On the morning of January 4, 1957, as the postdawn mist lifts slowly from the green hollows and eucalyptus hills of the Rancho Golf Course in Los Angeles, a young man in visored cap, practice-swishing a top-heavy club, will stand silhouetted against the morning sky. He will pause a minute and stare toward the shrouded fairway. Out there lies Torquemada—7,131 backbreaking yards of sapling-strewn torture. The rack.
This is an article from the Dec. 24, 1956 issue
The young man will draw a deep breath, then step purposefully to the teed-up ball. The club will be a stroboscope blur as it describes its arc into the ball. A resounding thwack will cut the chilly air, and the white sphere will streak out of sight into the veil of fog. The 1957 tournament golf season will be under way. For this will be the start of the 31st Los Angeles Open, the rich and venerable tournament which has since 1926 touched off for America's professional stars the annual quest for golf glory and money that will end some 40 cities (and million dollars in prize money) later.
The chances are that our young golfer—who is only one of 160 qualifiers and gets the first starting time because of his complete inconsequentialness—will long since have gone back to selling cars or repairing clubs in the pro shop by the time the 1957 tournament trail ends. But there is a chance, too, that he—or someone like him in the dew-cutters' brigade—will go on to become one of the famous first-tee silhouettes in golf history. It was in 1932, in this tournament, that a young man in ill-fitting slacks (with the hip pockets run together and his entire poke of $75 thrust deep in them) first took his stance on a pro-circuit tee. A month later he was back home in Texas, broke, but there would have been more than the official scorer and his fellow players on that tee in 1932 if the golf world had known what an historic occasion it was—the debut of Ben Hogan.
There may be a Ben Hogan (but not the original) teeing up with the sun at Los Angeles next month. But there will also be the current elite of the golf world, and the probability is they will cow the future Ben Hogan as thoroughly as MacDonald Smith, Leo Diegel and Joe Kirkwood did the old one in that vintage year, 1932.
The noon starting times, when the anticipated crowd of 25,000 will be out on the new municipal course across the street from 20th Century-Fox film studios, will not offer neophytes but the adored heroes of the game—Doug Ford, still playing as though the sheriff were after him; Cary Middlecoff, still agonizing over every shot like a new father trying to put a diaper on baby; Gene Littler, compact, poker faced, methodical; Tommy Bolt, a volcanic temper still bubbling close to the surface and threatening to erupt all over and leave the Pompeian ruins of a first-rate golf game; Ed Oliver, still peering around his belly to see his lie; Jackie Burke, curly haired, invulnerably boyish-looking but playing with the new confidence of a man who finally won two major tournaments (Masters, PGA); Jerry Barber, barely taller than his two-iron, desperately letting out the shaft on all shots just to stay on the same fairway with his threesomes, but deadly on the greens; Dutch Harrison, the ambling Ozark who looks as though he ought to have a black hat with bullet holes in it and a long-barreled hunting rifle instead of a golf club in his hand.
Although Rancho as a tournament course is not as grueling a test of golf as other earlier Los Angeles Open sites, notably Riviera, it has been made considerably tougher than it was last year. A wartime antiaircraft installation, it was taken over by the city in 1949 and will be beautiful and stern when the 2,500 new trees (900 of them planted in the last four months) grow up. For this tourney, its 6,642 yards have been lengthened by moving back the tees on four holes. Host Pro Charley Lacey, who learned his golf in England in the heyday of Henry Cotton and once carried Tommy Armour to the 36th green in a PGA semifinal match, thinks Rancho will test the mettle of the touring pros and produce another worthy winner for the tournament whose roll of champions reads almost like a Who's Who of golf (see below). "The winner will be one of the top 10 players," flatly predicts Lacey. "And if any wind is blowing at all, he will not break 280."
