A tournament for non-Masters

Pros who were unable to qualify for Augusta kept their games in tune in an off-Broadway version
April 22, 1968

For those who savor the great names of golf—Palmer (ouch!), Nicklaus (ahhh!), Player (ohhh!)—Augusta was the place, the Masters the tournament. Yet just 220 miles to the north, in Knoxville, Tenn., and on exactly those same treasured days of Augusta activity, there came a preview of some Masters of the future. In a flurry of irreverent activity at the lovely Holston Hills Country Club, on a course that rambles for 7,009 yards, 133 bona fide touring pros and 11 amateurs were going at it in the PGA's off-Broadway version of the Masters—the Rebel Yell Open. And for you name collectors, try this one: Larry Mowry. Nothing? Well try it again, because Larry Mowry was the lad who beat Chris Blocker in a sudden-death playoff. And you might also remember a few others: Herb Hooper, Harry Toscano, Mike Hadlock, DeWitt Weaver, Bunky Henry.... Bunky Henry? Oh, come on, now. Bunky Henry was the guy who kicked those field goals for Georgia Tech to beat Tennessee two years ago, right?

That's the one. Only Henry is chugging along the pro tour now with a couple of hundred other keen-eyed young lads who, if they were to pool their earnings to date, would just about be able to pay the fuel bill for Jack Nicklaus' Lear jet.

But just you wait. These strapping young fellows with the strange-sounding names have this terrible urge to sup privately in the elegant dining room at Augusta, trading banter with Arnie and Jack and Ben, to flex their shoulders in their own green jackets, fondling that cashier's check where the zeros go on and on and on. It may take a few years, or five, or who knows how long. But just you wait.

To say that this year's version of the Rebel Yell rattled nobody's windows outside of Knox County, Tenn. is perfectly obvious. There are 14 ingenious ways to get an invitation to the Masters and the pros at Knoxville had found 100 ingenious ways of blowing them all. It is patently a tournament for the have-nots, and the winner does not have much more—only $2,800—when he has it. But this is official PGA money and, even more significant, this satellite tournament (which is what the PGA, pondering long and hard, prefers to call it) will be the first of several that will be held at the same time as various other glamorous invitations. It gives the young pros the chance to strut over somebody's country club, competing earnestly when they would otherwise be sitting around a motel television set watching the hot shots going at it. "The need for these things has been obvious for a long time," says Lonnie Nolan, the tournament director and the man who got the Rebel Yell off and running with such professional thoroughness it might have been a PGA regular for 20 years. "With 300 pros wanting in on every tournament and 144 places open at most, we had to find something for the young fellows," Nolan said. "How are they going to get competitively keen if they can't compete?"

Nolan does not arrange any affair with the PGA label on it casually. Any number of cities wanted the Masters satellite tournament desperately, and Nolan's method of picking the one was to live in each place for two weeks. As it almost had to be a Southern city, so that it would geographically fall between the Greensboro Open held the week before the Masters and the Azalea Open the following week in Wilmington, N.C., it meant that Nolan had to stuff down more grits than most people eat in a lifetime. But that is the way Nolan goes at his job, so Chattanooga, Nashville, Martinsville, Va. and Knoxville each became his home away from home.

What Nolan found in Knoxville was a revelation. Home of the University of Tennessee, it is wild for anything that is even remotely athletic. "It's a young town," said Nolan, "and I don't necessarily mean chronologically, but mentally. The 50-year-olds come on like they were in their mid-30s."

Orvis Milner, a local distributor of spirits—one of which is a bourbon called Rebel Yell (ah, there you have it)—and a man who had been hounding the PGA for years to get a tournament in Knoxville, enlisted dozens of women members from local clubs, fitted them out in bright red jackets and turned them loose on Holston Hills, taking tickets, running concession stands, scoring and sweeping up. The game was on.

