There comes a time for any home-loving tournament pro when he must decide whether it is worth the loneliness land heartache to travel around the country month after month in pursuit of big money—or whether he would rather remain at home with the family and be content with a more modest income. Johnny Pott, who is 32 and who last year earned $42,000, began 1968 with this in mind. He had spent 11 years on the tour, yet he had won only four tournaments in that time and none since 1963. Thus he was determined either to win handsomely this year or to toss it in and return to Mississippi, his wife Maryrose and his two children. Last Sunday at the Bing Crosby pro-am at Pebble Beach it became fairly certain that Maryrose Pott will have to get along by herself for a while. By sinking a 25-foot chip shot for a birdie on the first hole of sudden death, Johnny Pott beat Billy Casper and Bruce Devlin in a three-way playoff to win $16,000 and start the year in a style to which he has not been accustomed.
During the Crosby, Pott shared a room with Jack Burke Jr., an old friend who makes only sporadic tournament appearances at the major events. They talked golf both on the course and off, since for the first three days they happened to be playing in the same foursome. "We just talked about things like positioning correctly and getting the club back at the start of the swing," Pott explained.
Johnny's golf responded to the treatment. He opened with a 70 at Cypress Point that was a model of consistency and followed that with a 71 at the difficult Spyglass Hill to take the tournament lead. A 71 at Pebble Beach kept him in front, but in the final round—which everyone played at Pebble Beach—a rash of three-putt greens and a bad bounce seemed to have finished him. As late as the 16th tee Pott was two strokes behind Casper and Devlin, but birdies at 16 and 17 brought him even, setting the scene for his dramatic victory.
As the name pros arrived for the start of the tournament, it was apparent that the Crosby, which has gone through more than its share of changes in the 31 years since its modest beginning, was in danger of becoming known as the Waistline Classic. For the first time in its history the Crosby opened the pros' winter tour, and a lot of the regulars looked jowly and paunchy, as if they had not yet digested their Christmas turkey. You could pay your week's expenses making book on the weight difference between Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer (merely five pounds, according to the early figures—202 to 197—although Palmer claimed he was only 190). Bobby Nichols, who had been spending a week at Palm Desert getting his game in shape, ate his way out of it, ballooning to 215 pounds, 12 over last year. An ample Frank Beard, who last year won $110,000 on the tour, shot a 94 in a practice round at Palm Springs. And so it went. By their profiles you could scarcely tell some of the young pros from their middle-aged amateur partners, just out from behind a desk.
Waistlines aside, there was almost unanimous rejoicing among the professionals over the Crosby's change from second or third on the tour to No. 1. Because it is played over three different courses, often in minor hurricanes, the PGA declared the tournament "unofficial" several years ago, meaning that the money, while still green, and the scores no longer count in the year's statistical accounting. This, combined with the tournament's new lead-off position, means that the players can show up plump and short-winded from their winter indiscretions and tune up their games without fretting over the effect on the record book. "It's like spring training in baseball," observed Jack Tuthill, the PGA tournament director. "We never had anything like it before. Now, if we could just work the Hope [the other unofficial tournament on the early schedule] in right after the Crosby, everybody would be ready to go when the regular events begin."
Palmer, who started the 1968 season with a shaky 76 over the Pebble Beach course, was among the first to praise the new arrangement. Palmer scarcely touched a club during the snowy holidays in Latrobe, and a week before the Crosby he had to fly to Palm Springs to make some advertising stills for his apparel line. He squeezed in nine holes of practice each of the first two days on the desert, but his concentration was spotty, since he had to change ensembles on practically every hole. On Sunday he did manage 27 serious holes, and he played tune-up rounds at each of the three Crosby courses.
Such limited practice is not enough, and Palmer's score on the first nine holes at Pebble Beach on Thursday reflected it. Using one of the new aluminum-shafted "jumbo" drivers out of his factory, a weapon that looks as if it were about as easy to swing as Babe Ruth's 54-ounce bat, Palmer was pushing his drives out to the right. The one he hit at the 6th hole shot out over the ocean and may still be going. Minutes before that he had taken a double-bogey 5 at the 5th hole by sending his tee shot into a bunker and three-putting. After his wild drive across the Pacific at the 6th, he finally salvaged a bogey, then followed with a three-putt bogey at the 7th. At the 9th, where he bunkered his approach shot, he three-putted for another double bogey to finish with a five-over-par 41 going out. It took birdies on the two closing holes to cut his score down to 76.
"I was fresh out of the box and really wasn't ready to go," Palmer explained later. "At the start of the season you get a little careless, and you're not thinking right. It takes a little while to get confidence in what you are going to do and get your momentum going. There's no question that it's a great improvement to have the first tournament unofficial. It gives you a chance to work your game into shape."
