Catching up with Forrest Fezler, the pro who wore shorts at the U.S. Open

July 1, 2015

[This story originally appeared in SI Golf Plus in July 2015.]

In 1973, he had three runner-up finishes earning Rookie of the Year honors. The following season, he won the Southern Open and gave Hale Irwin a run for the money at the U.S. Open known as “The Massacre at Winged Foot.” Forrest Fezler did all of that and more in 10 years on the PGA Tour, but three decades later, he is still best remembered for breaking The Shorts Barrier, becoming the only man to ever wear shorts while competing in the U.S. Open. “I still hear it two or three times a week,” Fezler, 65, said by phone from his home in Tallahassee, Fla. “They say, ‘Oh, you’re the guy who wore shorts!’”

While recreational golfers sport shorts all the time, Tour pros aren’t allowed to. But back in 1983, the USGA didn’t have a rule expressly barring shorts, a loophole Fezler memorably exploited. It was Sunday at Oakmont and Fezler wasn’t in contention. After putting out on 17, he darted down the hill behind the green, ducked into a port-o-john and quickly changed into shorts. An Associated Press photographer captured the Superman-coming-out-of-the-phone-booth moment, a key reason the stunt became big news.

But Fezler wasn’t trying to make history, he was trying to make a point. And while he always has said that he donned the shorts because he disagreed with the way the USGA set up its championship tracks, in truth, he did it in response to some truly awful officiating he had faced two years earlier.

In 1981, Fezler was playing Merion’s famed 16th hole on Day 2 of the U.S. Open, paired with retired NFL quarterback-turned-PGA-pro John Brodie, and John Schroeder, who had a reputation for slow play. Fezler’s second shot looked to have wound up in 16’s infamous quarry-like waste area. As the threesome rummaged through the sand and thick underbrush looking for Fezler’s ball, up near the green stood USGA official P.J. Boatwright, a notorious stickler who relished in meting out old-school punishments, mercilessly shouting out a countdown—“Four minutes! … Three minutes! … Two minutes!”—to the five minute time limit on a player searching for a ball.

But before Boatwright got to zero, Brodie, who was struggling through a tough round, gave up and walked toward the green. He approached Boatwright and asked if he’d seen a ball, and Boatwright pointed to one sitting in plain view not 10 feet away. It was Fezler’s ball, but for some unknown reason, the querulous Boatwright didn’t share that information with the group, and was apparently willing to let Fezler take a penalty instead. “We played out the 16th and Brodie didn’t say anything,” Fezler recalls. “It wasn’t until we hit our shots to the 18th green when he said, ‘Can you believe what Boatwright did at 16?’ I said, ‘What do you mean?’ He told me Boatwright was standing 10 feet from my ball the whole time.”

And that wasn’t the end of it. Boatwright met the group in the scorer’s tent and announced he was penalizing Schroeder two shots for slow play—even though, despite his reputation, he had kept pace all afternoon. “Then Boatwright says, ‘Forrest, you get two shots for taking too long on your second putt on 17,’” Fezler remembers. “I was like, ‘What?’ We had finished our round in something like 4 hours, 18 minutes, which was one of the fastest Open rounds played in the [previous] five years. I said, ‘What are you trying to prove here?’”

Irate, Schroeder and Fezler asked to appeal their penalties. “The USGA got eight or 10 officials, we went upstairs with them and pleaded our case,” Fezler says. That’s when he challenged Boatwright, asking how he could possibly penalize the group for slow play after he had failed to point out Fezler’s missing ball on 16. “Finally, they came to us and said, ‘OK, no penalty,’” Fezler says. “I think we weren’t penalized because the story about what happened at 16 would have been told, and that wouldn’t have looked good.”

Two years later, after struggling with his swing and battling wrist injuries, Fezler decided to quit the Tour. He knew Oakmont would be his last Open, and he wanted to make a statement after Merion—and Boatwright—so he floated the idea of wearing shorts. After Saturday’s round, a photographer asked Fezler why hadn’t gone ahead with his plan. “The tournament isn’t over yet,” Fezler joked. “I’ll put ’em in the bag tomorrow, but I’ve got to make sure I won’t get fined or penalized.” When the photographer caught up with him on Sunday, Fezler admitted he still hadn’t checked the rules. So the photographer went and found USGA president Bill Campbell, and asked if Fezler would have been fined for wearing shorts, cleverly using the past tense in his question. “This is the U.S. Open,” Campbell said. “We’re glad Forrest didn’t wear them, but we couldn’t have done anything to him if he had.”

The photographer raced back with the news, and after playing 17, Fezler went into quick-change mode. “I’m nervous, anyway,” Fezler recalls, “and the port-a-john is about 2,000 degrees inside. I’m sweating like crazy. I get back up the hill to the 18th tee, I’m shaking, I’m nervous, I can’t breathe. I practically whiffed the tee shot. It went so far right, I had to hit a provisional. The second one didn’t even reach the ladies’ tee.” Luckily, Fezler found his first drive, only it was buried in thick rough down in a ditch. He had to kneel to hit the ball and wound up shanking it. Incredibly, it hit a tree and caromed back into the fairway. “Thank you, God, I thought,” Fezler said. From there, it was a routine 8-iron and two putts for bogey. But the reception from the crowd is what Fezler remembers best. “There were a few thousand people along the fairway and up by the green,” he said. “I never had such a big gallery in my life.”

After he holed out, Fezler’s nerves were tested yet again when a USGA official walked over, but instead of a reprimand, he got a handshake. “Forrest, this is the best thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” the official said. “Sign your card and get the hell out of here.” Fezler did just that, hurrying to the locker room and leaving before any other officials confronted him. But when storms interrupted Sunday’s finish, Fezler’s shorts episode became the story of the day with all the papers picking up the photo of him coming barelegged out of the toilet.

After golf, Fezler got into course design and construction. Following a seven-year stretch in which he didn’t play at all, he has just recently picked up the clubs again. He tried to qualify for the U.S. Senior Open this month, his first-ever attempt, but his 77 didn’t make the cut. Of course, if he had made the Senior Open, he says he would likely have planned a suitable gesture as an encore to his most famous golf moment. “I’m sure some people didn’t like me wearing shorts,” he says, “but in all this time, I’ve never heard or read anything negative about what I did. Maybe my tombstone should say, I’m wearing shorts.”

No need, Fez. We’ll always remember.