The Argentine heat was oppressive, the chickweed in the greens made putts run as fast and crooked as a West Virginia rabbit, and the best professionals from 33 other countries played some stirring golf, but nothing was about to keep the U.S. from winning the 10th annual Canada Cup golf match last week. By Sunday night Sam Snead and Arnold Palmer, representing the U.S. in the world tournament on the famous Jockey Club course in Buenos Aires, had turned in a solid victory that made it clear this country has no peer in world golf and is not likely to have one for a long, long time. Their success was significant, for it was only four years ago that U.S. superiority was being threatened from every quarter of the golfing globe. But now the American golfers are as firmly entrenched at the top as the Kennedy family.
When Palmer and Snead won the huge, golden Canada Cup with a 72-hole total of 557, it was only the latest in a growing pile of international golf trophies that the country recently has claimed. The two previous Canada Cup matches went to the U.S., as did the last two World Amateur Team Championships, the last two Ryder Cup matches (U.S. vs. British pros), the last two Curtis Cup matches (U.S. vs. British women amateurs) and every Walker Cup match (U.S. vs. British male amateurs) since Noah's ark ran aground. The fact is that there is not a golf course in the world that a large swarm of U.S. golfers cannot play better than anyone else in the game.
"That's the absolute truth, and it's getting to be more so all the time," said Scotland's Eric Brown, who has played in eight Canada Cup matches and made three brief forays into the American pro circuit. Illness had forced him out of this year's Canada Cup tournament, and he was in a somberly reflective mood as he rested in his downtown Buenos Aires hotel room.
"It's not just that you've got more golfers. It's also that you've got such a wide variety of courses. Take the start of the winter tour, for instance. First they play on that hilly course in Los Angeles, then it's down to that flat, hard one in San Diego. Then up to Pebble Beach, a windy seaside course just like most of ours, and down to Phoenix, where you play in the desert. All in six weeks. Our folks at home are always saying of the Americans, 'Wait till they have to play in some of our wind.' Well, I'll tell you, the Americans have bloody well learned to play in the wind better than we have. We've only got two kinds of courses in Great Britain, seaside and inland. When we go abroad to play we're on courses the likes of which we've never seen before."
"I've got to agree," says South Africa's Gary Player, who has become one of the world's best golfers through much that he learned on the U.S. circuit. "You encounter so many kinds of courses in the States, and so many good ones. The greens are softer, too, and you learn to move the ball from right to left and left to right. The British Commonwealth golfers can't maneuver the ball at all. They can only hit it straight. Their greens are hard, and they've gotten so used to running the ball into the center of the green that they can't play any other kind of shot. I tell you it's a real education to play in the States. There are a lot of good golfers outside America, but they're not giving themselves a chance to become really great. Why, it's like trying to be President of the U.S. without ever going to high school. It can't be done."
"We are playing target golf while the rest of the world is going for pars," explains Sam Snead. "When I played Henry Cotton in the Ryder Cup matches in Portland in 1947 the course was real soft and mushy. I was just hitting everything right at that flag and sticking it in real close. He was trying to, but he just couldn't persuade himself to do it. He was leaving himself 30, 40 feet short on every hole, and I skinned him pretty good."
It was Dai Rees of Wales who summed up this international assessment of U.S. golfers. "You Americans play one week in Los Angeles and the next week in New York," he said. "You learn not only to adapt to courses but to adapt to travel as well. When you come into a strange country and a strange course like this one, you've usually seen something like it before. You're not likely to get as upset as the rest of us."
These off-course judgments were borne out in Buenos Aires last week.
Sam Snead, the 50-year-old West Virginia hillbilly, who was defending his individual Canada Cup title, dropped into the midst of this pungent, dusty and shabbily picturesque Old World type of city with the calm purpose of a man going across the street for a pack of cigarettes. Now, the legendary Snead can be as fidgety as an expectant father if he feels that his nerves or his energies are being overtaxed. He likes to hunt, fish and play golf and is not—however wide his travels may be—at all city-oriented.
