Most people who attend a major golf tournament are a little befuddled by all the obscure characters who seem to be cluttering up the course and getting in the way of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Billy Casper. When the likes of Bill Bisdorf and Larry Mancour and Davis Love intrude, the gallery considers it irrelevant if not impertinent. Then there are others whose names are vaguely familiar and, although hardly anyone is quite sure who they are, they are accepted as a convenient backdrop for the tournament—what the fight game used to call "opponents." They have names like Dave Hill, Tommy Aaron, Dan Sikes, Don January and Don Massengale. Occasionally they win tournaments in Memphis and Jacksonville and St. Paul, but they conveniently fade into the background when the big shows begin. Last week at the PGA championship in Denver, however, Hill, Aaron, Sikes, January and Massengale owned the show. It was as if Walter Slezak and Thelma Ritter were billed over Richard Burton and Liz Taylor.
When it was all over after an 18-hole playoff on Monday afternoon, January was the new PGA champion. He shot a three-under-par 69 to beat Massengale by two strokes and in the process his putting, which had been excellent throughout much of the tournament, verged on the sensational. January had lost a previous PGA playoff to Jerry Barber in 1961, but he was never in danger of losing this one after he made up an early two-stroke deficit at the 8th hole. Over the last nine, January knocked in four birdies from as far away as 35 feet, and if his name wasn't Nicklaus he certainly played like it.
Until two weeks before the start of the tournament, it looked as if the 1967 PGA was destined to go down in history as the Snakebit Open. In fact it wasn't until then that the touring pros finally called off their threatened revolt and agreed to take part. But the troubles of this tournament started long before that.
Back in June of 1965 one of those flash floods that in summer occasionally wash away sizable chunks of the western states struck central Colorado and sent the South Platte River roaring and tumbling through the suburbs of Denver. In its path was the Columbine Country Club, which was already in the early stages of plastic surgery for the 1966 PGA. At one point, a third of the golf course was, in effect, the bottom of a lake. When it emerged two days later, two holes had disappeared. So had some $35,000 worth of face-lifting. In September, Tournament Chairman J. E. (Ev) Collier, the gregarious businessman-golfer who had launched Columbine 11 years earlier and had brought the championship to his new club, invited 500 eager citizens for a kickoff dinner. The kickoff turned out to be more like a touchback. Former Colorado Governor Dan Thornton arose to announce that there was no chance to rebuild the course in time for a tournament only 10 months away.
PGA Championship Director J. Edwin Carter immediately began scrounging around for another locale. No easy job. Staging a modern golf tournament is a little like moving the 3rd Division across the Rhine. Carter's knowing eye lit on the Firestone Country Club in Akron, which just loves big golf tournaments and knows how to put them on. Since Firestone had the 1967 PGA, Carter persuaded that club to trade dates with Columbine, permitting the latter an extra year for repairs.
All told, it took another $90,000 to put Columbine back in playing condition. With a lot of energetic frontier blood in its membership, the young club did a fine job. The hardy bluegrass on its fairways was groomed to perfection, troublesome fairway bunkers were added and the fairways themselves were narrowed. At several places in the areas where drives would land, it was a mere 17 paces from one side of the fairway to the other. At 7,436 yards from the back tees, the most yardage on which a championship has ever been conducted, Columbine seemed long enough to contain even Jack Nicklaus.
Such man-made impedimenta were enough to convert Columbine into a reasonable facsimile of a championship test, although the course would never be confused with Baltusrol or Merion as a God-given site for the ancient game. For one thing, in Denver's rarefied 5,000-foot atmosphere, golf yardage is deceptive. Shots played by the pros will travel an average of 7% farther than at sea level, which immediately reduced Columbine's yardage to the equivalent of something like 6,900 yards under ordinary conditions.
