Sam Snead and Las Vegas, it seems obvious, should have gotten together years ago. Both are dedicated to the proposition that money is the root of all success. And yet, until last weekend when Snead coasted home with a seven-stroke lead to win $10,000 in the Tournament of Champions, he and Vegas had never really come to terms. In three previous cracks at the tournament, the best Snead had been able to do was tie for ninth in 1954.
This year, to the great relief of those who have had to face an increasingly cantankerous Snead (he had gone since last April without a victory), it was quite a different story. True, during his first three rounds at the Desert Inn Country Club, Snead went grumbling and frowning around the course, as he often has done in recent months, while systematically accumulating sub-par rounds of 68-67-69 for a five-stroke lead over his nearest pursuers, Gary Player and Tommy Bolt. But things had gone so well for him that by the fourth round the 48-year-old Snead had lapsed back into the character of the genial, drawling hillbilly from West Virginia—the pleasant image of him that most golfing galleries carry in their mind.
The ever-present Las Vegas oddsmakers shared Snead's optimism. On the board of Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder, who sets the prices for the Hollywood Sports Service, Snead was down at a prohibitive 1 to 6. That was quite a switch from the 15 to 1 price on him before the tournament had started. Player had opened at 8 to 1 and was up to 10 to 1 on Sunday even though he was in second place behind Snead. Arnold Palmer, who had opened as the 6-to-1 favorite, wasn't even a bet to win on the final day, having fallen 14 strokes behind Snead.
If any oddsmen doubted that Snead's nerves were steady, they were immediately reassured by his first nine on Sunday. In a gusty, 30-mile-an-hour windstorm he played a steady, 1-over-par 37. The wind was the telling point. Although the Desert Inn course looks and plays kindly on a still day, once the wind comes up it becomes a treacherous opponent, blowing sand in the eyes, balls into the rough and the scores of the best pros into duffer figures. Snead nursed his lead and on several occasions used long irons instead of woods off the tees to keep on the fairways, which for this tournament had been narrowed to as little as 30 yards.
May 14, 1961
Dying wind, rising fortunes
Then, as Snead began the second nine holes on Sunday, the wind died down and there was now no further doubt about the outcome. Bolt, who was his playing partner, had crept to within three strokes of him, but Snead rectified matters with four birdies on the last nine holes for a 3-under-par 69 for the day.
At last Snead could talk to Las Vegas without inhibition. The victory brought his official lifetime golf winnings to more than $362,000, far more than anyone else on record. And with his success of last Sunday, Snead became the oldest golfer ever to win a tournament on the regular PGA circuit.
There were several superb places from which to watch, or better yet, follow, the Tournament of Champions throughout the four days. One was the Health Club at the Desert Inn, that spangled caravansary on the Vegas strip whose golf course is used for the tournament. There you need only overhear the talk among the gamblers and Las Vegas regulars, who, as is their custom, were baking out in the steam room of the Health Club.
A throaty, disembodied voice carried out of a cubicle, "Did you hear what that bum, Palmer, did today? Out in 40, 4 over par. Two double bogies, the dirty bum! And I was on him for a wad and gave eight to five like all the other jerks. I should have known Snead would murder him! Here I been watching Sammy on the TV every week, and I don't even have the brains to bet on him! Somebody ought to shoot me for an imbecile."
"What about that Hebert, that Jay Hebert?" asked another voice, pronouncing the name as if it were spelled Hee-burt. "Who ever heard of that bum? You could've got him at 15 to 1 a couple of days ago, and now look at him. Lucky if you can get three and a half. I did better than that on Crozier," the voice continued, pronouncing the name of the Kentucky Derby second-place finisher as if it were spelled Kroo-jer.
Every couple of minutes a phone in the Health Club would ring, and you could hear a voice saying, "Yeah? Yah?" Then would come the latest bulletin from the course: "Player just birdied five," or "Jerry Barber just took a double bogey on No. 7," or "Stan Leonard just made the turn in 34."
Another very fine vantage point was in the bar adjoining the gaming room of the Desert Inn. Large cadres of drinkers and nondrinkers and other Vegas species sat hour after hour through the afternoons glaring at a huge blackboard on which the hole-by-hole progress of the 26 golfers was chalked by a man wearing a headset that tuned him in on the walkie-talkies reporting the doings of each twosome on the course.
Or you could sit in any one of half a dozen horse parlors along the strip and in downtown Vegas and get the latest reports on the golf while also watching the race results from across the country and the inning-by-inning scores of the major league baseball games.
Even with all these fine viewing spots, more than 7,000 people a day were showing up at the course itself, and they weren't necessarily squares from Golfsville. On the way into the main gate of the clubhouse they could buy chances on a Rolls-Royce and a couple of Cadillacs that were being raffled. And once on the course, they were exposed to the most spectacular girl-watching opportunities available anywhere in the entire world of golf. There were girls in short shorts, girls in stretch pants and cowboy boots, girls in skin-tight Capris. There were towering old-fashioned platinum blondes and more up-to-date jobs coiffured in the most chic brunette artichokes. There was a set of twins looking darling in skimpy little gingham arrangements and even a few girls you could take home to mother.
These adorable and sometimes stunning creatures tended to travel in pairs, which were referred to by the more diligent girl watchers as "twosies." The competition to find the most delectable twosie was sometimes as intense as the golf itself.
Male watchers, too
For the sociologists and students of the bizarre, there was an assortment of male spectators that would fill a dozen textbooks. The most arresting and prevalent male ensemble was something that appeared to be dual-purpose—a suit that looked like a pair of pajamas, fitting snugly over the hips and dyed in all the colors of the spectrum. It was a tribute to the powers of concentration of the Messrs. Snead, Player, Bolt, Jay Hebert and the rest that they were able to keep their heads down when it came their turn to hit a shot.
Indeed there were occasions during the week when it was really impossible for the players to ignore the gallery. One such occurred on Saturday afternoon at the 16th green when Player—in the midst of a brilliant round of golf—missed a very short putt. A tall, cretinous-looking fellow in a tan sports shirt turned to his companion and said, "That'll cost you a dollar." Then he let out an ear-splitting guffaw that startled Player, 50 yards away, and caused him to look up in wonderment that anyone could be so happy over his misfortune.
That same afternoon, Comedian Jerry Lewis was perched atop an NBC-TV crane alongside the 18th green, doing his best to entertain the crowd in case the golf was not enough. After Sam Snead had sunk a beautiful 50-footer, Lewis made a commotion trying to attract his attention while Doug Ford was bent over a little three-footer. Needless to say, Ford missed the putt.
Still, these were only minor irritations when placed alongside all the delights of the Vegas hospitality. Each of the 26 champions and their wives were given free rooms and meals at the Desert Inn during the tournament plus all the entertainment that the pleasure domes of the strip could offer. There were cocktail parties where Lionel Hebert blew some mean New Orleans jazz on his trumpet, and Ken Venturi made the drums do all kinds of slick tricks. When it was over, everyone went home with a prize, the smallest a big fat $1,000. You can't fault that kind of hospitality. Little wonder that Mike Souchak, after winning the Greensboro Open several weeks ago, grinned and said, "I got my ticket to Vegas for '62."