"When I go to one of these here foreign places," he says in a low voice that sounds as if it were emerging from a mouth full of marbles, "I don't see much of anything but the hotel, the taxi and the golf course. I guess I just don't like cities much anyway."
But despite the fact that his jet flight from New York was 12 hours long, that it swished down into Buenos Aires airport through a late-evening thunderstorm (Sam is not the most relaxed flyer at the best of times), that the usual customs delays were punctuated by a series of power failures, that his hotel room was the size of a golf bag ("It's the kind that you walk into and back out of," he said) and that a painfully pinched nerve in his right foot made walking difficult, Snead's disposition remained professionally placid. He sailed serenely through his practice rounds, got to bed early each night and showed up at the official pre-tournament banquet decked out in the team's official blazing red sports jacket. He sipped orange juice, chatted with the guests and the other players and even slipped a verbal needle into Arnold Palmer's tough hide. Palmer had mentioned that his private plane was now equipped with whitewall tires.
"Whew," Snead whistled, "I guess you wear ruffles on your undershorts, too."
Later, over demitasse and ice cream, Snead went to work with his hands, knotting and pushing at a white table napkin until it was transformed into a turbaned Hindu manikin. Snead then inscribed it and presented it to Martin Posse, an oldtime Argentine golfing hero and now the head professional at the Jockey Club. Old Sam was a serene traveling American pro, just the kind Dai Rees had talked about.
There was one added reason for Snead's early good spirits, of course: he had shot practice rounds of 67, 64 and 65. The Jockey Club's Red Course is an exceptionally beautiful parkland layout, but it is not an exceptionally difficult one. It was built for the Jockey Club—which now has 3,000 members and owns a polo field, a racetrack, two golf courses and a clubhouse downtown—by Alister MacKenzie in 1929. MacKenzie is the gifted Scots architect who has designed courses all over the world, and who even had a hand in planning the Augusta National.
To relieve the unending flatness. MacKenzie planted quantities of pine and cedar trees and placed numerous mounds in and alongside the fairways and around the greens. The result is a course that is still basically as fiat as a tabletop but which can often play like a hilly one. The greens themselves are immense and extremely fast, and no golfer from any country will ever solve the unnerving twists that patches of chickweed can give a ball. But the course is short (6,746 yards), the fairways are hard and wide open and, as Sam said with a wink after his third practice round, "It kinda looks like it's my kind of course, don't it?"
For an hour or so during the first round it looked as if the only thing Snead was going to win during the week was the practice-round championship. He drove into the trees on two holes, missed some short putts and was three over par after the 10th hole. Snead's small mouth began to purse with displeasure, and the rest of his face took on an owlish scowl. Grimness is a trait that endears nobody to a Latin golf gallery. They like their players to be emotional, but also cheerful. So they punned him Pisco Sour, and they meant sourpuss, not the famous Latin American drink.
On the 11th hole of the first round, however, Snead's golf game came sweetly alive as a beautiful one-iron resulted in an eagle 3.
Snead's confidence in himself was instantly restored. He chipped in from the edge of the 12th green and brought himself back to even par. He birdied the 15th, a par 5, by reaching the green in two shots and finished with a flourish on the 18th by stroking in a 12-foot putt for another birdie and a score of 68, two under par.
Teammate Palmer, meanwhile, was in competitive action for the-first time in nearly a month—a period of semileisure in which he had gained 11 pounds but had let his golf game fall off to what he curtly called "stinky." Yet he matched Snead's 68 with some very good shots (he missed only two greens) and some very weak putting. The score of 136 put the U.S. on top after the first day with a three-stroke lead over Argentina. Fidel de Luca, a strong, dark 40-year-old professional from Buenos Aires whose thin black mustache makes him look like a Cesar Romero, had scored a 68 also, and his better-known teammate, Roberto de Vicenzo, a 71.
The fact that they trailed two of the finest golfers alive did not at all discourage the two Argentine players.