Through the months of preparation, the local papers kept printing disquieting news of the long-playing hassle between the touring pros and the PGA officers. The PGA championship, it should be noted, has traditionally been the championship for PGA members, some 4,600 of whom are those leathery, put-upon characters who spend the year on the practice tee at Babbling Brae trying to inject a little rhythm into the golf strokes of the lame, the halt and the blind. Only a few more than 100 of them belong to the glamorous white-shoe brigade of the regular tournament circuit. The way it usually works out, approximately 60% of the starters in the PGA come from the ranks of the club pros, most of whom are there only for the thrill of testing their limited skills against those of their more celebrated brethren. Without the latter, the tournament would be about as exciting as Ladies' Day on Tuesday.
Ever since the Masters last April, the playing pros have been threatening to boycott this year's PGA unless some internecine procedural problems were ironed out with PGA officials. The incipient revolt has blown hot and cold through the intervening months, but the various truce arrangements had about the same stability as that other truce along the 38th parallel in Korea. At one point when it seemed that the dispute was beyond solution, PGA President Max Elbin, himself a club pro from Burning Tree in Bethesda, Md., began phoning various aging PGA champions of the past, urging them to show up at Columbine for what would have been little more than an oldtimers' day of golf. Meantime the determinedly optimistic Denverites, who had already invested $250,000 on their course and tournament promotion, wondered nervously about the nearly $600,000 they had counted on in ticket sales and program advertising. Then, during the first week of July, the playing pros convened at Indianapolis and voted to appear at Columbine despite the unsettled state of their quarrel.
Snakebit Open was not yet in the clear, however. Just as word was received that the tournament was on and that the Palmers and Nicklauses and Caspers would be present as promised, a giant hail storm struck Denver. It pelted Columbine with hailstones widely described as being "the size of golf balls," pitting the greens and leaving a major repair job for Course Superintendent Ken Voorhies and his harassed ground crew. Thanks in part to some of the rainiest weather Denver has seen in years, the grass responded, and the greens became playable if not carpet-like by the time the pros arrived to start their practice rounds.
All that was left, then, to frazzle the nerves and curdle two years of work was the weather. For reasons of tradition, as Elbin explained last week, the PGA feels it is essential to conduct its championship in midsummer, generally in some steamy middle-western heat bowl where a soufflé would rise in seconds. For years PGA sufferers have been suggesting that the tournament would have more comfort and a great deal more character if it were played in the autumn as a climax to the tournament season. "This should be a fall tournament," Jack Nicklaus argued one day at Columbine after stepping out of the air-cooled locker room into oven temperature. "Something to wind up the tournament year. Then it would have some meaning. Until they do that, it is just another stop on the summer tour."
The daily 90° temperatures and the hot mountain sun glaring out of a cloudless sky set the mood of the tournament. On Friday, Dan Sikes, who was in the midst of his second fine sub-par round and tied for second place at the time, nearly collapsed on the 13th hole. He rallied for a par on that hole, a birdie on the next and another birdie 3 on the 17th for an excellent 70, but he was too weak at the end to endure the customary press conference that is part of the ritual of the leading scorers. In the same pairing, defending champion Al Geiberger, who normally sustains his skinny frame with the peanut-butter sandwiches he totes in his golf bag, almost toppled over while teeing up his ball at the 17th hole. When he finally did straighten up, he was too limp to get his hands through the shot and drove the ball out of bounds for a two-stroke penalty.
Jack Nicklaus, who had started the day in second place only a stroke behind Dave Hill's course record of 66 on opening day, stumbled to a 75. "This is the toughest time I've ever had adjusting to the time change," Jack complained, referring to the fact that he had just flown back from England after an unsuccessful defense of his British Open title. "Then there is the altitude and the heat. I don't have any zip, and I've never slept worse in my life."
It was the golf course that suffered most from the weather. On Thursday morning when play started, the greens and fairways were still relatively soft, but by Friday the course was like a superhighway. Drives bounded through the fairways into the rough and approach shots sprang like crickets off the unyielding greens. Wise old hands like Palmer, who managed to stay in contention by adding a 71 to his opening 70, abandoned their drivers on many tees in favor of spoons and irons.
