A funny thing happened in Texas last week. Somebody did something nice for amateur golf. For those who have forgotten, amateur golf is the sport that attracted galleries of 18,000 when Bobby Jones was winning the U.S. Amateur in 1930, and which now draws seven old ladies and a small dog, this being an era when any tall boy who can break 90 announces at age 11 that he is turning professional.
The somebody, actually somebodies, who are trying to subvert this trend are two of America's noted old pros, Jimmy Demaret and Jack Burke Jr. For the past seven years they have been operating a club called Champions just outside their home town of Houston and just inside a vast forest of pine and oak and gum trees called the Big Thicket. It was there, on one of the truly magnificent and complex golf courses in the country, that they staged the fifth renewal of their Champions Cup Invitational. No matter how it is measured, the Champions Cup is a major event—72 holes of stroke play over four days, large galleries, three hours of statewide TV on each of the final two days and a silver trophy as big around as Demaret. It has, in other words, all the trappings of big-time tournament golf except that the contestants are amateurs instead of pros.
Charlie Coe and Deane Beman, who have each won the U.S. Amateur Championship twice, were there, and so were two-man teams composed of 126 other golfers with handicaps of 5 or less, Coe and his partner, Dee Replogle, represented the Oklahoma City Golf and Country Club, Beman and William Buppert played for the Chatmoss Country Club of Martinsville, Va. and one twosome came from as far away as Calgary. Each pairing counted only its best ball.
When the front-running teams came down the stretch on Sunday afternoon before a gallery of several thousand, the suspense was as dense as bouillabaisse. Ed Hopkins and Wilson Schoellkopf Jr., from the Brook Hollow Golf Club in Dallas, had started the day with a two-stroke lead. Throughout the final nine holes they lost and regained it several times to two San Antonio stockbrokers, Johnny Thornton and Bobby Walcowich, who were struggling to return the Champions Cup to their. Oak Hills Country Club, where they had taken it after winning last year.
It was the 32-year-old Thornton who eventually saved the silver. At the 17th he rescued a par with a fine recovery from a woody ditch, followed by a 40-foot putt over one of the waviest of Champions terrifying greens. The two teams ended up tied at 282 for the 72 holes, and on the first playoff hole Thornton drilled in a 25-footer for a birdie 2 and victory. The loudest sound heard over the roar of the crowd was a lady shouting, "We can't afford another trip to Pebble Beach." It was a dismayed Mrs. Thornton, suddenly remembering that the winner's would again receive an invitation to the Crosby in February.
How come all this pother over a bunch of amateurs? "Listen," says Jackie Burke, who was a Masters and PGA champion before he was 34 years old, "it's getting so there isn't any place in golf for the good amateur. The amateur," he says, pacing around his office at Champions and raising his voice often enough to make you realize he cares about what he is saying, "just doesn't get any damn recognition. You take some of these kids coming along now who can hit the ball a ton. They could have fine careers in business and make themselves a heap of money and play their golf and have a good life. But what do they want to do? They want to go out on the pro tour and get their names in the paper and be there on that TV set on Sunday afternoon and get themselves a little fame. They want some glamour out of their golf.
"I'm telling you, there isn't anybody going to pay any attention to these young people coming along as amateurs. It isn't like 30 or 40 years ago, when you had amateurs like Bobby Jones and Johnny Dawson and George Von Elm, who were the big names of golf, and maybe the only professionals that anybody knew about were Hagen and Sarazen and a couple of others.
"That's why Jimmy and I wanted to put on a tournament like this. Why, man, on Saturday and Sunday you got the leaders here on TV and their pictures all over the paper, and they really feel like they've done something. This weekend we've got statewide TV, and there's a chance we'll be on national TV next year. We've also got signs going along with the leaders telling how they stand, and we've got 400 local sponsors for the tournament, and we really push those ticket sales. We want galleries. We don't care what they pay. The money isn't important. You can get a season ticket for $2. We just want old LeeRoy and his wife and his four kids to have a good time and picnic under the trees and watch the amateurs play golf."
Jackie Burke is now 42, his partner, Demaret, is 54 and, though they are both seen occasionally on the pro circuit, they are pretty well retired from the week-to-week chores of tournament golf. Their interest now is Champions, which they have developed into a place to play golf, and nothing else.
Built on the sandy loam of the Big Thicket, the course is as flexible as a rubber band, playing at any distance from 6,200 to 7,600 yards. It was designed as a frank imitation of Augusta National and there is no denying its quality. Coe, an Augusta member himself, last week called Champions "as fine a tournament course as I have ever played." Jack Valenti, the Houston advertising man who now spends most of his time in Lyndon Johnson's outer office, thought up the name Champions for the club.
Facilities at the course consist of one of the most comfortable and congenial locker rooms in existence, a large room for eating and drinking and a swimming pool. "When LeeRoy comes out to play golf," Burke explains, "he wants a place to change his shoes and to get a sandwich and get going. He does not want to find the dining room all cluttered up with Mrs. O'Leary's bridge party or Mrs. Smithwick's daughter's wedding. There is no reason why golf clubs should have to take care of America's social problems. Let the tennis clubs do it. Last year we opened another 18 holes so that there would be one course just for men. On the other one the husbands can play with their wives and children.
"Golf should be a tough, competitive game. The Scots have the right attitude. They feel you go out on the course and try to beat the other guy's brains in. That's recreation. If LeeRoy goes out on the course just to sell a load of pipe or an insurance policy, that's not golf."
Since Burke and Demaret began the Champions Cup tournament in 1961, they have regarded the event as a kind of missionary attempt to promote the amateur game on just such a tough, competitive basis. Their main objective has been to get a field of the country's best players, but this also brings in some interesting nongolf personalities—and attracts a number of nongolf fans who would rather watch Bob Sterling miss a 40-foot putt than Deane Beman sink one. This year Sterling, one of the best of the movie golfers, was teamed with Nicky Hilton, whose father owns all those hotels.
Burke and Demaret play down the celebrity aspect, though, and the week's social activities are kept at a minimum. "We won't let this turn into some kind of outing," Burke says. "We don't want people to be more interested in the dance band than the players. If we can make this the kind of tournament it ought to be, then the guys will take the message back to their clubs and the idea will grow. The next thing you know, there will be more tough golf tournaments for the best amateurs, and there will be some incentive and recognition for them. That is what the game needs. There is room for no more than 100 touring pros, so if you are going to keep the sport alive for the 10,000 eager amateurs you've got to have good tournaments for them. You get all those guys beating each other's brains in and pretty soon you'll have LeeRoy coming out to watch. That's real golf."