The Masters is always a tough act to follow, whether scorecards are being glanced at or not, so perhaps the Tournament of Champions in Las Vegas—backless, frontless, mindless old Vegas—is the only one that ever ought to try. Somehow it manages to survive this particular week every year, when the pros are generally suffering an emotional unwinding from Georgia, and the reason is obvious. A golf tournament in Las Vegas is pretty much a secret around town, just something for people to think about between Alka-Seltzers, or putting on the blonde wig or the white turtle-neck, or listening to the rumor that Howard Hughes is alive and living underneath Lake Mead, or trying to keep from hearing all those Korean girls play the trombones again.
For most of the pros in Vegas, the mind usually goes first, closely followed by the stance and the grip. If a casino doesn't do it, a luau will, or too many Buddy Hackett jokes. Last week for winner Don January, curiously enough, it was the stomach. He will never know whether it was the teriyaki or the pork-fried rice or whatever, but the stomach went. He struggled through the tournament with a case of what he called "the stand-ups, the bend-overs and the sit-downs," so, naturally in a sick man's town, a sick man won.
January managed to survive both his illness and the letdown from the Masters because he is in a streak of smooth swinging and unbelievably good luck. A far more impressive statistic than the eight-under 276 that he shot to win the Tournament of Champions is the fact that in the course of it he holed out another shot from a point off the green, making a total of 11 pitch-ins in his last four tournaments. And that, of course, is absurd.
January came to Vegas with a lot of confidence. He had played well at Augusta, and felt that he might have won if he had been able to drive better instead of fighting, in his words, "those funky little dribbles or blocked-out slices." He did drive consistently well at Vegas on the Stardust Golf Club course, a layout with all the natural beauty of a trailer camp but one with some tightness and a premium on accuracy. And he continued to hit the crisp irons that he always hits with his upright, almost slow-motion swing.
April 28, 1968
He began the last round one shot back of leader Bob Goalby, the Masters champion, who obviously came into the tournament with the same kind of confidence January had. "I've got timing and rhythm going for me right now," Goalby had said, "and maybe something to prove." But January passed Goalby quickly on the first nine with two birdies, and it was only a matter of holding on. Goalby played well, but the putts that had been falling for him at Augusta and through three rounds in Las Vegas suddenly refused to drop, and he was soon too far behind to catch up. Goalby tied for fourth, which he figured wasn't bad for a man still in the clouds from Augusta. As it turned out, Julius Boros made the best run at January with a closing 66, just missing a tie when an eagle putt on the 18th stayed an inch away from the cup. A tie might have been interesting, but one of them probably would have signed his card wrong—or January would have chipped in.
The pros always arrive in Las Vegas with mixed emotions about the Tournament of Champions. On the one hand, they are happy to be among the chosen few, to wear the gold blazers of a tour winner as they wander through the casino, to hang around with a lot of swell celebrities, who ranged last week from Allen and Rossi to Toots Shor, if that is a range, and generally to be able to relax and make a guaranteed $2,000 for just staying alive for four days. At the same time they always feel a little guilty that this championship, with its brilliant format, is staged in such a wonderfully sinful town.
Not only do the crank and clack of the casino furnish an inescapable background noise for everyone and not only has Vegas long since proved itself to be the world capital for various modes of undress, but the competitors also feel edgy because people can bet on them openly at a variety of places. At any of several bookie shops, one of the most notable being at the Pussycat A-Go Go, which becomes what it sounds like in the evenings, you can bet man against man in every daily pairing with appropriate odds, and you can bet against changing odds on who will eventually win the championship. For example, Bob Goalby opened at 12 to 1 before Thursday's first round, went to 8 to 1 when he trailed the first-round leaders by two strokes, moved to 6 to 1 after 36 holes and dropped to 6-5 on Sunday.
"I really hate this part of it," said Tom Weiskopf, the tour's leading money winner and a young man who drew a lot of attention in Vegas because of his early success this year and because the absence of Palmer and Nicklaus left few top stars in the field. "It really bothers me to have guys coming up and saying, 'Hey, I got fifty on you today." I don't like picking up the paper and reading that I'm 9 to 5 to beat the fellow I'm paired with. I just don't particularly like the town. I wish the tournament was held in the Midwest somewhere."
Although it was for a championship offering $150,000 in prize money and a first-place purse of $30,000—$10.000 more than the Masters—the tournament lacked class, primarily because of the Stardust Golf Club course where it was played. Also detracting from the tournament was a glowing absence of spectators, just a few thousand guys in white loafers and women in orange hair. If you could have turned the casino at Caesar's Palace upside down at midday on Saturday, more people would have fallen out than were at the Stardust.
Defending champion Frank Beard couldn't quite describe what exactly is wrong with the tournament, but he tried to one afternoon as he relaxed in one of the eight million bars in the Stardust Hotel lobby. "This is the greatest idea for a tournament in the world," he said. "It always has been. And if it were played at the end of the year, in December, for example, and were expanded to include a lot of other champions, British Open and so forth, I think it would be an instant classic. But I don't suppose there's a chance that'll ever happen. And as much fun as this town can be, the very fact that there's gambling here and temptations not to train detract from the golf and reflect on the quality of the tournament. It's too bad. This is a town that you like a lot and hate a lot at the same time."
The tournament first earned its fame because of all of those pictures of the late Wilbur Clark holding up some of the 10,000 silver dollars that went to the winner back in the 1950s—big deal then—and because of Gene Littler's three straight victories when Singer Frankie Laine owned him in what used to be a whopping Calcutta pool. It prospered later when Palmer and Nicklaus put their names on the trophy a few times. That always helps.
Last year, however, it had to move from the Desert Inn, a quality course and a classy, long-established (by Vegas standards) hotel. It wasn't moved, as many people thought, because Howard Hughes bought the D.I. and threw it out. It was moved because Hughes's purchase of the hotel didn't include the rights to the tournament. They belonged to the owners of the Stardust. Now Hughes is buying the Stardust—at least he is if the deal is approved—which will make six joints in all for him. Presumably this means that Hughes could keep the tournament at the Stardust, return it to the Desert Inn or even move it out of town if he wanted. If he did, chances are it would take Las Vegas at least five years to notice that anything was missing.