It is the first weekend in January. A group of men who look as if they were delegates to a night watchmen's convention assemble at the Rancho Golf Club, a public course in the bungalow-and-car-wash fringe of western Los Angeles. The faces of these men are gray with winter, and their bellies are escaping over the waistlines of their trousers. They are grinning and slapping each other on the back and examining each other's golf sticks. A few weeks later, sun-darkened and muscle-toned, they will look more like what they really are—the athletic bedouins of the $2,600,000 road show that is professional golf.
But now, at the Los Angeles Open, there is a night watchman's quality even about their golf. U.S. Open Champion Julius Boros starts an auspicious 1964 with an inauspicious opening-day 76. Billy Casper, 11th leading money winner last year in spite of an injured hand, goes 76-74 and misses the cut. Arnold Palmer, with half the gallery of 20,000 clustered around his cashmere sweater, scuffs a simple pitch shot. "You can sure tell we've been back there in the snow for a couple of months," says young Dave Marr. "The way some of us are hitting the ball it sounds like the Spike Jones band—clink, clank, clunk." Yet most of them manage to get the ball around the course for four consecutive days, and the process of sharpening skills for the big tournaments ahead is well begun.
The galleries at Rancho, large and zesty and as glad as the golfers themselves that a new season was under way, were asking the old and familiar questions. Can Palmer, at the age of 34 and financially secure if he lives to be 134, stay on top? Can Jack Nicklaus, the most successful 23-year-old since Alexander the Great, continue his outstanding play? Can Tony Lema, a tendon injury to his left hand now cured, pass either one? Or Boros or Gary Player pass them all? Who will be the youngster that steps into the top ranks? All these were pleasant questions to consider under the bright Los Angeles sun last week.
Palmer, of course, is still the king of the tour, although last year he didn't do anything but win money—$128,230, to be exact, some $45,000 more than anyone had ever won in a single year. Still, he had failed to win a major championship. There were those who began to think that age or the responsibilities of being a big business were draining Arnold's huge reservoir of concentration, that he could not apply himself completely at the moment of greatest crisis. But Palmer arrived in Los Angeles last week fat and sassy. He had not even touched a golf club since playing the final match for a television series on November 12. At home in Pennsylvania, he spent most of his time shooting pool with his friends in the basement of his house or helping his two young daughters ride the pony that harness horseman Del Miller had given them for Christmas. When he realized his weight had gone up to 190 pounds from a normal 175, he went outdoors and started shoveling snow.
"I need practice badly," Palmer said at breakfast the morning the L.A. Open started. "But this year I'm going to work back into form gradually. I used to come out here and practice like hell, and my hands would get sore and my muscles stiff, and I couldn't play well. I am going to take it slowly. I feel good, and now that my golf company is under way I don't have as much on my mind as I did."
Palmer's new business, the Arnold Palmer Co., went into full-scale production in Chattanooga on November 1. He is making a complete line of golf clubs and bags. Other branches of the company make every item of golfing equipment from socks to rain jackets. Now, as he walks down a fairway, Arnie's familiar red-and-white Wilson bag is no longer with him. In its place is a deep green one, with the Arnold Palmer signature boldly inscribed in white and "Arnold Palmer Co." printed only slightly less conspicuously below. Everything he wears carries his trademark, a multicolored umbrella that is symbolic, perhaps, of the money that rains down on him in an ever greater downpour.
Arnie's Army was even more unwieldy than usual at the L.A. Open, for neither Nicklaus nor Player was there to siphon off the attention. Player was still home in Johannesburg, where his wife is expecting their fourth child, and is not planning to join the tour until March. Nicklaus, meanwhile, was indulging himself for a couple of more weeks at his winter home in Fort Lauderdale. When he does join the golfers for the Crosby at Pebble Beach, the third event on the schedule, the Big Bear will bear some watching. Although he has not hit a golf ball in earnest since November 24, there is purpose to his dawdling. "I like to be excited when I'm playing in a tournament," he explained last week. "When I was in school I always used to take three months a year off from my golf, and I'm trying to get back into my former pattern. I played so much during the latter part of last year that I wasn't getting excited the way I used to."