Even so, Tommy Aaron, who teed off early, shaved another stroke off the course record with a 65, including an astonishing streak of eight 3s in nine holes. That gave Aaron, who has often led but never won a pro tournament, an impressive four-stroke lead. After him came Hill, Sikes and a young club pro named Don Bies. Palmer was fifth and a stroke behind him was Nicklaus, two sharks waiting for the fish to fall back. There was no particular reason to notice Don January, who was tied for eighth, and no reason whatsoever to know that Don Massengale was even on the golf course.
On Saturday Aaron turned an incipient runaway into a traffic jam, rejoining the pack with a shaky 76. Aaron's troubles began as he started the back nine with his lead relatively intact. On the 10th hole, a 199-yard par-3 over water, he hit his tee shot far off line, recovered poorly and wound up with a double bogey 5. He had another bogey on the 14th and finished the back nine in 39. Playing with him, Dan Sikes shot a steady 70, good enough for a two-stroke lead. It was a situation that Sikes, a lawyer who had led the touring pros' battle against the PGA, thoroughly enjoyed.
Palmer started birdie, birdie but had to struggle to finish with a 72 and a tie for fifth, four strokes behind Sikes. Thanks to a late surge of birdie putts from the great white putter that won him the Open at Baltusrol, Nicklaus managed a 69 that put him in a second-place tie with Aaron. There was still no reason to notice January, tied for fifth, or Massengale, tied for 11th.
It was Sunday that the galleries learned Don Massengale was very much in the tournament. A sturdy, 30-year-old Texan whose reputation was confined to his home town of Jacksboro until he won the 1966 Crosby, Massengale teed off almost an hour in front of the leaders. He made the turn in 33, then collected four more birdies on the back nine for a 66. That brought him in at 281—seven under par for the tournament—and it was up to everyone else to catch him.
Sikes was at the 13th green when he glanced at a nearby scoreboard and saw that his major threat was not Nicklaus, playing directly ahead of him and steadily, nor Aaron, playing with him and miserably, but Massengale, enjoying the cool of the clubhouse. Sikes was eight under at the moment, but he promptly three-putted from 50 feet and lost his lead. Shooting ragged golf from then on, Sikes bogeyed the 15th, rallied with a birdie at 16, but badly hooked a drive on the 17th and took another bogey when his second shot landed in a spectator's chair. That was one bogey too many.
Playing along with Nicklaus was Don January, but, of course, it was Nicklaus everyone at Columbine was watching. Jack barely missed an eagle at the 13th hole, but the tap-in birdie brought him within a stroke of the leaders. A bogey immediately afterward dropped him two strokes back, where he had been more or less mired throughout the afternoon. A final birdie at the 17th gave him a shot at a tie, but a longish putt for his birdie on the 18th missed by a couple of inches. So Jack shook his head, smiled politely and headed for the airport.
January was something else. This tall, freckled Texan, who has been ambling slowly over the fairways of pro golf for more than a decade looking more like a lean, incorruptible sheriff than an athlete, had started the day four strokes behind Sikes. His easy, flowing swing was keeping the ball on the fairways, and his putting was consistent, but that is the way Don has played for years. You never expect to see him raise a sweat either on himself or the gallery. But January suddenly hit a hot streak at the 14th hole, where TV viewers from Boston to Belfast saw him go birdie, birdie, par, birdie, par for a 68 that gained him a tie with Massengale.
So there they were, a couple of Joes—or rather Dons—named January and Massengale, playing for one of the most treasured trophies in golf while all the famous Arnies and Jacks went home to wait for next year. Not a likely parlay for a playoff, maybe, but after a flood, a hailstorm and a feud, who could really expect anything but an improbable ending?