If the wind blows or the rain falls, it will spoil more than golf. It will spoil what is unquestionably a number-one spectator show. A southern California golf gallery is a democratic hodgepodge which will range from the truant-playing bank president to the lordly movie hero blindingly decked out in checked coat and smoked glasses and sporting his own chattering gallery of sycophants in billowing collars and suede shoes. It will even have a heavy smattering of truck drivers who normally play their golf on the rubber mats of city driving ranges.
It is a gallery as garish as Broadway and as noisy and uninhibited as an Elvis Presley fan club. It is also alive with misinformation. Everyone is an expert—particularly those who have only lately learned to tell a wood from an iron. The popular notion is that when Ben Hogan said "I never believe anything a gallery tells me," he was thinking about southern California.
It is a gallery which revels in disaster, and more than one chattering clump has been stampeded by the breathless—and erroneous—word that "Snead just took an eight!" or "Bolt just smashed his putter!" The town criers are abroad in force at the Los Angeles Open, happier than an old maid with a new spyglass.
On the other hand, a southern California golf gallery is never downbeat, and, unlike galleries at most other sports, there is no malevolence. A golf gallery is, in effect, a claque. Brilliant strokes always evoke rather unseemly enthusiasm while a missed putt or a nasty kick into a trap brings on looks of distress which make it appear that every heart in the crowd has just been broken.
Golf is the only game which permits the spectators to mingle freely with the contestant, and this precipitates a rather remarkable change. The same man who would boo and snarl at his hero from the comfortable anonymity of the bleachers suddenly becomes docile and uncharacteristically sympathetic. There is a reason for this: we are a nation of congenital spectators, the transition from remote critic to virtual participant makes the galleryite feel uncomfortable, almost a trespasser, as if he were standing in center field with Mickey Mantle. This not only strips him of his anonymity, it also gives him a closeup look at how difficult it is and changes him incredibly from a derisive lout to a considerate, polite companion on a tour of the links. Occasionally, a galleryite will be heard to murmur gently, "He shoulda used a nine there," but always with genuine regret, never in the aggrieved tones of the $2 bettor whose horse just cantered. At last year's L.A. Open, a spectator on the rugged fifth hole shook his head as Mike Souchak pulled a two-iron from his bag for a long, uphill second shot. "Never make it with that," he warned. Souchak never changed expression, swung—and didn't make it, the ball striking a mound before the green. The crowd turned reproachfully on the advisor, right though he was. He had broken the code.
Of course, the first-tee gallery at Los Angeles will include a few bewildered chorus girls in net stockings, on hand to ballyhoo a Hollywood night club which is hosting a pre-tourney blowout for golfers and their wives. Conspicuously present, too, at the Los Angeles Open will be the portly trailer manufacturer, William MacDonald, who has maneuvered himself into the unique position where he bankrolls the tournament but has very little to say about it. MacDonald was lured into this spot two years ago (SI, Jan. 3, 1955) when the pros decided the longtime sponsor of the tourney, the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce, was not treating them with the respect they deserved. So MacDonald was lassoed into staging a rival tournament, and then everything was patched up—more or less. Now the Junior Chamber still runs and polices the tournament, but Bill MacDonald parks one of his gaudiest trailers hard by the first tee and plays lavish host to the important golfers, press and assorted celebrities who come to view the sport. For this he ponies up $25,000 a year and gets to play in a predate meet—which he does with more gusto than skill.
On the theory that golf alone would never drag the entertainment-jaded southern Californians away from their scented swimming pools, a pro-celebrity, one-day tournament precedes the serious Open play. Besides the buffooning MacDonald, characters like Leo Durocher are star attractions at these clambakes and, unlike the pros, they are not immune to ridicule. A skied shot by Leo usually brings the soothing gag from the gallery "Don't worry, Leo, Willie Mays'll get it." When UCLA Coach Red Sanders hits one behind a tree, he is usually advised to "Punt it out, Red." This year it is hoped Walter Hagen will be enticed into appearing—which would lend a unique touch of class that a dozen movie stars couldn't produce.
