If King Kong had ridden down the 16th fairway on a tricycle or the Queen Mary had sailed through downtown Akron on giant Firestone tires, it would only have been in keeping last week with the weird and wonderful happenings at the 48th PGA Championship. What else could rival Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus practically having dogfights overhead in their private planes, 54-year-old Sam Snead crouching down and putting between his legs to keep from hitting the ball twice in one swipe, Billy Casper gulping oxygen to thwart a smog only he could see and Dudley Wysong, whoever he may be, addressing the ball a foot away from where it really was? Finally, amid the faint scent of rubber fumes, the last and goofiest major tournament of the year was topped off, mercifully, when a tall, thin, easygoing Californian named Al Geiberger, who looks like the new guy they've hired at the bank to handle home improvement loans, won it as easily as he would spread peanut butter on a slice of light bread. Considering the way he played, and the tranquillity he brought to the scene, Geiberger at least made sense.
The site of the tournament, the Firestone Country Club, has prestige among golfers, but this was a different Firestone than anyone had ever seen. Since an attack of Dutch elm disease that began five years ago had wiped out a lot of trees, the course could best be described as long (7,180 yards), and uninspiring. On top of that, heat had scarred most of the straight and narrow fairways, a seeding process had changed most of the greens to pure bent grass—the hardest to read and putt—and the greens had been watered so much to avoid ruin that they were soft and slow. Partly as a result of the conditions, the scores came in two sizes, high and higher. Nothing shows this better than the fact that Geiberger could shoot an even-par 68-72-68-72—280 and win laughing, with Wysong in second place four strokes behind.
One of the things that made Al Geiberger's victory distinctive was that if you had really stopped to figure it out beforehand, nobody except Geiberger could have won at Firestone. It was all clear late Sunday evening. Geiberger had won the American Golf Classic there last year. In 20 competitive rounds on the difficult par-70 course he had shot 72 or better in 16. Moreover, he had quietly been a good "tough course" player on the tour for some time, though he seldom finished first. He was fourth in the U.S. Open at Bellerive in 1965, and this year he was third both in the Crosby and in the Colonial.
"I feel pretty good on a long, hard course," he said. "I'm not a charger, I don't make a lot of birdies. I try to hit it straight and not make many mistakes, and I try not to lose control of myself. When I'm on a course like Firestone, where there won't be a lot of birdies popping up on the board, I feel much more confident."
July 31, 1966
Geiberger began by shooting a 68 on Thursday to tie hip-sore Sam Snead for the lead, and even though Snead held the 36-hole lead by one stroke over Geiberger, you had to think that the winner, if it weren't going to be the 6-foot 2-inch, 160-pound Californian with the smooth, upright swing, would be perhaps Gary Player, or Doug Sanders or Jack Nicklaus from a few shots further back. After Saturday's third round, though, there was little doubt, for Al marched out and smilingly got his second 68 of the tournament. This gave him a four-stroke lead that looked impossible for anyone to overcome at Firestone.
So Sunday was a simple stroll for Geiberger, once he calmed down from a start of three bogeys on the first four holes. "I was thinking about the title and all it would do for me," he said. "It almost wrecked me."
He planned to go out there Sunday with his usual supply of peanut-butter sandwiches in his golf bag to keep up his strength, just steer his drives straight, and let the big course prevent anyone from making a charge at him. It happened exactly that way. No one near him made a move of serious consequence, and when he rolled in a 35-foot birdie at the fifth hole it restored the confidence that his early bogeys had partly erased. After that it was just a matter of time until he was officially the PGA champion, $25,000 richer and carefully trying to explain for posterity his cool attitude toward the game.
"I don't think of myself as a golf star," he said. "I'm really more nervous than I look out there, and if people think I don't care they're wrong. I guess I look like I don't care because I'm basically lazy. I just try to plug along staying out of trouble. That's my style."
That style of his has been a particular bother to Stan Wood, Geiberger's golf coach at USC and his foremost fan through the seven years that Al has been on the tour. Wood was not at the PGA, but at tournaments in the past he has been known to scribble notes on pieces of paper, dodge under the gallery ropes, and hand them to Al. The notes have always said something like "Attack," or "Charge," or "Get mad." Geiberger would look at them, grin, crumple them up, and then not attack, not charge, not get mad and not win. He was a very good golfer and for the last three years has ranked among the top 15 money winners, but thrilling he wasn't, not even in victory last week.
So it was left to other people to provide the excitement of this PGA, and they provided it in some distinctive fashions.
