Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Billy Casper are famous for the occasions on which they have had to play golf under pressure, but a man named Rives McBee deserves credit for some notable experiences in that area, too. McBee is a friendly, pudgy Texan, who shot a record-tying 64 in the second round of the U.S. Open at the Olympic Club in San Francisco last June and went on to finish tied for 13th. But this was nothing compared to the situation that he and 96 other golfers faced the other day at the PGA National Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., where the PGA was holding its second annual tryout program for would-be touring pros. For eight rounds—144 holes—on the PGA's long, difficult East Course, McBee and the others competed for their futures. Only the 30 low scorers would get permission to go on the pro tour and thus have a shot at its $4.5 million in purses. The rest would have to wait another year, or give up completely.
What these candidates needed just to be eligible to try to qualify each week for the tournaments on the tour was a wallet-sized, red-and-white Approved Tournament Player card. A professional who has been around long enough to have obtained PGA Class A status (five years) does not need the ATP card, but a pro with less seniority does. And he keeps it only if he performs well.
To attend this year's tryouts, each entrant first had to give up his amateur status—if he had not already done so—then send along with his entry a tuition fee of $140. He also had to be prepared to spend up to an additional $850 for transportation, room, board and caddie fees, and he had to be able to prove that he had $6,500 to cover his expenses for his first six months on the tour. This last qualification had kept McBee out of the 1965 PGA tryout camp.
"I had no sponsor, just $500 in the bank and a wife who was pregnant," says McBee, who was, and is, the assistant pro at the Midland Country Club in West Texas. "The PGA didn't figure that $500 and a pregnant wife was much security, and neither did I."
November 14, 1966
The PGA exclusion plan does not apply to the U.S. Open, and McBee qualified for that. Then he had his glorious day in the San Francisco sun and found himself, though still ineligible to play on the tour, suddenly an automatic starter in the tour's two biggest events, the 1967 Open and Masters.
"In a way it was embarrassing," McBee recalls. "When people asked me why I didn't play more tournaments I had to tell 'em I didn't have a player's card."
What McBee soon had, however, was sponsors. A group of 12 agreed to back him for three years, and on October 1 McBee took leave of his club duties and moved to the practice tee to prepare for his 144-hole ordeal.
"I worked hard," he says, "but what I really needed most was the experience of playing under pressure."
Of last year's 17 tryout graduates, only John Schlee, who has won $20,000, and Dave Marad, with $7,000, have made any sort of showing on the pro tour. The other 15 have won only $12,000 among them, and eight of them have not earned a penny. But the Class of 1966 looked considerably more potent. Competing were several strong youngsters with outstanding amateur records, including hefty Jim Wiechers and 1965 Walker Cuppers Dave Eichelberger and Mark Hopkins, as well as a talented foreign contingent, including Australia's Bob Stanton and South Africa's Allan Henning, brother of Harold. There also were 12 golfers fresh from the tour who recently had lost their playing cards for generally indifferent performance, and 14 nonqualifiers from last year who had come back determined not to be two-time losers.
One of the latter was Harry Toscano, a muscular, 180-pound 6-footer from New Castle, Pa. Toscano, 24, was the Pennsylvania amateur champion in 1964 and had developed his game at the University of Houston's well-known school of golf. He showed up two weeks before the tournament to practice and study the course, and at the end of the seven days of play he had won first place with a four-under-par 572. This represented a 45-shot improvement over his score in 1965, but Toscano was not impressed. "I'd hate to be the one to say who is qualified to play for his living on the tour and who isn't," he said. "Maybe this tournament is a step in the right direction, but it may only prove who is playing well this week on this kind of course."
Consider, then, the plight of Rives McBee. He plays golf with a gambler's flair, cutting corners and hammering the ball right at the flagstick because he has to; he is a very short hitter.
"I know there are a whole bunch of guys on the tour right now that I could beat eight days a week," he said at mid-tournament. "But this course is just too long for me. It's a wood or a long iron to every hole. If they're going to hold a qualifying event at all, why don't they round everyone up and bring 'em all in? I'll guarantee you there are guys winning good money out there who'd have a hard time shooting 75 here."
McBee, too, had a hard time shooting 75. Cold, hungry, wet and angry, he shot 81 during a 7-inch deluge on the second day. He was caught in the rain again late on the fifth day and after 90 holes was four shots out of the 30th position.
Fearful now that he was blowing his last chance to become a touring pre—a career he refers to as the ambition of his life—he began to attack the course. A par 72 moved him to within a shot of the select group.
The last day called for 36 holes, and on the morning round McBee shot a fine 69. This put him five strokes ahead of the cutoff pace, with just 18 holes to play.
"I thought it would be easy, that I'd play a nice, safe commercial round," says McBee. "Then I started choking, just like everybody else."
Instead of hitting the middle of the greens, McBee hit the middle of the bunkers. By the time he reached the final tee, he was six over. He was told he needed to birdie this 457-yard par 4 to make it, and with the wind in his face he really had little hope. He hooked his drive into a trap, topped the ball out, was wide of the green with his next shot, chipped on, missed a 3½-foot putt for a double-bogey 6 and prepared to spend the rest of his life giving lessons in Midland, Texas. But when he got to the scoreboard he found the pressure had hit others as well. His 603 was good enough to tie for 30th, and he was in.
"It was a sloppy way to wind up," he said later. "I finished 31 shots back of Toscano, but my ATP card is the same color as his. Some people are going to be surprised when I get out on the tour. You can't judge by what went on in that tryout school. We were under the kind of pressure no one will ever be able to appreciate unless he goes through it. It wasn't just for a check, it was for a year of our lives. Maybe more."