"Fidel think we are going to win," said Roberto, tearing at a steak in the clubhouse Thursday night. "And so do I. I don't feel we are the best players here, but we are at home. We know the course and, very important, we know the language. Sometime when you play in foreign country things don't go so good. You lose the brain, you get confused. I know I feel it when I go other country. Everybody talking, you don't understand. Maybe someone in the gallery do something and say he is sorry. Maybe you think he make fun of you. It begin to upset you. That's when you lose the brain and play bad, bad golf."
By the third day it looked as if De Vicenzo's confident prediction might become a reality. The Argentine twosome had dropped to third place after the second round, four shots back of the U.S. and one behind the Australian pair of Kel Nagle and Peter Thomson. But in midafternoon on Saturday a brilliant streak by De Luca marked the high spot of the whole tournament and threatened to leapfrog Argentina far into the lead. When the home-town favorites teed off it was a hot, sunny, utterly cloudless afternoon and a crowd of six to eight thousand people tramped the hard-baked fairways, following the contending teams. Its cheers mixed strangely with the deep roars that floated over from the nearby racetrack. Snead, who was to finish with a 72, and Palmer (69) were making their way into the last three holes, and Australia, suffering a delayed reaction to travel fatigue, was drifting slowly out of contention.
De Luca, however, was frisky and fresh as an Argentine bull. He is a very aggressive player who hits the ball a long way, fully as far as Snead, Palmer or De Vicenzo. He sets himself up grimly for each shot, scowling at the ball from under his thick, dark eyebrows as if he meant to tear it in half. On the first hole of the third round De Luca barely reached the front edge of the huge, sloping green with his approach shot, then knocked his first putt right up the hill and into the hole. The explosive cheer that ensued caused Palmer, then striding up the neighboring 16th fairway, to glance over in alarm. On the next hole De Luca pitched the ball to within 12 feet of the cup and sank that putt. On the 3rd, a par 3, he chipped 60 feet into the hole. He birdied the 4th, too, and the crowd was delirious with joy. But the dramatic climax to this streak of golf was yet to come. On the 5th (a 346-yard par 4), De Luca drove to the left edge of the green and then made his fifth consecutive birdie with a fine chip and a putt. De Vicenzo had played even par meanwhile, and Argentina actually led the U.S. by two shots.
But three holes later Argentina was three shots behind the U.S., and De Luca, amazingly, was back to even par, thanks to two awful double bogeys and a three-putt green.
"That's Fidel," said Tony Cerda, an Argentine pro who was playing for Mexico this year. "He gets too excited. He makes five straight birdies, he tries to make another."
"De Luca get crazy in the head," added De Vicenzo later. "He get mad with excitement."
The Argentines scrambled hard to stay even over the last 10 holes. De Vicenzo, nicely holing a 25-foot putt on the tricky 18th green, had a 69, and De Luca, after running into trap trouble and another double bogey on the 17th, finished with a 72. But they were right back where they started, four strokes behind, and their one opportunity had been lost in those three critical holes. De Luca looked a bit like a pisco sour himself, understandably enough.
On the last day it would have been necessary not only for the Argentine team to do a lot of winning, but Snead and Palmer—playing in front of them—would have had to do some losing first. Snead, after nearly a full week of excellent golf, did indeed falter. At one point he banged an approach shot over a green, then hit more dirt than ball as he fluffed the pitch coming back for a double bogey. He finally ended up with a 74. That was enough to cost him the individual championship, as strong-finisher De Vicenzo birdied the 18th hole to post the low score of 276, four under par. Sam finished fourth, three strokes behind De Vicenzo and one behind Palmer and England's Peter Alliss. But Palmer calmly held the U.S. fort, shooting an untroubled 69 to cinch the team victory by two strokes over Argentina. Palmer and Snead had coped with the greens as well as anybody could, and from tee to green they were without doubt the best.
"All we have is sand, and we play that pretty darn well," said Cherif Said of the United Arab Republic. "But here we are no good."
"We play only on hilly courses at home," added Celestino Tugot of the Philippines. "Here it's so flat we couldn't judge the distance to the greens."
A foreign gallery can bother you if you don't know the language, De Vicenzo had said. But the 10th Canada Cup showed that almost nothing bothers America's best, no matter where they happen to play.