A touring golf pro will pull a knife on you for a thousand dollars, or, as Frank Beard once said, "Where's my one-iron, and who do you want me to kill?"
Nobody understood this attitude better than a couple of good players themselves, Jimmy Demaret and Jackie Burke, and they kept it in mind when they built the Champions Golf Club in Houston a few years ago. They conceived and constructed the club for the pure golfer, and—let's say it—it is the best tournament course in America since the Augusta National. Champions is a course that keeps the tee shot in the game, and it has among its pines, willows, moss and oaks a perfect turf for the pros to "Van Gogh it," as they say, with the irons. It also provides a classy atmosphere that is rivaled only by the Masters. Last week as Roberto de Vicenzo won the third Houston International and, more important, signed his scorecard correctly, there were strong indications that Champions, with the beauty and experience it has going for it, will be the site next year of perhaps the best U.S. Open ever staged.
This year's Open, of course, will be played at Oak Hill in Rochester, a perfectly fine layout that had the USGA tournament once before in 1956, but next summer's spectacle will be held for the first time on a course that has not only been part of the PGA tour but, in fact, has been the very favorite stop of the pros. This is Champions, a dream that Demaret and Burke made come true and a club that now stands, just outside the snarl of freeways and skyscraper construction that adds up to Houston, as one of the city's top attractions along with the Astrodome and NASA. Any golfer in the Southwest who hasn't yet played Champions wouldn't know Jack Nicklaus from Sandy MacDivot.
There are a lot of reasons why Champions is so popular with the pros and why it will be capable of holding a super Open. First is the course itself, the original 18, Cypress Creek, which is not to be confused with the club's other 18, Jackrabbit, a newer but equally splendid layout. The big course, which is really what everyone refers to when they talk about Champions, is where last week's tournament was played, where the 1967 Ryder Cup matches were held and where the 1969 U.S. Open will unfold. It is a course that measures more than 7,000 yards from the back tees and allows the player to use his driver on every hole but the par-3s.
"The trouble with most golf architects is they try to take the driver away from you with a lot of cute sand," says Jimmy Demaret. "The tee shot is the home run of golf—the thing people like to see. I think you'll see a lot of drivers here even after the USGA lets the Bermuda grow in."
Burke says, "There's never been an architect who teed it up for $100,000. If you put a fairway trap out there for these bandits, they'll one-iron you to death. They'd just as soon slap a little lead weight on the one-iron and go with that and a four-iron as use the driver and have to hit a seven out of some sand."
Although basically flat, curving and tree-lined, Champions' fairways are wide and well-defined like those at the Masters, offering good targets and encouraging muscle. Not much can be taken away from them visually by the narrowing processes that the USGA will employ when it lets the rough pinch them in. Most of the holes are so long and pin positions so flexible that drivers will have to be used off the tees if the Open contenders want to hit anything less than four-woods into the greens.
The course played easier last week than it has because the back tees were not used, there was no rough and the Texas wind never came up. "It played about six shots easier over the 72 holes than I expect it will for the Open," said Burke. The 4th hole was a good example, the 4th being a scenic 3-par over a cliff and creek, vaguely reminiscent of the 16th at Cypress Point. "The PGA moved 'em up to five-irons there," said Burke. "Man, I got to think Joe Dey will take 'em back to the spoon. I would." Burke and Demaret readily admit that they built Champions with Joe Dey—or at least with a future Open—in mind. And good golfers everywhere in mind.
"Sure, we wanted to get the Open from the start," said Burke. "It makes your club for life. If you're from Champions, and you've had an Open, people know you everywhere a lot better than they know the member from Babbling Brook. You walk in somewhere and say, 'I'm from Babbling Brook,' and somebody'll say, "Well, have you got any letters of credit?' Very few Open courses are ever forgotten."
Burke smiled and said, "To have an Open it's worth seeing the Bermuda come up to your knees for a week and letting the USGA come in and play blue-coat-and-armband."
All around the Champions plant there is the sight and mood of good taste, and the constant influence of Augusta where Demaret and Burke won four Masters titles between them. The clubhouse is simple but handsome, a one-story ranch of used pink brick with white columns and a high, shingled roof. There is an umbrellaed veranda, like the one at Augusta, and there are scads of tall pines and oaks shading a smooth green lawn. And it is orderly. You walk out of the locker room, spacious, paneled and A-framed, into the golf shop, out of the shop toward the practice area, from the practice area to the putting green and from there to the first tee. And none of these are very far apart. Also like Augusta, Champions has cottages along the course with creeks, ponds and flowers all over.
Many of last week's field stayed in the cottages and played house. They would cook out, swim, walk their dogs and sit on terraces at night, visiting, cock-tailing and relaxing. "Nothing comes close to it on the tour," said Dave Marr. "This place has the best of everything, including the players' private concession stand on the course and the best locker boys anywhere."
The locker room not only offered a quiet retreat for the players, it was also a semi-hospital, as it will be for the Open. One of the things Demaret and Burke started last year was a training room—the only one on the tour. The Houston Oilers' trainer, Bobby Brown, once again was set up with a rubdown center and a well-stocked pill dispensary. He had plenty of customers, about 30 golfers a day. In fact, the pros, said Brown, seemed to suffer most from aching muscles and gout. "There are a few, of course, who only want wake-me-ups and hangover cures," Bobby said. "I'll give 'em whatever they need. I told one who was almost begging that I could take him up as high as he wanted to go—or just send him sideways.
"The average person probably thinks these guys lead a grand life, hanging around country clubs all the time," Brown continued. "But I can tell by looking at them what a grind it is. I know they hurt. After all, they sleep on different beds all the time, change climates constantly, rarely eat a home-cooked meal and do the worst thing of all—come in sweating to air-conditioned rooms. They all have backs that hurt. Why, Raymond Floyd had to withdraw because he got a muscle spasm brushing his teeth. He really did."
More of the Augusta influence can be found on the course than anyplace else. It has the smooth, close-cropped fairways of the Masters, where the irons make a pistol-shot sound and where the ball sits there so the player can make it work. You don't hit many squirters at the Champions. "You can jack it around," says Burke. "That's why so many pros say this course brings out the best in you. Around here they suddenly become artists." Also, Champions is paced like Augusta with two par-5s on the front nine and with a water-guarded backside that is similar, down to its 4-4-3 start to a 3-4-4 finish, the only difference being that the 15th hole is a 4-par instead of a 5 like Augusta, and par is 71 instead of 72. The 10th hole is like the Masters' 10th, a dogleg left but without the drop-off into a valley; the 12th is a tough par-3 over water, only longer, and the 13th is a dangerous par-5 but with the creek along the right side of the fairway instead of ringing the front and right side of the green.
Obviously there also are differences between sedate Augusta and buoyant Champions. Augusta is old, Champions is new. "We don't want any old, rich members," said Burke. "They don't spend anything. We've got young guys who're still trying to impress somebody. We have fun around here."
Like the other day before the tournament started. The owners and some members were sitting around the locker room and Demaret said he could, say, play on one leg and beat two members who were low handicappers. Well, for just how much? the members said. So everybody went out to the tee, everybody on electric scooters. It looked like an invasion of golf carts. Demaret played on one leg and started out birdie, birdie, par, birdie, par and it was all over. The two members said they just wanted part of their flesh back.
They don't have fun like that at Augusta. Just ask Roberto de Vicenzo where the laughs are.