The foolishness began on a Saturday in late January when three million fresh-frozen golf fans, keen for a glimpse of Arnold Palmer and sunlight, squinted into their television sets and saw Rocky Thompson instead. He was a young man wearing a sweater, a cap and the apologetic grin of a nobody who had somehow taken the third-round lead of the Bing Crosby National Pro-Amateur. The question occurring to everyone, of course, was: Rocky Tom who? "Rocky Thompson of Wichita Falls," the announcer assured the world. "There you have him. He leads this tournament by two shots over Bob Harris and Harold Kneece!" Harrison Meece, did he say? It was exactly then, in that moment of snapping rabbit cars, angrily twisted vertical knobs and kicked-in 27-inch screens, that the PGA tour of 1965 started to look as much like itself as Tuesday Weld looks like the Queen of England.
In the weeks that have followed—except for the rare one recently when Jack Nicklaus won the Masters over Gary Player and Palmer—the tour has seemed to be dominated by names usually found among those who miss the cut at the Cajun Classic. Unknowns have won five of the 15 major tournaments that have been played. The current list of the top 25 money winners, compared to a year ago at the same time, reads like the Des Moines phone book. Only five of 1964's top 30 money winners have managed to win. The closest competition in years is under way for places on the Ryder Cup team, which will be selected in mid-August. You know it has to be close if a man named Jack McGowan—not Littler, Wall or Ford but McGowan—is in contention. Finally, Homero Blancas, a rookie pro who was primarily distinguished two weeks ago on Sports Network's telecast of the Houston Classic by a pair of ballooning trousers that could have carried David Niven around the world in 80 days, has set a new PGA record for prize money in his first tournament. Moored to earth at Houston, Homero won $2,425, tying for seventh as if he were fully expected to do so.
The newspaper headlines have said it best. There was, for example, the drama of the Lucky International at San Francisco. DICKINSON, MONTGOMERY, BAIRD, McGOWAN AND ARCHER SHARE FIRST-ROUND LEAD. One had to assume that this added up to Gardner Dickinson, who is a somebody, plus an obscure law firm from Sausalito. It was Archer, a lean newcomer who had labored as a cowboy to get some backing for the tour, who eventually won.
After that came the Bob Hope Desert Classic at Palm Springs, another study in frustration for the established players. BEARD TAKES DESERT LEAD...ZARLEY, THIRSK TIED THROUGH SECOND ROUND. "Kermit Zarley," said Bob Hope. "With that name he must be the pro from the moon." No one could even think of a planetary deposit for Stan Thirsk. Billy Casper was the winner at Palm Springs, but not until young John Lotz dazzled spectators with the two most original back-to-back rounds of the year: 83-63.
May 2, 1965
Next was Phoenix: BERT YANCEY CHARGES TO FRONT AT 54...FUNSETH WINS! Funseth? The sort you can clear up with a penicillin shot? No, Rod Funseth, 32, a long hitter from Spokane and a club pro who had finally made good. So it went through Tucson, Pensacola and Doral where: DOUG SANDERS WINS, GLOVER THIRD, DILL FOURTH. Randy Glover and Terry Dill, not from picking guitars on Hullabaloo every Tuesday night but from Cheraw, S.C. and Mule-shoe, Texas. And Jacksonville: BERT WEAVER'S 285 WINS. On and off the tour for nine years, Bert Weaver, 33, had proved that patience is the next best thing to a well-honed wedge. And the Azalea: HART WINS IN 8-HOLE SUDDEN DEATH. Slammin' Sam Hart? Not exactly. Dick Hart, a 28-year-old club pro from Hinsdale, Ill. (an up-to-date footnote on him is that he immediately went back to his pro shop). Perhaps the somebodies of the PGA tour were vanishing like caddies. Not so, said Julius Boros at the Masters. "You always see a lot of unknowns popping up on the winter tour. Wait until the warmer weather. The older, experienced players will begin to come on."
Like, say, at Houston, YANCEY LEADS BLANCAS BY STROKE...YANCEY, MARTINDALE TIED AT 36...YANCEY SHARES THIRD-ROUND LEAD. Or the Texas Open last Sunday, BEARD WINS BY 3! Fortunately, for sanity's sake and perhaps for the sake of future tournament sponsors, the Houston title was taken by PGA Champion Bobby Nichols—a name! And though it was true that many of the 1965 winners had actually been recognizable—Nichols, Casper, Nicklaus, Sanders, Crampton, Harney—it was equally true that the news had not been controlled by them. For the first time in years, nobodies were mixing up the established order of golfdom.
This change in the character of the tour happened rather suddenly, but could have been predicted. The money to be made is now so big—$3.5 million in purses alone—that a player can remain in total obscurity and still earn from $15,000 to $20,000 a year, including endorsement contracts. "It is," as one pro puts it, "more than a young man can make behind a desk." With that in mind, the teen-age and college golfers of the last five years went out behind tee sheds from Muleshoe to Medicine Hat and began casually hitting 210-yard five-irons at the feet of an immobile shag boy.
Yes, 210 yards, for there has always been new talent coming onto the PGA tour, but it has taken another factor to make the young nobodies become contenders so fast—namely, muscles. Brainwashed with eight years of Palmer's hit-it-hard philosophy ("You used to want to grow up to be a sweet swinger," says Billy Maxwell, with a mixture of envy and mournfulness), they do exactly that. They drive the ball from hill to town, and reach for the pitching wedge. What the pros call "talent shots"—three-quarter irons, delicate hooks and fades—will always be valuable, but the PGA tour courses are designed for big hitters. It is, if you like, the era of home-run golf, with Nicklaus in the current role of Babe Ruth and scads of Hank Green-bergs coming up behind him.
