A stranger stars in a Crosby cliffhanger

For three days all eyes were on golf's famed figures, but then both players and gallery met a fellow named Massengale
January 31, 1966

There are at least 140 healthy American, Canadian and Australian males between the ages of 18 and 45 whose only visible means of support is winning money every weekend on the PGA tournament circuit. Last year more than half of them earned more with their golf sticks than the base pay of a rear admiral in the U.S. Navy, which is a very nice thing indeed for an athlete.

Yet, when a large number of these artisans—and enough others to bring the total to 168—assembled for the 25th Bing Crosby National Pro-Am last week, the galleries seemed to feel that the only serious contestants were Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tony Lema and Billy Casper. Some of the largest crowds in the history of tournament golf, starting at better than 20,000 on Thursday and growing steadily on the succeeding days, fought for vantage points to get glimpses of the favorites while practically ignoring everyone else in the field except for a few amateurs from TV studios, such as Andy Williams and Dean Martin, and two pros from Chavez Ravine, Sandy Koufax and Don Drysdale.

It should not be assumed from this that the Crosby gallery had been swept up in the show-biz atmosphere of the event and simply been blinded by the big names. There was good cause for the selective pattern of their viewing. But, as things turned out, there were also some reasons not to have been so selective—such as watching the winner play nine or so.

What the gallery sensed was that this may well be an unusually formful year in pro golf, which means the drama will consistently center around Nicklaus, Palmer, Lema, Casper and the still-absent Gary Player. The trend began with the L.A. Open, where Palmer, back on cigarettes and back on his game, won by three strokes. The next week Billy Casper, thinner than ever thanks to his bizarre diet, ate a hippopotamus steak and won the San Diego Open by four strokes. Lema, meanwhile, had used those two weeks to play himself back into top shape, and now came the arrival of the imposing man everybody just had to see in his first 1966 tournament, Nicklaus.

Nicklaus was the source of special curiosity, even though he regards the Crosby as little more than a brief golfing picnic—he will not really settle down to work until the Florida tournaments in mid-March. When he arrived at Pebble Beach he had played only five rounds of golf in the past month. "I actually come here for the fun of it," Jack explained. "A lot of my amateur friends come out to play, so it gives us a week to be together. It is also the only chance I get all year to see Pebble Beach, which is one of the world's best courses. But I'm not playing anywhere near well enough to make a good showing."

Nor will he be for some time, apparently. He is going to attend a PGA business school in San Antonio in February in order to hasten his acceptance as a full PGA member. After that he will take off immediately for a tour of South Africa with his wife, Barbara, and their respective parents. His host will be his good friend Gary Player, with whom he is planning to do some fishing and play half a dozen exhibitions.

When he gets back from South Africa, Nicklaus intends to devote himself to making 1966 a much different year than 1965, though one wonders why, since all he did was win five tournaments and $140,752.14. "I'm going to practice a lot more this year," he says. "After the last Masters, my game deteriorated a lot. The only thing that saved me was my putting. Starting in May, I'm going to try to follow a schedule of playing two weeks and taking a week off, then playing two more weeks and then another week off. That will give me a chance to rest and practice. Last year, when I was trying to play almost every week, it was just too much. I'd get muscle fatigue and I couldn't hold my concentration.

"Another trouble was that I got to driving the ball much too low. I think it started after I put a lift in the heel of my right shoe. It only raises me a fraction of an inch, but I think that was enough to change my swing slightly. This year I'm going to start working on driving the ball higher and sharpening my short game, which has never been as good as it should be."

Perhaps it was by changing his swing slightly that Nicklaus hit two of the Crosby's more memorable drives. Although he never looked like a serious contender after the second day, on Sunday Nicklaus had the makings of one of the half-dozen sub-par rounds of the day at Pebble Beach. The weather was unexpectedly fine, as it had been every day—"a Crosby drought," someone called it—with nothing more troublesome than a brisk winter wind to contend with. Yet the two stubborn finishing holes at Pebble Beach finished Nicklaus. After a bogey 4 at the 17th he hooked two drives into the ocean at the crescent-shaped 530-yard 18th and ended up with a 9 that left him in a tie for 24th place. Lema likewise took a 41 on the back nine for an unpleasant closing round of 79 that dropped him from fifth place to 16th, and Casper came in with a 74 to tie for 13th.

It turned out, then, that the enormous Crosby gallery had wasted an awful lot of time chasing three-fourths of the awesome foursome when their attention could have been directed toward a trio whose names sounded like a broker's office in a Marx Brothers' movie: Massengale, Martindale and Geiberger.

As Sunday began, skinny Al Geiberger, who is about as thin as the peanut-butter sandwiches he often eats during tournament play, held a three-stroke lead over the field. In second place was Bill Martindale, a bespectacled young man from Texas, the golf foundry that seems to supply 19 out of every 20 youths who join the professional tour. A stroke behind Martindale was Don Massengale, another Texan, who was tied with Palmer at two under par.

It was assumed that no one but Palmer had a chance to catch Geiberger, for neither of the Texans had ever won a PGA tournament. Geiberger, on the other hand, quietly ambles along the tour, winning a championship here and there. In 1965 he proved his durability over a long and difficult course by winning the American Golf Classic at the Firestone Country Club in Akron, and it was Palmer he beat. He finished the year eighth on the money list, winning $59,700. Self-possessed and seemingly free of nerves, Geiberger appeared to be just the man who would not get rattled in the face of a Palmer charge, even though he once said of himself, "I've had a tendency to blow leads."

But it was Massengale who stirred the early excitement. His eagle and birdie on the 2nd and 3rd holes brought him quickly even with Geiberger, who started routinely. All through the middle part of the course the two exchanged the lead, the stolid, 28-year-old Massengale trudging along with his stoop-shouldered walk in the foursome just ahead of the one containing Geiberger and Palmer. Martindale, who was paired with Massengale, was having problems keeping a stroke ahead of par, so he and Palmer were more or less on even terms, depending on who got the bogey and who got the birdie. Occasionally Lema or Bob Goalby would come into the picture, only to fade out again.

Suddenly, at the 12th and 13th holes, a consecutive bogey-double bogey dropped Geiberger back into a tie with Palmer and Martindale. And now you had to ask...Massengale?

Going into the final four holes Massengale held a two-stroke lead, but that unmistakable roar kept coming from the green just behind him as Palmer—the 1966 Palmer—started one of his moves. He birdied 15. He sank a putt from off the green to birdie 16. He saved a par with an eight-foot putt on 17. It was enough to unnerve anybody; certainly enough to rattle a what's-his-name. But Massengale, to use the Texas vernacular, can play. Coming down the terrifying 18th, he judiciously guided two wood shots away from the Pacific Ocean. Then he hit a splendid three-quarter eight-iron under the branches of one of the huge pine trees lining the right side of the fairway, over a trap and down to within five feet of the hole. His pressure putt for the birdie 4 was in the cup all the way, and it turned out that he needed it, for Palmer also got a birdie to finish second, one stroke back. Martindale and Geiberger tied for third.

A few moments later Don Massengale, the quiet country boy from Jacksboro, Texas, was accepting the winner's check of $11,000, almost as much as he won all last year. He kept tugging at his cap and saying "sir" to everybody, and finally he tried to explain how he happened to win a tournament after nearly six years on the tour. "I had been playing real well, I thought like," he drawled, "so I thought maybe I might do fairly well at the Crosby." For him it was a speech.

Mrs. Massengale was there, too, and she was doubly pleased. She had almost decided not to come to the course because she wanted to save the baby-sitting money. But she did come, and she was one up on the rest of the Crosby gallery—she knew all the time which golfer to watch.