As the tournament golf trail winds, it is 5,000 miles-and 1,000 holes of pressure golf—from California in January to the Masters at Augusta in April. This week, with the exception of Sam Snead, who has been bonefishing off Miami, and Ben Hogan, who has been lovingly adding the final touches to the new golf clubs he has been manufacturing in Fort Worth, just about all of the country's outstanding playing professionals are journeying, as is the tribe's inveterate custom, on that long sun-swept haul, variously known as the grapefruit circuit, the winter swing or simply "the tour."
The annual motorized migration begins in Los Angeles in the first week of January, proceeds across the dry, golf-able Southwest and South at the pace of a tournament a week (save for one week open for rest and recuperation), and winds up some three months later with the climactic Masters. This week, as the caravan of some 300 persons—the ranks of the "name pros" swelled by scores of relatively unknown young men hoping to obtain a firmer foothold in golf, the whole troupe rounded out by the wives and occasionally the children of many of the players—pulled into Baton Rouge for the 10th tournament on the schedule, the $12,500 Baton Rouge Open, the 1955 tour had produced half a dozen different winners. Gene Littler, the sensational sophomore, had won at Los Angeles and Phoenix. Tommy Bolt had led the way at San Diego and Tucson. Cary Middlecoff had won the Crosby, Shelley May field the Thunderbird Open, Mike Souchak the Texas Open and last week's Houston Open. (In the subsidiary tourney at Brawley, held the same week as the Thunderbird, Mike Fetchik was the victor.) The tour, to be sure, had also produced its usual quota of milder success, clean-cut disappointment, aching backs, and superannuated carburetors.
This strange sports phenomenon, the winter tour, first began to roll in the early 1920s shortly after two (then startling) discoveries were made. First, a number of the leading pros of that era, foremostly Walter Hagen, learned from personal safaris that, spread throughout the country far from the acknowledged centers of golf, were thousands and thousands of incipient fans who considered it almost a privilege to fork over the price of admission in order to watch touring professionals take their local course apart with long drives, beautifully struck approaches that actually spun back when they landed on the greens, and putts that rolled for the hole as if they carried road maps. And second, only a few years after Hagen and his colleagues had begun to include a few annual tournaments along the Gulf Coast and in the West as part of their winter schedules, it dawned on real estate men, resort promoters, chamber of commerce officials and other professional builder-uppers that when it came to making the rest of the nation conscious of their town or their spa, no other publicity gambit could compare with sponsoring a golf tournament. Why, all you did was shell out a couple of thousand (in those days) and in return you got, literally, a million dollars worth of publicity—coast-to-coast date lines before, during and after your tournament and mentions of it all year round as an authentic part of the sports picture.
On the tide of this logic, and thanks to some astute navigation by the late Bob Harlow and subsequently by Fred Corcoran, each acting as the director of the Tournament Bureau of the Professional Golfers' Association, the formal winter tour—which in 1921 had amounted to three tournaments offering total prizes of $8,545—gradually expanded during the 1930s and '40s. By the end of World War II, there was a tournament lined up for every week from January through mid-April, $10,000 was set as the minimum prize money for a tournament, and there was some talk (as there still is) of setting up one schedule of tournaments to be played in even-numbered years and another totally different schedule for the odd-numbered years in order to satisfy all the groups and individuals who wished to be golf sponsors.
March 7, 1955
The voluntary migrants traveling circuit this winter are shooting for a new record total of some $215,000 in prize money in 15 tournaments, and what with the way golf is galloping these days, purses should continue to grow for quite a few seasons. If they do, it will be a very salutary thing, for the fiscal advantages of being a touring pro have in reality a lot less of the golden glow than most people think. The golf fan in snowbound Montpelier sees in his morning paper where Gene Littler, by winning the Phoenix Open, has picked up $2,400 for four days of play (as opposed to work) beneath the kindly Arizona sun. This is nice pickings, all right, but to give the picture its proper proportions, it should also be mentioned that of the 200 to 250 circuit golfers who follow the sun (and occasionally the dust and the rain), only the top six hit the real money, only the top dozen or so clear their expenses, and the rest of the boys have to settle for calling it a "valuable experience," a handy phrase to fall back on when you are trying to salvage something from an exhausting effort that has been fundamentally disappointing.
