It was a little like the opening day of school last week in Los Angeles as the professional golfers started out once again on their annual cross-country tour. For the 36th time, the Los Angeles Open was the starting point, and the 80 or so pros who show up fairly regularly from week to week greeted one another on opening day like long-parted siblings. Some of them hadn't laid eyes on each other for at least a month.
The roll call of golf talent was almost as complete in Los Angeles as it will be at the Masters or the Open. Of the big names, only Sam Snead and Ben Hogan were missing. So were the best amateurs, but the player who has dominated amateur golf for the last three years was very much in evidence: Jack Nicklaus was making his tournament debut as a pro, and all things considered it wasn't a great success. He finished in a tie for 46th with a five-over-par 289.
At the same time, some of the best players on the tour, the men who will in the long run win the most money, played very much as if they hadn't done their homework during the year-end vacation. Gary Player, who had been home in Johannesburg for a family Christmas, finished in a tie for 33rd place. Arnold Palmer, who had been in the cold and snowy countryside of Latrobe, Pa. for several weeks, tied for 14th with a 283, but Palmer never does seem to get going in Los Angeles. Doug Sanders, who had been soaking up tropical sunshine in Hawaii, started well with an opening-round 67 but finished tied for 16th with a 284. So much for the first three leaders of the 1961 season. For 1962, the record will show that young Phil Rodgers, a rookie from La Jolla, Calif., set a Rancho Municipal Course record with an extraordinary 62 on the final round and won the tournament by a hefty nine strokes with a 268. The course played very long.
At this early point on the calendar, the natural thoughts in the minds of those who follow golf—to say nothing of the golfers themselves—are the probabilities of the past leaders and the prospects of the new stars who might replace them. Last year was, of course, a Player-Palmer year. The two won more money than anyone else, and their combined success recalled the era of Hogan and Snead. However, Sanders made a very strong bid to overtake both and actually won more tournament money in the last eight months of the year than the two of them combined. Now along comes Nicklaus with an amateur record and stature unequaled since the days of Bobby Jones and Law-son Little. The two-man contest that made the tour so exciting during the first half of 1961—and evoked an occasionally caustic crack from some of the older players whose noses were slightly out of joint—promises to develop into a quadruple contest in 1962, at least as far as the interest of spectators is concerned.
There couldn't be a better crucible for testing this quartet than the opening five weeks of the tour in California. In four of the first five tournaments the purse is $50,000, which helps explain the high quality of the competition. As Dow Finsterwald said in Florida several weeks ago, "Who can afford to pass up that kind of dough?" In addition, the golfers will be playing over the extremely testing courses of Pebble Beach and Cypress Point as well as five of the rather tricky desert courses in Palm Springs. There should also be plenty of foul weather and wind. Under these conditions, no one is going to overrun the field unless he can use every club in his bag with a lot of authority.
That Arnold Palmer can do so is as well established by now as Mendel's law. Last year he won his first British Open and five of the regular tournaments on the pro circuit including the Western Open. Although he was several thousand dollars short of Player in total winnings, he earned more money out of golf in 1961 than anyone ever has. Although neither Palmer nor his attorney, Mark McCormack, is giving out figures, there have been educated guesses that Palmer's total earnings for 1961 may go well above $400,000.
It seems hard to believe that with all this money rolling in, Palmer would continue to work as hard at tournament golf as he has these past few years. And yet that's exactly what he intends to do. Last year, for instance, he played in 25 tournaments, an average of about one every two weeks. He took one trip abroad in July to play in the British Open, another in October to play in the Ryder Cup matches and then, with Player, went on a grueling exhibition tour to Australia and the Far East during which they played 17 matches (Player won 10, Palmer six and one was tied). As soon as Palmer returned home in November he joined the tour at Mobile and played on through West Palm Beach and Coral Gables.
"I'll admit I'm a little tired right now," Palmer conceded last week after finishing his second round at Los Angeles. "I don't think I'll ever travel abroad as much as I did last year, but I'll keep on playing in about the same number of tournaments here. The trouble with me is that I get tired sometimes and have a hard time getting myself up for a tournament, keeping sharp. My concentration lags a little, and I can't hit the short shots and putt the way I ought to." Still, Palmer would like to continue pretty much as he does now for another 10 years. "Maybe not quite so regularly," he says, "but I'm not thinking of taking it easy. I'll certainly play in the four big championships [the U.S. and British opens, the Masters and the PGA] as long as I can."
With such an attitude and with his mind and body as keen as they are right now, the 32-year-old Palmer most likely will again finish the year among the two or three leading money winners.
So will Gary Player. This intense South African, who has just turned 26, bubbles with self-assurance. "I've been playing very well lately," he said as he was about to start the L.A. Open, "and my putting has improved. I've gone to a blade putter, which seems to give me more confidence, and I follow through more on my putts. I don't tap at it the way I used to."