Part of it, as always, was created by Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, who were the big noises of the tournament, but in an unusual way. Every time you looked up, it seemed, you saw one or the other in his private airplane heading back to Latrobe, Pa. or Columbus, Ohio, from where they were commuting to the first tee. Palmer's Jet Commander whined above the course repeatedly, and on Friday afternoon Ken Venturi was bent over a putt on the 14th hole when Jack roared over in his Aero Commander, carting the family home for dinner. Ken paused, looked up and said, "Thanks a lot, Jack." (How much the pros fly became a subject of deeper and sadder concern the night the PGA ended with the news that Tony Lema and his wife Betty had been killed when their chartered plane crashed near Lansing, Ill.—on a golf course.)
Palmer's 1966 PGA was simple—he played like a retired millionaire until the last day when a 68 pulled him into a tie for sixth place. Nicklaus was more baffling. He was supposed to be fresh after winning the British Open at Muir-field and pumped up with confidence because his length would overshadow everyone on the long Firestone course. Instead he looked tired and disinterested, and he played through the first round like a PGA sectional champion who had never been out of Utah. He hit seven trees, the last seven trees left at Firestone, and wandered into five bunkers. He only found five fairways off the tees in the 18 holes, and yet he managed to salvage a 75.
"It might have been the best 75 I ever shot," said Jack, who was smiling as always. A bad round bothers Nicklaus less than any golfer in history, because he knows tomorrow he may shoot 57, or something like that. "I can't remember playing worse," Jack said, carrying his son Jackie over his shoulder through the clubhouse and heading for the airport. By Saturday afternoon he could remember a time when he played worse. That day he hit only three fairways, shot another 75 and blew himself out of the tournament for keeps.
From the beginning Nicklaus never had his mind on what he was doing. He explained later that he stood on the first tee Thursday, set himself up to hit his usual fade down the fairway and at the top of his backswing suddenly said to himself, "Let's try to draw one out there."
He drew it all right. If he had hooked one that wildly at Muirfield, half of Scotland would still be searching for it. Nicklaus then went about the business of driving terribly for the next three rounds. Only on Sunday did he have a good round off the tees, and that was because he finally wised up and changed drivers.
"I'd been using the same driver I did at Muirfield with the small British ball. So I changed to a club that was better for the big ball. Three days late, I changed," he said. "And confidentially," Jack added, "there was another reason why I didn't play very good. I swung like a hacker."
Meanwhile, Sam Snead was shooting scores that fluttered the hearts of every geriatric case in the country and exhibiting absolutely the strangest putting stance pro golf has ever seen. It made you wonder if the sun had gotten through the straw hat and baked Sam's pate. Early in the week, practicing, he was observed spreading his legs, gripping the putter down at the bottom of the shaft and stroking the ball between his legs, croquet-style. Funny old Sam, cutting up again and trying to get a bet, they said.
Snead did not putt that way in the tournament proper until after the 10th hole Saturday, when his nerves really rocked him and he accidentally tapped a putt twice, costing himself a penalty stroke. Thereafter, for the next eight holes and for all of Sunday, Snead crouched like a preying cat on every putt of less than 10 or 12 feet.
Old pro golfers have spent their dying years searching for ways to stop palsy over short putts, and Snead may have found it. "You see," drawled Sam, "when you get down there close to it, that old ball can't move on you like it does for us nervous old men."
Wouldn't it be better to stand back away from it so it wouldn't bite you, he was asked.
"Yeah," Sam said, "but then if you're way far away from it, you got to hit it twice."
The final surprise of the PGA was provided by 27-year-old Dudley Wysong, who was playing in the championship for the first time. Wysong looks and acts like most any Texas boy: blond crew cut, bleached eyebrows and a somewhat astonished expression. It became even more astonished when he singed off what little fairway grass was left at sun-scarred Firestone by shooting a superb 66 on Saturday, the low round of the tournament, and moving into second place, a position he defended excellently on Sunday to win $15,000.
Wysong started the final 18 with two bogeys and thought, "I'm gonna shoot 90. I can feel it." Watching him address the ball, you knew why. He didn't know where it was. He stands up to the ball well, except that it is nowhere near the club head. Instead, it is far underneath the heel, as if he were taking a practice swing way out in front of the ball.
"It's distracting," said Mike Souchak, who was paired with Dudley the first two rounds and, incidentally, missed the cut. "You're all the time thinking, he's 8 to 5 to fan it."
"I've always addressed the ball that way," says Wysong. "I just can't hit it if I address ii off the toe like a lot of players do."
Had he ever considered putting the club face directly behind the ball, like it says in the instruction books?
"I don't think I could hit it that way," he says. "See, I have to get back on my heels when I swing through. And my system helps me do it." Why not? For this PGA, even that made sense.
In the end, it must have been very comforting to the PGA that Al Geiberger won the championship. His game is so sound that he has been due to win a big one for a long time, and deserves it. But more important, he stands erect when he putts, with the leather grip in his hands, and when he addresses a shot he puts the face of the club squarely behind the ball, which is just the way all those club pros who teach the game and run the PGA say you have to do it if you ever expect to play a lick.