FAST, HARD TRACKS
If there is one major respect in which circuit golf differs from championship golf, it is the type of course the tournaments are played on. For the most part the circuit "tracks," as the pros call them in their proud patois, are relatively short and play much shorter than their yardage, since their fairways have been baked hard by the sun. Usually there is plenty of room in which to spray your tee shot with relative impunity, and so you can bang the drive for all you are worth. Usually the greens are as devoid of undulation as an ironing board, so you can pitch and putt boldly. The El Rio layout, the scene of the Tucson Open, presents a particularly curious aspect for a golf course. The tees and greens are green patches at the ends of Bermuda-grass fairways which have been bleached the color of a sand trap. Instead of the conventional rough, the area between fairways is an expanse of black-brown dirt interrupted by clusters of tamarack trees and cottonwoods. Arriving from Phoenix, the previous stop on the tour, Marty Furgol parked his car at the clubhouse, walked four holes and then, announcing that "this isn't my kind of track at all," got back into his car and drove on to San Antonio, the next stop. It was a gesture in the grand tradition of Clayton Heafner, that really irascible man, who a few years back made the entire winter swing but was so disgusted by the aspect and condition of most of the courses that he usually kept right on traveling and actually entered only a quarter of the tournaments.
Circuit golf, it follows, tends to develop a special breed of player—men like Doug Ford and Ted Kroll, to name two who come quickly to mind—who are specialists in three clubs, the driver, the wedge and the putter. With this limited armory and their keen competitive edge, they perform the prodigies of scoring that have long been synonymous with the winter tour. Whereas a 72 still constitutes a fine round on a championship course like the Augusta National, a player who goes over 70 on a typical circuit course is apt to brood silently in the locker room until he has digested that unhappy fact, and with good reason, too: every year the number of capable pros increases and today, to insure yourself a visible chunk of the prize money at most circuit tournaments, you must average no higher than 69 for your four rounds. At the Tucson Open, for example, Ed Furgol led off with a 76, and though he followed it with a remarkable burst of 67, 66, 67, he still finished no better than a tie for ninth place, good for only $390 in that $10,000 affair.
A fortnight ago, over the 6,400-yard par-71 Brackenridge Park course in San Antonio, a municipal course so worn by constant traffic that the players drive off rubber mats, the most amazing scoring spree of the current tour took place. Mike Souchak, who last year was just another long hitter but is today a very handsome golfer indeed, won the Texas Open there with rounds of 60, 68, 64, 65. This adds up to 257 blows, the lowest aggregate for four rounds ever recorded in a PGA tournament. As for Mike's opening salvo of 60, which tied the record low score for 18 holes in an official competition, it was composed of a so-so 33 going out and a 27 coming back which not only smashed all PGA marks for nine holes but must surely be, whether or not all the returns are in from the Moscow Country Club, a world's record.
Mike did it this way. On the 10th, a fairly rugged par three some 180 yards long, he hit a six-iron about 14 feet from the pin and holed the putt. He played the 11th and 12th comparatively loosely—that is, he had to settle for two orthodox pars, his only pars on that nine. Then Mike began to roll. On the 13th, 520-yard par five: a lengthy drive, a superb three-wood, a five-foot putt—an eagle three. On the 14th, 370-yard par four: a drive that left him a foot short of the trap before the green, a niblick chip which he almost holed, the kick-in putt—birdie three. On to the 15th, a par four, 385 yards long: drive, niblick, an eight-footer—birdie three. The 16th, 375 yards: a four-wood off the tee, an eight-iron five feet from the cup, the putt—birdie three. Then the 17th, another brief par four, 360 yards long: same old sequence—a long straight drive, a chip with the niblick, a 12-footer for the bird. And then on to the 18th, with Mike standing 10 under par for the round, and seven under after eight holes on the back nine.
