite, Tom Weiskopf, Fuzzy Zoeller, Paul Azinger, and Fred Couples. A list of golf greats to be sure, yet none of these elite players had career statistics to match those of Birmingham’s Hubert Green. His 19 PGA wins, including two major championships, tie himwith Ben Crenshaw and place him closer to the top of all-time greats than we in his hometown may realize.

Among serious fans of golf Hubert Green’s accomplishments are well known, and Green is especially revered among his golf peers. But here, Green is something of a well-kept secret. Born and raised in Birmingham, he played golf for Shades Valley High School and Florida State. After a stellar amateur career that included an invitation to the Masters, Green turned pro in 1970, earned the PGA Rookie of the Year title and went on a tear in the 70s that included numerous multiple-win seasons and an astounding three wins in a row in 1974.

Green took his talents to the Champions Tour in 1998 and carded 4 victories over the next few years until he was diagnosed with oral cancer in 2003. His cancer battle took 25+ lbs. off his already slight frame, but he fought back and continued playing on the Champions Tour until his retirement in 2009. 

Few tournament golfers avoid “the one that got away” and in Green’s case there seem to be two losses that sting a little worse than the others. He missed a 3 foot putt on the 18th green in the final round of the Masters in 1978 that would have sent him to a playoff with Gary Player. Green’s handling of that moment provides a glimpse into his character. As he was standing over the putt of his life, a radio announcer was giving the play-by-play to his audience. Green heard him and backed away, looking at the announcer, who quickly went quiet. Green addressed the ball again, stroked the putt and his best chance at a coveted green jacket slipped just outside the hole to the right. Green was peppered with questions afterwards from reporters wanting him to assign blame. Green obliged them and identified Hubert Green as the responsible party, saying only an amateur would have allowed themselves to be distracted by that sort of interruption.   

While the ’78 Masters was a disappointing loss, I’m not sure it was his most painful, and this is why he told me he “hates” Sam Farlow. As a 15 year old Green won his first junior championship, known as the Charlie Hall Tournament, at the Country Club of Birmingham. A year later he won his second. Nobody had ever won 4 in a row, and Green was determined to be the first. The following year a 17-year-old Green finished third in the US Junior Amateur and returned to Birmingham to defend his Charlie Hall title, a feat he felt should offer no trouble to the self-described “third best junior amateur golfer in the country.” He lost.

Hubert Green’s toughness is legendary and his temperament at times, most politely described as “direct,” ruffled a feather or two. But that sharp edge was integral to his success, a result of what author Mark Shaw called “…an inner fire for the game unequaled in the history of
golf.”  The fire came from a lifetime of trying to please his father, a goal Green acknowledges was virtually impossible to achieve. A familiar lesson from the elder Green was the foolhardiness of looking back, either to admire an accomplishment or mourn a failure.
So, as Green arrived in Birmingham to defend his Charlie Hall title, by his own admission his head had grown a few sizes and his father’s words grew distant. Alabama amateur phenom Sam Farlow beat Green that year, denying him a chance to win 4 in a row. (Green won a year later at age 18 in his final year of junior eligibility,
cementing Farlow’s place as spoiler
of his dream.)  That was the last tournament Green ever lost due to complacency or overconfidence. The wry smile on Green’s face when telling this story, as well as his admission that he plays cards with Farlow several times a week, brings clarity to his choice of words. Clearly they are friends. No real hate is involved, but the sting remains and
I imagine the subject comes up around the card table from time to time. I also imagine it isn’t Green who brings it up.    

When asked who among his contemporaries he regards as the toughest competitors, Green lists Curtis Strange, Lanny Wadkins and Raymond Floyd. Like Green, they were fiery, temperamental players always looking for a psychological edge. Jack Nicklaus, he offered, was far more calm and relaxed, possessed of a level of skill so superior that he wasn’t worried he couldn’t beat you.

Hubert Green is probably best known for his herky-jerky swing, his fierce competitive edge and a chipping ability that was second to none.

And, of course the death threat.

In the final round of the 1977 US Open at Southern Hills, Green was in the lead with 4 holes to play when he
was approached by a USGA official.
The official informed him that a
woman called the FBI office in nearby Oklahoma City to report that three men were heading to Southern Hills to
kill him if he finished the round. As tournament officials scrambled to deal with the threat, Green was given three options – 1) clear the course of all spectators and complete the round on an empty course, 2) stop play altogether
and finish on Monday or 3) play on. Green chose option #3. Few could imagine the pressure of leading a major championship and controlling your emotions to play at the level required to best a field of world class players. Add an imminent death threat to the equation and I doubt many players would have the mental fortitude to make contact with the ball, not to mention play well enough to win the tournament. After being notified of the threat, his next shot was the drive
at #15 and he pulled it left into the trees. After a fortuitous bounce into the fringe, Green refocused and made par on the hole. A birdie on 16 and a par on 17 took him to the 18th needing a bogey to win. Green holed a 4-footer for bogey to win his first major championship and was immediately surrounded by helmeted police officers who hurried him off the course. It was never determined who made that call or how legitimate the threat was. 

Green regards Fuzzy Zoeller as his closest friend on tour and the two remain close. Zoeller’s respect for Green is evident. They were roommates on tour for 30+ years and when Zoeller
was asked how the gregarious, engaging Fuzzy got along so well with the more serious Green, “opposites attract” is Zoeller’s reply. “Hubert loved to argue” says Zoeller, “but when he was wrong, he would always apologize.”  When Green was a player representative on
the PGA tour, Zoeller attributes many positive steps taken to benefit players
of that era to Green’s fierce attitude
and uncompromising stance on important issues.

Hubert played on three Ryder Cup teams during his career and won every singles match in which he played. His team record is also impressive, having lost only 4 matches in his three Ryder Cup appearances. Green was paired with Zoeller in all 4 of those losses, and neither has an explanation for why their off-course chemistry didn’t translate to on-course success.  Zoeller recalls when he and Green were paired together in
an alternate shot format round.
Green lobbied to hit the first tee shot, explaining that he was “really hitting it straight.” Zoeller relented and Green proceeded to drive the ball 40 yards right of the fairway. As they left the tee box, Zoeller said to Green “I thought you said you were hitting it straight!”  Green replied, “I am…straight right.”

Eric Eshleman, Director of Golf at
the Country Club of Birmingham,
sees Green almost daily on the practice range and has come to know him well. Eshleman is clearly a fan, not just of the golfer, but also of the man. Eshleman notes that Green takes a special interest in the youth golfers, frequently offering tips and encouragement. How many of them know that they just spoke with
one of only 50 men ever to win two of
the four majors?  They surely won’t learn it from him.

In a career chocked full of achievements, I asked Green to list the one of which he was the most proud. His stellar Ryder Cup record?  The majors?  His 2007 induction into the World Golf Hall of Fame?  Surely it would be winning the PGA in 1985, outdueling Lee Trevino down the stretch at age 38 for his second major and final PGA tour victory. He contemplated, then settled on his answer. “I raised over $800K for United Cerebral Palsy in Northwest Florida. That might not seem like a lot
of money, but for Panama City, Florida,
I was proud of that.”