Gary Player, a man with a deep regard for muscles, left the tour for six months last fall and winter and, consequently, he had a fresh eye for things this spring. Asked if he noticed any change, he said: "I have never seen so many big, young golfers who can really play. I'm telling you, any one of them can beat you. And, mark my words, there will be more and more of them. Every time I make a personal appearance in some town I am being introduced to a 6-foot-5 boy who has just broken a course record and is headed for the tour."
So, though the somebodies may pretend it is just a phase, they realize full well that the nobodies are going to have to be watched. Here are the ones to watch right now:
•Bert Yancey, 26, 6 feet 1, 190. Born in Chipley, Fla., Yancey plays out of Philadelphia. He was once a cadet at West Point, but after his third year there he suffered a nervous breakdown, spent four months in a hospital and received a medical discharge. More of a swinger than a hitter, Yancey is deliberate and stylish, but gets great length off the tee. He has been in serious contention for two titles—Phoenix and Houston. Says Dave Marr: "A helluva player. Lot of guts. Typical of the young ones. He's 26, which means that when golf was really getting popular around 1955 he was 16 and watching it on television and thinking one day he'd like to be out here. Here he is."
•Billy Martindale, 26, 6 feet, 175. Like Bobby Nichols, Martindale is a graduate of Texas A&M and frequently is annoyed by shouts of "Gig 'em, Aggies" on his backswing. A natural athlete, he was an All-State high school quarterback and at the age of 10 was a national skeet shooting champion in spite of 20/200 eyesight. ("He wore contact lenses until all that sand from traps started getting in his eyes," his mother recalls.) Bareheaded, talkative and gum-chewing, he has been a contender in no less than four tournaments this year and has banked over $10,000. "I must have played in 200 amateur tournaments," says Billy. "That helped prepare me for the tour." Impressed with Martindale, Billy Maxwell says, "He hits it hard. These kids ain't afraid of nuthin'. They start out swingin' hard, instead of just tryin' to swing good."
•George Archer, 25, 6 feet 6, 190. Tallest player on the tour, Archer came with splendid amateur credentials. He won the Trans-Mississippi and was a semifinalist in the U.S. Amateur in 1963. One year ago, as a rookie, he led the Carling World Open through two rounds. Backed on the tour by Eugene Selvage, on whose ranch in Gilroy, Calif. he cowboyed, Archer's victory in the Lucky International suggests that his big swing and good-natured grin will be around for quite a while. "He is taking advantage of the times," says Jay Hebert. "There is more money available from sponsors to put a player on the tour now. I had to work for nine years in a pro shop before I could go out. I was 21 before I ever saw a good player hit a shot. A 5-year-old kid can sit by the TV now and see the best."
•Terry Dill, 25, 6 feet 3, 195. Not long ago he claimed to be raising barbed-wire fences for $1.40 an hour in Muleshoe. As strong off the tee as Jack Nicklaus, Dill is far from being as consistent. He is, however, one of the most colorful newcomers since Jimmy Demaret wore tasseled berets. In his first Masters three weeks ago, Dill argued his way out of a two-stroke penalty for slow play, explained that he no longer wore his big-brimmed planter's hat because a PGA official did not think it looked dignified, and calmly announced to a corps of newspaper writers that Muleshoe's greens were better than those at Augusta National. "But you got to remember," added Terry, "there ain't many greens in the world better'n those at Muleshoe." Dill won $16,289 last year on the summer tour, once he had overcome the advice he was getting from the regulars. "They almost helped me right off the tour," he says, grinning. "When this kid gets everything going at the same time, watch out," says Byron Nelson. "Man alive, he's got nerve."
•Frank Beard, 25, 6 feet, 165. Another long hitter, he has not been especially well remembered for winning the Frank Sinatra Open at Palm Springs in 1963, his first year on the tour. Last year a near-fatal attack of encephalitis kept him off the tour until May. But, epitomizing the undaunted newcomers, he won $21,000 from there on, and has earned $26,000 so far this year in official and unofficial money. Born in Dallas, Beard grew up in Louisville, and like another Louisville athlete, Cassius Clay, he got his professional start thanks to a syndicate of local businessmen, which put up $5,000 for him to try the tour.
•Homero Blancas, 27, 5 feet 10, 180. The son of the maintenance superintendent at Houston's River Oaks Country Club, Blancas is one of those former University of Houston golf stars. (Fifteen former Houston players are now tour regulars.) Long enough, straight and steady, Blancas is just out of the Army and belatedly starting his pro career. Once, on a regulation-length course in Longview, Texas, he shot a 55, the lowest competitive round in the annals of U.S. golf. "If he doesn't make it, it can't be made," says Jimmy Demaret. "A lot of these young ones can play, but Homero can really play."
Those six are just a sample. "There's a bunch of 'em out here now who can hit it a ton," said Bobby Nichols the other day, "and with most of the courses tailored for power hitters a youngster has a lot in his favor." Nichols should know. He is 29, 6 feet 2, hits it a ton and until three years ago he was a nobody, too. But a nobody can become somebody very fast.