When the pin is set on the left side of the green, as it was that morning, the 18th, a par three that measures 155, is a fairly stout test of nerve and skill, for the terrain at the left entrance and along the left side of the slightly plateaued green breaks sharply down to a creek. Moreover, there are fairly gusty winds to contend with. Mike went for the pin with a five-iron—being up was the important thing—and the ball finished on the back left edge of the green, some 25 feet from the hole. He took his time over the putt and holed it, of course, the only really long one he made on that incredible nine-hole run. And there it was: 244, 333, 332—count 'em—27.
Granting that the par fours at Brackenridge might well be evaluated as par three and a halfs, and admitting that the layout in general calls for a strange species of shot-making, you just can't play nine holes any better than Mike Souchak did that morning.
THE LONGEST HITTERS
A burly young man who played end for Duke—his brother Frank, who played end for Pitt, was, incidentally, the low amateur in the 1953 National Open at Oakmont—Mike Souchak looks at this stage of his development to have the stuff champions are made of. He is an easy man to root for.
My admiration for Souchak started a couple of afternoons before the Tucson Open got under way when I walked out to watch him and George Bayer play a familiarization round. Were it not for Bayer, a well-built, well-coordinated, all-round athlete who stands 6-foot-5 and weighs 240 pounds, Souchak would reign as the longest driver on the tour, a distinction that has never been known to rub a man's self-esteem the wrong way. Frankly, I was hoping to watch a slugging match. It never materialized. George and Mike were conscientiously intent on playing good golf shots and letting their distance take care of itself. Souchak would drive one about 300 yards down the resilient, straw-colored fairway. Bayer then would poke one five to 15 yards farther. Or if Bayer had the honor and drove first, there was no straining on Souchak's part to get out past him. After their drives, they would ramble down the fairway discussing iron play. On the 10th hole that morning, after a 320-yard drive had carried him to within 60 yards of the hole, Bayer half-bellied his wedge approach and sent it flying off-line and well over the green.
"George, I think you've been moving your head," Souchak volunteered impulsively. "You've got to keep it anchored. You do, you know, on your woods." With that he reached out and placed his hand atop Bayer's head, holding it still as the big man swept through a series of practice swings with his wedge. "That's what you want, George," Souchak said as they moved on to the green. "You should work on that."
At the risk of making this off-beat incident seem too convenient, it should be added that two days later Bayer shot a 66 on his opening round, his best scoring effort to date on the circuit. He has a long way to go yet before he is a finished golfer—there are days when he putts like a jittery Ben Turpin—but he is the possessor of a splendid golf swing and not just an oak of a man who belts the ball a ton. The club he demonstrates when the pros hold their clinic is the difficult one-iron. He hits it about 250 yards and straight.
Bypassing such young men as Gene Littler, Peter Thomson, Shelley May-field, and Bud Holscher, who have already proved themselves to be fine golfers who should become finer golfers, in the opinion of many observers there are three comparative newcomers to the tour who bear comment: Bobby Rosburg, Jay Hebert and Peter Alliss. Whatever a stylist is, Rosburg isn't, but he can get that ball into the cup, quick. He is a very daring player, almost headlong, and with the exception of Jerry Barber, perhaps the soundest putter in the caravan. Hebert, a native of Louisiana, has bumped into some rough last rounds when he was in an excellent position to win at the three-quarters mark, but he is a brilliant striker of the ball and from tee to green he can be immense. Alliss, the son of Percy Alliss, the well-remembered British professional of the Hagen era, is a large, good-looking, articulate young man of 24, who was a member of the 1953 British Ryder Cup team and won the French Open last summer. Jack Burke has been very impressed by Alliss' over-all technique but particularly by "the way he flies the ball off the tee—he's straight and he keeps that ball up in the air as long as anyone in the game does." Alliss came over in January with Bernard Hunt, also a member of the last Ryder team, and four other young British pros. "You see, back in England we have nothing like your tour," Alliss was explaining to a lean young pro from Texas as the two were trying out new brass-headed bull's-eye putters on a practice green, putting away and talking away. "We have only a dozen tournaments the year round. One doesn't get the competitive practice. That's one of the reasons your boys are so much better than we are in international competition."
"Do you think you fellows can pick that up in the eight weeks you're going to be over here?" the Texan asked.