Nicklaus, whose opening 71 at Cypress Point was a considerable improvement on Palmer's start, nonetheless had much the same problems as Arnold. Since his winter home is on the Lost Tree golf course north of Palm Beach, Nicklaus interrupted his fishing to work in a bit more golf than he usually plays during the holidays, but he felt anything but tournament-ready as he reached the Crosby. After the 71 he went out to the practice tee at Pebble Beach and worked some two hours until it was too dark for the caddie to shag balls. The next evening, after an uneasy 75 at Spyglass Hill, including four bogeys in a row on the first nine, Jack again practiced until dark.
In subtler ways than just its position on the schedule, the Crosby was showing other signs of change—and age. Time was when a large percentage of the amateurs, who now number 168, were recognizable names and faces from show biz and sport. Naturally, the Hollywood contingent changes with the years as people like Richard Arlen, Dennis O'Keefe and Randolph Scott fade into the background, and the new darlings of the ratings turn out to be Dean Martin, Pat Boone and Andy Williams. One expects that.
To oldtimers, though, there is something melancholy in the growing absenteeism of the great athletes. Missing this year were Don Drysdale, Dick Groat, Tommy Harmon and Duffy Daugherty, while the gradual attrition has knocked out others through the years like Bob Lemon and Vern Stephens. The roster still contains Sandy Koufax, Alvin Dark, Ernie Nevers and John Brodie among others and an occasional newcomer like this year's Rick Barry, but, for the most part, these types are being replaced by businessmen, the powerhouses from the countinghouses. As the pro golfers make more and more money, their new friends tend to be brokers and oilmen, and they are beginning to ask Bing to invite them to his tournament. Bobby Nichols, Don January, Don Massengale and Dow Finsterwald, to name a few, all had business friends as partners last week. So it is not unusual to see clubs from Darien and New Canaan, Conn. represented. Not that they don't belong. It is just not as thrilling to see a bespectacled executive walking up the 18th fairway at Pebble Beach as it is a 20-game winner or an All-Pro halfback.
The galleries, however, show no signs of revolting as the Crosby attendance builds and builds, year after year, until it is now the equal of anything in golf. Roughly speaking, this year the crowds divided into two groups—those who came to see the golf and those who came to see Dean Martin. Playing in partnership with Don Cherry, the PGA's only legitimate full-time crooner, and paired with the partnership of Tommy Bolt and Phil Harris, Martin attracted a stampede of worshippers.
"At the 15th," Cherry groaned after his round at Cypress Point, "I thought Dean was going to throw himself in the ocean just to get away. It was the wildest gallery I ever saw." Hearing about the mob, Crosby himself assigned some protection to the group, but it would have taken a platoon of the Coldstream Guards to keep it entirely subdued.
The major conversation piece of the Crosby is rapidly shifting from the weather, which was near perfect for all four days, to Spyglass Hill, the new Robert Trent Jones course that last year became the third of the Crosby's three courses, replacing the Monterey Peninsula Country Club. Spyglass is lovely to look at, with several spectacular seaside holes at the start and the rest winding through the glorious pine forests of Del Monte. It has some spectacular artificial ponds that reflect the towering trees and the blue sky. As a place to play tournament golf, however, it is not good, nor will it be until the heavily undulating greens acquire an adequate carpet of grass.
Last year, when Spyglass was brand new, the criticism seemed premature, inasmuch as the course had had no chance to develop. After playing a practice round there, Claude Harmon, the former Masters champion, immediately withdrew from the tournament with the booming declaration, "I wouldn't play that course again if they gave me $5,000 in small unmarked bills."
This year Spyglass had undergone a few of the more obvious alterations required, but the comments were hardly less caustic. On the first day of the tournament Billy Casper's one-over-par 73 was the low score at Spyglass as a third of the field played over it and no one else broke 75. It was at Spyglass on the second day that Nicklaus had his 75. Jack, whose putting was rusty throughout the week and fatal on Sunday, missed two putts of 18 inches, one of two feet, two of three feet and perhaps a dozen of anywhere from six to 12 feet. "We play a lot of bad courses during the year," Nicklaus said later, "but at least they give you some kind of a chance on the greens. On six or seven of the greens at Spyglass there are just no level places for good pin positions. If your putt misses the hole, you don't know when it will stop."
On Saturday it was Palmer's turn. At the start of the round he was only five strokes behind Pott, thanks to a very comfortable 70 at Cypress Point the previous day when he discarded his monster driver. Playing Spyglass, Palmer three-putted six of the greens, missed several veritable tap-ins, and at the 8th hole putted the ball completely off the green. "On two holes," he lamented, "my putts hit the cup twice—going each way." The result of this putting debacle was a horrendous 77 that left him 11 shots off the lead and dead in the Crosby. Late in the round Palmer looked at the gallery and said, "Where do you go to surrender?" As Mark McCormack, Palmer's business manager, biographer and Crosby partner, put it, "Arnold attacked Spyglass. He lost."
It wasn't a loss that counted, though. After all, it was spring training, unofficial and just for laughs—and the biggest laugh of all was Johnny Pott's.