The 15th hole at the Tamarisk Country Club in southern California is unexceptional as golf holes go, or so it must have seemed to Ken Venturi before he arrived there Sunday with a one-stroke lead in the $50,000 Palm Springs Classic. But Venturi sliced his first drive out of bounds, teed up again and hooked his second drive out of bounds and wound up with a 4 over par 8. Billy Maxwell, a chunky, sandy-haired Texan playing in the same threesome, took over the lead and played the next three holes as deliberately as an old codger settling himself in his favorite easy chair. He sank his final putt on the 18th, and dollar signs flashed across his mind. He had just won $5,300, the biggest haul of his life.
Three days earlier, tall, skinny Don January, who had been a golfing teammate of Maxwell's at North Texas State College during the early 1950s, hit an eight-iron off the 15th at Indian Wells, one of the five golf courses on which the Palm Springs Classic is played, and won $50,000 for a hole in one just as Joe Campbell did the year before.
Those 90 to 100 migratory workers who follow the winter golfing trail from Los Angeles through the South have now been at each other for five consecutive weeks. As always, it is fascinating at this stage to try to handicap some of the newer faces who may soon join the front ranks.
One such, although at the age of 37 he can hardly be rated a neophyte, is Charlie Sifford. When he won the Long Beach Open in 1957 he was the first Negro ever to do so in a PGA event. A roly-poly fellow in a peaked golf cap, Sifford trudges along the fairways with a burned-out cigar stub in his mouth, for all the world as if he were playing just for kicks with his friends. Yet last year he won nearly $14,000, almost $9,000 of it on the PGA tour.
And there's the rub for Sifford. Once the tour leaves Arizona and pushes into the South, he has to leave it, and he can't rejoin the pros until they get back above the color line. Since he is no crusader of the Jackie Robinson stripe, Sifford has suffered more than eight years of semisegregation without blowing his top.
It is probably too late in his career for Sifford to expect to challenge the top golfers on the circuit, but this year he has done exceptionally well in the four tournaments he has entered. He turned in some fine early rounds at San Diego and San Francisco, and if the burden he has to carry is not too heavy he might very well win one of the big ones.
On a considerably more youthful level are a couple of 23-year-old string beans named Al Geiberger and Dave Hill. Each is beginning his second full year on the tour, and either is capable of running off with any of the tournaments along the circuit. Sunday, Geiberger tied for 16th with the tour's most consistent player so far, Gary Player, and long-hitting George Bayer, while Hill finished in a tie with Sifford and several others for 19th.
Geiberger is a tall blond who played on the USC golf team that won 57 consecutive victories. There is no outstanding feature of his game, unless it is his ability to play all the shots well from tee to green. "My main trouble when I joined the tour," he will tell you, "was that I'd played too much golf in good weather—no rain, no wind. The other thing I had to learn was how to play when you're ahead. You can't coast the way you could as an amateur."
Hill, a native of Jackson, Mich., is as exuberant as Geiberger is serious. After the first three rounds of the Crosby he was in second place with a 67 and a pair of 70s. On the last day he blew to an awful 85. Hill is inclined to think that most of his trouble belongs to his putter. If Hill's putter ever sank the number of shots he thinks it should, he would break every golfing record there is. But his wonderful enthusiasm makes him a refreshing addition to the tour.
A golfer who seems just on the verge of joining the front rank is Dave Marr, a 27-year-old Texan of slight proportions who reminds you a little bit of the young Ben Hogan in the way he moves on a golf course. Like so many fine playing pros, Marr's career began as an assistant to Claude Harmon at Winged Foot. He joined the tour full time last year and won his first tournament at the Sam Snead Festival in Greenbrier, when he had an awesome four-day score of three 67s and a 64. Marr has not started well this year, having won less than $700. But he is bound to do better.
Naturally, you couldn't think about the 1961 pro tour without first genuflecting to the enormous presence of Arnold Palmer. The crowds adore him. In fact, the general public is beginning to be a problem for Palmer. At the Crosby, where there were not enough experienced marshals to handle the unexpected mobs that followed him, there were moments when you felt Palmer's gallery was unwittingly costing him two or three strokes a round, maybe even more.
Palmer would be the last to make such a claim, particularly since he has been playing well. He won the San Diego Open with one of his patented stretch runs of birdies on the final round, and he finished respectably with a tie for fourth at the Crosby and a third at Palm Springs. His earnings of $8,300 have put him sixth on the list of money winners for 1961. But more important, there isn't a golfer around who feels safe with Palmer nipping at his heels.