For four days the hot-eyed young pros flailed away to produce a brand of golf that would bear comparison to that played at the Masters. "Take away the top 15 at Augusta," said George Walsh, one of the PGA bird dogs who sees to it that the young players behave in a manner befitting a gentleman's sport, "and the field is actually stronger here." Of course, you see some awfully strange things, too—like more than a few bull-headed attempts to drive balls into the teeth of a minor gale across a significant body of water, as on Holston Hills' fourth hole. "They want to show the world how strong they are," said Walsh, "and they end up wading around in the pond with their pants rolled up. But that's what this tournament is for. They're learning. When some of the very young ones blow a shot, the color goes from their faces, their knuckles turn white gripping their putters. Oh, the agony."

But there were more than a few in that big, eager young field who knew what pressure was and how to handle it. And for the first days these exceptional young ones played to total obscurity.

For instance, three of the brightest young stars, one of them Larry Mowry, came into the final hole on Friday before a gallery consisting of their caddies, the scorekeeper, two ladies from a nearby concession stand and a large gray dog—origin unknown. Mowry and Rich Martinez sank long, long putts for birdies, and DeWitt Weaver sank a short one after a drive that would have had the Masters crowd muttering, "Longer than Nicklaus," if they had been there to see it. The concession ladies applauded and the strange dog wagged its tail.

Of the three, Mowry is the best known, if that is the word for it. Actually the Las Vegas pro would just as soon have the last five years stricken from the script. Even for a player of such vast natural talent, frolicking in the wee hours with all the good booze a small check can buy is an awkward way to prepare for a tournament. Then last summer came a divorce and a thorough bit of soul-searching by Mowry. "I have reformed," he told anyone who would listen. "You don't say so," said his critics. One true believer, however, was Potter Palmer, who is part owner of the Atlanta Braves and as a casual acquaintance once played a round with Mowry in a pro-am tournament. Palmer lent Mowry $2,000, which was $2,000 more than Mowry had in his bank balance at the time, and off went Larry, clear of eye, firm of resolve. "If I have a beer now," said Mowry, "you can bet it will be on Sunday night." An indication of just how firm Mowry has been can be had by inspecting his scores in his last five tournaments. He won money in four of them, and his worst round was a 73.

Of all the promising young players at the Rebel Yell, however, none quickened the blood of knowledgeable golfers like DeWitt Weaver. "I guess you always see the next Arnold Palmer in this year's crop of young ones," said George Walsh, "but I swear to you, this Weaver has it. This is the age of the long ball, and when you mention the biggest, strongest hitter of them all how does it come out? Nicklaus, right? Well, you can add Weaver to the list. And that's not the end of it. You know how some athletes can get you excited just by walking in the door? Well, Weaver's got that. He's got it all."

So it would appear, though it was not always that way. Prepped by his father, DeWitt T. Weaver, who was football coach at Texas Tech for 10 years, DeWitt went to SMU fully expecting to be the next Mustang quarterback. But while football was fun for Weaver, golf was a passion, and from his sophomore year on golf was his game.

It was in 1963 that Weaver tried the pro tour, and it took him exactly four months to learn one thing for certain. He had no business being there. "I could hit the ball, all right," said Weaver, "but, good God, even my wedge shots were likely to go off at right angles." So Weaver left the tour. For the next few years he polished his big, booming game and finally took a job as a club pro at Cairo, Ga. Cairo is not exactly big time, but it does have one of the most demanding courses in the country, which was perfect for Weaver. But the big break came when he dropped in on Sam Byrd, a former PGA player now teaching in Alabama. Not only did Byrd seethe flaw in Weaver's swing, he told him what to do about it. "You won't break 80 for a month," Byrd told him, "but sooner or later, you'll start hitting that ball."

Last week Weaver charged around the Holston Hills course drawing gasps from the crowd with his long straight drives. His four-under 284 was good for seventh place and the grand sum of $470. Not that it matters much. The Rebel Yell is not what Weaver has in mind for next year. He and Mowry and the other young pros at the Rebel Yell are aiming for Augusta.

PHOTO

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)