Unless somebody thinks of a better idea in a hurry, they should start putting weights on pro golfers the way they do on Thoroughbreds, because last week in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus won again. Competing for the richest golf purse ever offered—$275,000—Palmer and Nicklaus formed a partnership, and their better-ball score of 32 under par for 72 holes was enough to win the PGA National Team Championship by three shots and add another $25,000 apiece to their 1966 treasure chest.
The Palm Beach prize money brought Arnold's total winnings for the year in both official and unofficial tournaments to $154,692.24. That is a new world record for a golfer, $345.36 more than Nicklaus won last year, but the Nicklaus family's Christmas in Columbus need not be penurious, since Jack's check at Palm Beach brought his earnings to more than $140,000. To keep the record in order, Bill Casper was still the leading "official" money winner with $121,944. He did not play in the team event.
Unofficial or not, the money won on the final nine holes last Saturday afternoon was quite legitimate, even if the way it was earned was hard to believe. As they headed down that final stretch of the tournament, Palmer and Nicklaus had lost the two-stroke lead with which they had started the day. In the foursome just in front of them was the distinctive combination of Doug Sanders and Al Besselink, who had just moved ahead by a shot, thanks to four straight birdies by Besselink.
Four consecutive birdies on the East Course of the PGA National Golf Club is something to pause over. This is a golf course—one of the last designed by the late Dick Wilson, incidentally—with more trouble on it than Macbeth's witches ever conjured up. There is water to the left, water to the right and acres of gleaming white sand in between—particularly on those four holes where Besselink went birdie-mad.
December 19, 1966
To add to the wonder of it, Bessy is not a golfer you are apt to speak of in the same breath with Palmer and Nicklaus, or even with his partner, Sanders. You might say Bessy is a character who is to golf what Victor Mature is to the movies. He is rather unusual to look at, with his coiffed curls, a bit off the beaten track of conformity and more noted for his eccentricities than a technical mastery of his profession. Anyone who is anxious to improve his golf swing is advised not to study Bessy's. He does, nevertheless, know how to get the ball in the hole when the stakes are right.
Having lost their lead to Bessy's birdies, Palmer and Nicklaus suddenly came alive. There is a pride in these two athletes that far transcends their affection for the money they win. This pride started working at the 10th hole. After a fine approach shot Nicklaus birdied the hole with an eight-foot putt. The pair had to scramble for their par at the next hole, but Jack easily birdied the 5-par 12th. He birdied the 13th with a 25-foot putt, and at the 15th he hit a short iron to within three feet of the pin and sank the putt for another birdie.
Now it was Palmer's turn. He made a 20-foot putt for a birdie 2 at the 16th, hit the pin with an eagle try at the 17th and tapped in another birdie, and then dropped a completely unnecessary 15-footer on the final hole for his third birdie in a row. It was unnecessary because Arnold and Jack had overtaken Doug and Bessy and led them by two comfortable shots. The final birdie was just frosting, giving the winners a 29 for the last nine and $25,000 each.
There was plenty of money left over for the others, though. Sanders and Besselink each got checks for $13,500, a payday that had to be mighty pleasant for a man of Bessy's taste and hobbies. No sooner had he finished on the 72nd green than he rushed to the locker room to watch the final minutes of the Miami-VPI football game on television. Miami, Bessy's alma mater, was leading by seven points, but it obviously was not enough on the point spread. As the referee picked up the ball and marched off a penalty against VPI, Bessy kept yelling, "Go, baby, go. I need six points so bad I can taste it." Then he asked someone to find out how the big race had gone at Tropical Park: "I got Hartack on Quinta."
As has been said more than once around the tour, Bessy has to earn a lot. The year he won the Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas he is said to have put the purse-money winnings back into the casinos before the sun was down.
The partnership of Sanders and Besselink was made in heaven—a high rollers' heaven. Off the golf course and socially, Sanders has studied at the feet of the master for some years now, so it was natural that they would join forces in the only team competition on the calendar. Except for one day when he wore a red turtle-neck shirt, which he almost ruined when he had to stand practically waist-deep in water to play a shot off the shore of a lake, Bessy never tried to compete with Sanders sartorially. Doug's most notable color schemes of the week were a vivid orange on Friday and a mauve-and-violet ensemble for Saturday's climax, but the two men seemed to go together like champagne and caviar. They wise-cracked through the tightest moments, even when, on the next-to-last hole on Saturday, Sanders pushed his ball into the rough. There he found a pine cone beside the ball, so he got down on all fours to remove it. The first time he raised the cone he dropped it back on the ball—without moving the ball—and cracked, "There go those Cutty Sark nerves again." The gallery loved it.
The 34 birdies, 36 pars and two bogeys that Palmer and Nicklaus shot through their 72 holes were too much. When the two best golfers in the world are teamed, there is just one way to win, as Jack Burke Jr. was pointing out when it was all over. "It's a game of birdies," he said. "Pars don't do you a bit of good. Both partners have to be on the green and putting for birdies on every hole." Except for a few excursions into the water—Palmer hit it four times on Thursday—Arnold and Jack were always putting for those birdies.
The only exception to Burke's both-on-the-green birdie rule came on Friday, when the Cupit brothers, Jacky and Buster, had a 61, the lowest 18-hole score of the tournament. Jacky Cupit made 11 of the team's birdies and set a new individual course record of 63, despite a double-bogey 6 on the final hole.
Even in terms of today's golf purses—$200,000 for the Carling, $200,000 for next year's Canadian Open and $250,000 for next year's Westchester Open—the Team Championship's $275,000 is, as the golfers say, something else. When played last year for a mere $125,000, the event was a big hit with the golfers, who had long wanted to put it on as their own championship, but it flopped at the cash register, so much so that the players had to contribute more than $40,000 out of their tournament fund to make up the deficit. Instead of being dismayed, the PGA's dynamic new executive director, Robert T. Creasey, and new tournament committee chairman, Dan Sikes, decided last month to take a long-range gamble on the golf boom, the kind of forward-looking approach that had been notoriously absent in PGA thinking for 30 years. They persuaded John D. MacArthur, the real estate tycoon who built the PGA National Golf Club and the surrounding housing development, to match the $75,000 that the tournament committee would add to the original purse of $125,000, making the spectacular total of $275,000. They then set about selling the event to Florida businessmen and government officials as a major attraction for the state.
The tournament did not break even this year, but everybody knew it wouldn't. What it did do was establish itself as an excellent addition to the pro tour, and one with great potential. Sikes talks of it as being "like the Masters," and Creasey foresees a TV revenue of a quarter of a million dollars.
When that happens, the PGA will join Palmer and Nicklaus as big winners in the Team Championship.