No one would think of showing up for the Open in Los Angeles in simple slacks and sweater. It is probably the one tournament where the spectators wear louder clothes than the players, and from a distance it sometimes looks like 15,000 Jimmy Demarets trailing down the fairways. It is the duffers' chance to wear their four-handicap raiment without having to live up to it on the greens. There are more Bermuda shorts with vermillion high stockings than there are at a Vassar lawn party, and enough alligator shoes with flaps on them to depopulate the swamps of Florida—if they were genuine.
This flashy crowd loves a flashy leader, and it is a rule of thumb at the L.A. Open that if there are 10,000 fans on the course, 9,000 follow the leader. No one is lonelier than an also-ran and even the great Hogan used to lose two-thirds of his audience—leaving him barely enough to frame a green—if he fell a few strokes off the pace. The pros get along remarkably well with their galleries. Middlecoff did once snarl at a crowd to get out of his way, because "I make my living this way," but this was an exception. They usually take their frustrations out on the press or cameramen. Since there are so many expensive cameras on the course, it is impossible for the golfer to tell amateur from pro and any clicking shutter usually results in a barrage of invective directed at the pressroom.
There is no longer any pretournament Calcutta from the L.A. Open, which cuts considerably into the winner's take-home pay, the practice being for the winning gambler to bestow a percentage on the swinger who won for him. For one thing, Rancho is a public golf course, and there is no home membership to stage the lottery. For another thing, Calcuttas have come into disrepute generally.
For some reason a golf crowd eats its head off—perhaps because of the unwonted fresh air. As a result, concessionaires strive to keep the maw filled by staggering candy-striped tents around the course, catering to the inner man. The queue at the Scotch-and-soda bar is sometimes a good two-iron shot long, but the briskest business is in that staple American sports diet of hot dogs and Cokes.
Movie stars are in abundance, yet they go largely unnoticed. Years ago it was not uncommon to see Humphrey Bogart take up a station at the 13th green at Riviera where he would watch each succeeding threesome each day until the tournament was over. Dean Martin and Tony Martin are usually under foot as are Danny Kaye and Dennis O'Keefe, a scratch player. It's a tribute to the obsessiveness of golf that its victims would rather get the autograph of the first-round leader than any other type of celebrity. Even Ted Williams went overlooked one year when he was gallerying with his buddy, Sam Snead.
But the fact is the Los Angeles Open is big league—not just another tournament but a premium open in terms of cash ($37,500), press coverage and audience (rich and style-conscious and with demonstrable impact nationally).
The aspiring pros, however, whether they arrive by new Cadillac with Michigan license plates still attesting their factory freshness or by family flivver with sandwiches in a shoe box, do not come west solely for the Los Angeles Open. The whole winter circuit of lucrative purses lies before them. On subsequent weeks the tour will wind aimlessly up and down California (the Crosby Open on the Monterey Peninsula at Monterey, the Caliente Open at Tijuana, Mex. and the Thunderbird Open at Palm Springs) before heading relentlessly eastward via Phoenix, Tucson, San Antonio and Houston.
But it is the Los Angeles Open which the golf seers from coast to coast scan most penetratingly for portents of things to come. Each year of late the handwriting on the scoreboard has been popularly regarded as the oracle which firms up the emergence of a new elite. Two years ago, when Gene Littler won the event, the words to the wise buzzed through the Schweppes fumes in the clubhouse that "the old guard is through." But Cary Middlecoff and other veterans went on to make most of the subsequent golf headlines that year. And last year Lloyd Mangrum won the event itself for the fourth time (one more than Hogan, two more than Snead) and threw the youth program shudderingly into reverse before it even got started.
Barometrically, the Los Angeles Open tells the golf world more than the subsequent far western tourneys. The Crosby Tournament is a firemen's picnic in which only the pro who finds his game has somehow managed to stay together through the first two rounds really tries to push through to win. The Caliente Open is too new and the course too untried to mean much. Several of the deep-winter opens are played on Wild West courses where only an occasional rattlesnake mars an otherwise all-serene approach from tee to green and the only golfing hazards are the primeval fairways. A score of 68, for example, is a mediocre round at Tucson and San Anton.