"No, that's much too short a time," Alliss agreed, regrouping his trio of practice balls. "But even the brief exposure is bound to be helpful. What your top players have and we don't is the knack of playing well even when they're really not playing well, if you know what I mean. On an off-day when they make a pack of errors, they still bring in a good score. Let's say a chap has played a hole really badly and has an 11-foot putt left for his par. He looks it over and really works on it, and where I would probably miss it, he makes it. He salvages his par. Now that's tournament ability, and that's what we're trying to gain, along with learning how to play several shots we rarely get on our courses."
"Oh, those lovely low wedge shots with bite on them you all play so expertly. You're always on the pin. What a stroke-saver that shot is!"
"Peter, I've got news for you," the Texan remarked pleasantly. "That's why all us natives are on the tour, trying to learn the same damn things."
BOLT AND THE YOUTH BRIGADE
For all the abundance of youthful talent on the tour, no one has been playing better golf than the veteran Thomas Bolt, 35. In winning the San Diego and Tucson Opens, Tommy did everything right. His medium and short irons, which he plays with a deft, rhythmic stroke, have been especially formidable. At San Diego he got off on a very right foot by racking up seven consecutive birdies, the result of wafting seven consecutive approaches six, six, three, eight, four, four, and four feet respectively from the flag. He was never headed after that. At Tucson it was a matter of starting fairly slowly with a 69 and a 67, and then edging up with a 65 to within a shot of the leader, Bud Holscher, as they moved into the pay-off round. Bolt made up that stroke on the first nine and won the tournament on the 16th, a straightaway, moderate-length par four, by sticking an elegant pitch about 11 away and holing that birdie putt with his glass-shafted cash-in putter. Holscher, playing in the threesome behind Bolt, came to the 16th some five minutes later. He misgauged the strength of his pitch and it trickled some five yards over the back edge of the green. From there he rolled a "Texas wedge" some four feet short, and when he missed that short putt, it was all over.
Surrounded as he is today by the brigade of youngsters who have enjoyed a college education and many other advantages early in their lives, Bolt stands out, just about the last of the old hard-bitten crew, a fascinating and enigmatic personality, generous with his money, florid in his speech, cynical, spontaneous. And when he is decked out in his black-and-gold outfit (the one with the black suede shoes with gold saddles, mustard-gold slacks, a black sport shirt bordered with white, the black sweater piped with yellow, a dark gray baseball-type cap, and a yellow glove) he somehow conjures up the image of the outlaw horseman of the Old West, bizarrely transported to the fairways. But make no mistake. Here is a marvelous golfer.
It is the winners the galleries watch and the winners who are talked about, but the actual tournament rounds are only a small part, in truth, of that sports phenomenon, the winter tour. As the pro pack meanders across the brown southern states, stopping, starting, and stopping again, a hundred-odd quick-takes repeated weekly, or daily, make up its flavor.
There is the hurried dash by the whole caravan, the afternoon a tournament finishes, to get on the road and headed toward the next proving ground on the schedule. At the hotels, motels and trailer camps, the bags are tossed into the trunks of the cars, the wardrobes hung on the metal rod that stretches above and across the back seat, and the cavalcade roars off.
Golf pros are notoriously fast drivers. Doug Ford and Bo Wininger are regarded as the hardest on the accelerator now that Toney Penna is no longer making the circuit. Not counting their travel expenses, it costs the average pro around $175 a week to live on the tour, and a pro who is traveling with his wife seldom breaks $200. This adds up, so the only players who can afford to fly from tournament to tournament are the big winners. Cary Middlecoff is, in truth, the only regular air traveler.
There is the trailer camp. With more and more young men taking to the tour accompanied by their wives and their under-school-age children, the trailer is definitely the tour vehicle of the future. You not only have the appurtenances of home life along with you but at $5 a week for parking privileges at a trailer court, and your own kitchen, you can hold expenses down. The Littlers have a trailer, of course, and so do the Arnold Palmers, the Felice Torzas, the Bob Grants, the Pat Pattons. The Dick Mayers' is the current showplace, a 30-foot, 8,000-pound job which Dick and Doris designed themselves. The Bud Holschers have a new and larger trailer on order. Social note from Phoenix: Shirley Littler threw a shower for Bonnie Holscher and Nita Wininger who are expecting.