During the early months of last year's tour, Player was so full of determination and confidence that it seemed a certainty that a golfer of his complete versatility would do exceptionally well. Then came his victory in the Masters and a sudden splurge of demands on his time and energy. He seemed, for the next several months, to be distracted and upset by all the attention. Now he appears able to live with it, if not to enjoy it the way Palmer does. "I'm not going to play nearly as much as I did last year," Player says. "I'll stay with the tour through Palm Springs, and then I'll go back home to be with my family for a while. I'll rejoin the tour a week or two before the Masters and play on through the Open." Player can afford to rest. Last year in by-products he earned anywhere from a half to two-thirds as much money as Palmer did.
Doug Sanders hasn't as yet had to face the distractions that complicate the golfing careers of Palmer and Player. Until his sudden burst of success over the latter half of 1961, he was just one of a half dozen or so capable young pros who were among the top winners on the tour. There were also Bob Goalby and Johnny Pott and Billy Maxwell and Gay Brewer Jr., to name four in about the same category, but all of a sudden Sanders left the others behind.
The amazing consistency of Sanders' golf swing and his marvelously delicate putting touch are the reasons usually given for his quick success. The swing is, to say the least, extraordinary. With a short, short backswing and an equally brief follow through, he gives the superficial appearance of a hopeless duffer. But he is accurate, and on top of that, he has a wonderful disposition for tournament golf. Just when things are blackest he will send the gallery into an explosion of laughter with some cheerful gag. This, however, is the first year in which Sanders has had a serious stake to protect. He has always been a bold player who looks with scorn at the fat part of the green, and the question now is whether he will play the game a little closer to the belt, mindful of the growing number of endorsements coming his way.
Jack Nicklaus, surprisingly, is in the most extraordinary financial position of all four golfers. From early November, when he first announced his decision to turn pro, until the end of this year, he stands to make from his golf-related business interests better than $100,000 even if he never wins a nickel in a tournament. The same thing will be true for him in 1963. In other words, Nicklaus will never be a hungry golfer as Palmer and Player and Sanders and Snead and Hogan and all the other successful ones have been in their time.
Yet Nicklaus is a proud and ambitious young man of 21. He has set himself a very stern tournament schedule from now through the middle of summer, and he has a most demanding approach to professional golf. "I'm playing to win," he says. "I've made up my mind that for the first couple of weeks on the tour I can't expect to make history, so I'm just going to play as well as I can and get used to the conditions. I've always liked stroke play better than match play, so that part of it doesn't bother me. And I figure that after several weeks, maybe as soon as the Crosby, I'll be in good shape and ready to play my best golf."
Each of these four golfers is a brilliant competitor who will contribute a world of excitement to the tour this year—Palmer with his blazing personality, Player with his rigid determination, Sanders with his gaiety and skill, and Nicklaus with his power and youth. Almost anyone who follows the tour closely would have to pick the first three to finish at the top on the strength of past performances. But don't discount Nicklaus just because he is new to pro golf. In the last two U.S. Open tournaments, while still an amateur, his combined scores were lower than those of any pro.
HOW THE LEADING PROFESSIONALS SEE THEMSELVES
At the Los Angeles Open last week SPORTS ILLUSTRATED polled the country's best golfers for answers to some of the questions that are most frequently debated by their galleries. Below are the pros' ratings of their fellow pros.
•The most effective golf swing
1) Sanders 2) Snead 3) Bolt
•The prettiest golf swing
1) Snead 2) Jay Hebert 3) Bolt
•The best driver
1) Palmer 2) Jay Hebert 3) Bolt
•The longest driver
1) Bayer 2) Harney 3) Souchak
•The best long-iron player
1) Palmer 2) Jay Hebert 3) Snead
•The best middle-iron player
1) Tie: Littler and Bolt 3) Maxwell
•The best short-iron player
1) Maxwell 2) Littler 3) Barber
•The best bunker player
1) Boros 2) Tie: Player and Venturi
•The best putter
1) Casper 2) Sanders 3) Barber
•The best player under pressure
1) Palmer 2) Player 3) Sanders
•The worst under pressure
1)Kroll 2) Venturi 3) Bayer
•The best out of trouble
1) Palmer 2) Ford 3) Casper
•The best dressed
1)Bolt 2) Gustin 3) Souchak
•The worst dressed
A majority of pros refused to answer
•The most consistent golfer
1) Palmer 2) Player 3) Sanders
•The most erratic golfer
1)Goalby 2) Whitt 3) Bayer
•The best first-or second-year rookie
1) Jacky Cupit 2) Rodgers 3) Hill
•The best golfer to play with
1) Littler 2) Player 3) January
•The slowest golfer
1)Middlecoff 2) Jay Hebert 3) Barber
•The best teacher
1)Kroll 2) Dickinson 3) Barber