The touring pros who will congregate in Los Angeles next month are, like all specialists, most happy among themselves and talking shop. Although they are the most traveled of U.S. athletes, golfers don't know cities, or even countries; they just know courses. They meet each other in Los Angeles, but they may—if they spot a colleague who has been there recently—discuss the grass at West Palm Beach. They can get lost trying to find their way back to their motels. But they know every rock on the course they will play.
They buy oil wells with golf winnings, but the only geology with which they are familiar has to do with the rock formations of a sand trap and whether to putt or blast out. They don't know there is a quantum theory, but the physics of a golf swing is miraculously clear and logical to them. There are no chesty pro golfers. Victories are never that decisive. A wisp—sometimes one missed shot a round—divides the best from the worst. A haggard pro once described the atmospheric pressure around a championship green as "about what it is at 20 fathoms."
On top of this a golfer has a formidable opponent—himself. In all the mutations of the game of golf, from the early implements (which Sir Winston Churchill himself dubbed "ill suited to the purpose") to the hickory shaft, to the steel shaft and the multiplicity of wedges—the one immutable is the golfer himself. The plain fact is that many of today's near stars need an analyst more than they need a new putter. This will not stop them from tinkering hopelessly with their games or experimenting with new clubs. At the L. A. Open next month, Kansas Pro Paul O'Leary is expected to try a new, short putter designed by a Los Angeles amateur named Robert Donohue which is constructed to strike the ball on the green like a polo mallet and which is held between the legs as in croquet. If O'Leary one-putts several greens, golfers being what they are, all over the locker room players will be throwing out two-woods, to make room for the latest sure-shot oddity.
But whatever befalls the gilt and gaudy group with their alligator shoes and mink mitts on the woods, next month's Los Angeles Open should touch off the most extravagant season since the Hogan high-water mark. For the golf fan is a devout disciple of the cult of personality. In a sport where it's tough to outscare another golfer two days in a row, let alone two tournaments, the hero-hungry fans are looking imploringly at Los Angeles for the new superpro to give them something to strut and boast about and enjoy loudly and vicariously. That superpro may be on the top of the scoreboard at Los Angeles next month and—if the wind doesn't blow—he may even break 280.
FOOTPRINTS ON THE FAIRWAY
The air is chilly and dew sparkles on the fairways as a sparse but eager gallery tramps through the morning haze after one of the Los Angeles Open's early-starting threesomes. Later in the day the January sun will burn hot from a cloudless sky, and thousands of gaily dressed southern Californians will swarm the course to watch and applaud the always astonishing skill of the name stars: Middlecoff, Mangrum, Littler, Burke, et al. But that is later, and the early-morning fans content themselves by watching the lesser-knowns, on the theory that one of them may someday develop into another Ben Hogan or Sam Snead.
WINNERS OF THE L.A. OPEN
1926 Harry Cooper
1927 Bobby Cruickshank
1928 MacDonald Smith
1929 MacDonald Smith
1930 Denny Shute
1931 Ed Dudley
1932 MacDonald Smith
1933 Craig Wood
1934 MacDonald Smith
1935 Vic Ghezzi
1936 Jimmy Hines
1937 Harry Cooper
1938 Jimmy Thomson
1939 Jimmy Demaret
1940 Lawson Little
1941 Johnny Bulla
1942 Ben Hogan
1943 No tournament
1944 Harold McSpaden
1945 Sam Snead
1946 Byron Nelson
1947 Ben Hogan
1948 Ben Hogan
1949 Lloyd Mangrum
1950 Sam Snead
1951 Lloyd Mangrum
1952 Tommy Bolt
1953 Lloyd Mangrum
1954 Fred Wampler
1955 Gene Littler
1956 Lloyd Mangrum