There will be another new aspect of Nicklaus' game for his rivals to worry about. Jack plans to arrive in Pebble Beach on the Monday before the Crosby begins to take some putting lessons from George Low, who is one of the more diverting appendages of professional golf. The legend is that Low can outputt anyone in the world using nothing but the leading edge of a sand iron. Low has not played in a professional tournament, the story goes, since Francis Ouimet was a little boy, but if he could find anyone to bet with on the putting green he probably could drive from tournament to tournament in Rolls-Royces. As it is, he has to settle for a Cadillac convertible. More than one touring pro has hit a hot streak after a few tips from George.
Nicklaus, who says, "I've always been a lousy long putter," intends to stick with George's instruction for a few weeks and see what happens. "If I could just putt like Palmer, I'd be happy," says Jack. It is a familiar refrain.
One of the superb comebacks in sport last year, a rejuvenation that would have quickened the pulse of Ponce de León, was made by 43-year-old Julius Boros, and putting instruction was the key. Last May an amateur golfing friend from Fort Lauderdale, Dr. Arthur A. Bolton, gave Boros some putting tips that worked. He immediately began to win. "I've always felt I could beat Palmer or Nicklaus or anyone else if I could sink some putts," he says. In his own confident, uncomplicated way, Boros sees no reason why he should not do as well this year as last.
"Total commitment" is a phrase Frank Stranahan once used to describe an essential ingredient in a championship golfer. One looks for it among the young, unknown players who now and then win a tournament. More often than not, it is missing. As yet, no one can say for sure whether it is a part of the equipment of either Frank Beard or Raymond Floyd, two of the best rookies of 1963.
Beard, 24, is an intense young man, as clean-cut as an eagle scout. When he won the Sinatra tournament at Palm Springs in November he charmed everyone with his modesty and sincerity. The brother of Ralph Beard, the once famous basketball player from the University of Kentucky, Frank stuck to golf, which he learned from his father, then a pro himself. Ten lawyers from Louisville put up the $5,000 that started Frank on the tour in late 1962, and he won a check his second week. In 1963 he was in the money 16 times, and he ended the year with nearly $18,000—a highly commendable start for a newcomer these days.
The personality of Ray Floyd is almost an antithesis of Beard's. Barely of voting age, Floyd is a fun-loving, gay-spirited North Carolinian who is apt to be the last to leave the party—any party. At 6 feet and 200 pounds, he looks more overgrown than athletic, but he can put a lot of beef into his shots, and he knows it. "I don't try to hit so hard all the time the way I used to," Floyd was saying after his first-round 74 at Los Angeles. "I can still hit it far, but I'm not trying to hit the big one every time. It got so I hit so many balls out of bounds they had to put the factory on the night shift to keep me supplied. But I can still get it out there if I want to. On the last hole today Palmer hit one of his big drives, and I was 20 yards past him. My short game has always been all right, but I have mental lapses." Asked if anything had happened recently in his personal life, like getting married, Floyd replied, "No, sir. I've been in a lot of traps, but that's one trap they won't get me in."
These, then, are the two young men who will be most closely watched this year, at least until they prove whether they are really winning golfers or just young men who happened to hit a four-day hot streak. "Total commitment" will be part of the answer, and both of them were committing themselves at Los Angeles. With so much money at stake, the commitment is pretty total for all the players on the pro tour, of course, and this was the unstated feeling anybody could sense at this season-opening event.
Rusty swings led to some clink, clank, all right, but it still took a lot of commendable golf for lean, long-hitting Paul Harney to become the 38th L.A. Open Champion. His winner's check was $7,500. That is going to be just a little purse in the big year of 1964.