There is the practice fairway, densely populated from dawn to dark. Freddy Wampler probably chews up as much turf as anyone, though Frank Stranahan and Jerry Barber are not far behind. Soowick...thweck...soowick...soowick...thwock...on it goes hour after hour, always in the background like a Greek chorus.
PARTIES AND BULL SESSIONS
There is the portly and ubiquitous Ray O'Brien who directs the tour for the PGA. "O.B.," who first traveled the circuit as a player back in 1931 and has been traveling it since 1936 as an official, has the responsibility—to enumerate just a few of his jobs—for "liaisoning" with the local sponsor, handling the registration of entries, seeing that adequate locker space and fair prices for the meals at the club are provided, setting up the qualifying rounds, inspecting the course and drawing up rules to govern special local conditions, making out the pairings and the starting times, and arranging for golf clinics, press and radio releases, the presentation ceremonies, the breakdown of prize money, the cashing of checks, and reservations for rooms six tournaments ahead. He is fortunate (and so is the tour) in having as his field secretary his wife Jo, an orderly whirlwind. It is a rare occasion when "O.B." can get through a meal without being summoned from the table by some detail that needs instant attention—Tony Holguin's drive on the first has ended up in a gopher hole and an official is needed to rule whether or not Tony is entitled to a free lift, or a state trooper is at the first tee with a summons for speeding for John Barnum and wants to yank John off the course in the middle of his round.
There are the bull sessions at all hours. Such as admitting that golf is sort of a negative game—what did I do wrong?—does it do you any good to read The Power of Positive Thinking? Or, what are the best stops on the tour? In this last connection, the consensus would seem to be Palm Springs, the Crosby (when the weather is right), Houston (where the price is right—$30,000), and naturally the Masters. "Now, that Palm Springs deal is my favorite," Al Besselink, probably the most ebullient of the nomads, confided one night as he stroked his alpaca sweater. "What it is is a swell party. A real golfing atmosphere during the day and plenty of life in the evening. This year they had a big tent set up in the patio of the clubhouse and Les Brown's band playing there. That Les isn't too tough, you know."
There are the many unknown youngsters who want more than anything else to make a career in golf and who find breaking through a terribly rugged business. At each tournament there are .50 to 70 "open places" set aside for golfers who are not on the exempt list, the roster of players who need not qualify for each tournament because of their past records. To be sure, if a non-exempt golfer finishes among the low 60s in a tournament, he is automatically qualified for a place in the next tournament down the line, but before he has a chance to make that first 60, he must first get into the tournament by nailing down one of those "open places" in the qualifying round for the nonexempt on the Tuesday preceding the tournament proper. Miss out, and you drive on, almost immediately, to the next stop and begin practicing there days before the big boys arrive.
It is a grueling, anxious life, the winter tour, but for all it subjects you to, it gives you, curiously, at least as much in pleasure. Veterans like Jimmy Demaret and Dutch Harrison, long established, find it hard to stay away. Like the stage, the tour gets in the old troupers' blood and they miss its particular brand of companionship that is never available in a set "civilian life." Let them make their pile, settle down, but when they find themselves drifting back to the tour, even for just a brace of tournaments, they feel they've never been away. They are at once at home in that microcosm of golf and golfers, an eternally youthful world and a world of its own wherever it happens to be camping that week.
2 DEL MONTE
3 SAN DIEGO
4 PALM SPRINGS
8 SAN ANTONIO
10 BATON ROUGE
11 ST. PETERBURG
12 PALM BEACH
13 MIAMI BEACH
CAMPAIGN MAP OF WINTER GOLF
1—Pan-American Open $25,000
2—The Crosby $15,000
3—San Diego Open $15,000
4—Thunderbird Open $15,000
5—Brawley Open $5,000
6—Phoenix Open $15,000
7—Tucson Open $10,000
8—Texas Open $12,500
9—Houston Open $30,000
10—Baton Rouge Open $12,500
11—St. Petersburg Open $12,500
12—Seminole Pro-Amateur $10,000
13—Miami Beach Open $12,500
14—Azalea Open $12,500
15—The Masters $10,000