Last Friday night at the NCAA golf tournament in Las Cruces, N. Mex., Buster Bishop, the twig of a golf coach from the University of Florida, gathered his five athletes in a motel room and sternly admonished them against the dangers of overcautiousness. After three rounds of play, Florida was, rather surprisingly, tied for the tournament lead. "Don't go out there tomorrow and play scared," Bishop ordered grimly. "They are scared of you. Let the others play scared. You just go out and get them. You hear?" The "theys" and "thems" were 13 other college teams and Houston—mostly Houston, which had won the title 10 times in the last 12 years and the last four in a row.
So it was that, the next afternoon, Florida's Richard Spears, who had heard the sermon, found himself on the dehydrated 18th fairway of New Mexico State University's golf course, staring down hard at this golf ball. It was resting on bare, well-baked dirt. The green, an impossible oasis, was 223 yards away. Better play it safe, a voice from within whispered. "Like hell," said Spears. "Damn, the coach said not to play it safe." With that he hauled out a four-wood, held back nothing and laughed nervously as the ball flew true to the green. Two putts later Spears had a birdie and a final-round score of 69, sending Florida's gamblers on their way to a two-shot victory over Houston to nail down their first NCAA Golf Championship.
As Spears's early afternoon score was being posted on the big board, Bishop could hardly restrain himself. Neither could the critics of Dave Williams, Houston's charmer of a coach. Sam Voinoff, the Purdue coach, laughed and said, "Good. I don't care who beats Houston just as long as somebody does." Southern Cal's Stan Wood smiled and hugged himself. Labron Harris didn't smile, but then the stern Oklahoma State coach rarely smiles. Harris said glumly, "Houston can still win it." An Eastern coach shook his head. "It sounds like the McCoys and the Hatfields rooting for each other to shoot the revenuer," said the Easterner, "and they don't much care who pulls the trigger."
Unaware of the early celebration, Houston was out on the course refusing to play dead. Last year Florida had held a four-stroke lead going into the final four holes, but when it was over Houston had won by three strokes. "What the hell," Voinoff growled, "you don't think those guys can do that again?" Up to the board sauntered Dave Williams. He was smiling. "We've still got Underwood and Olson out there," he said softly. Doug Olson is the tough little fireplug of a senior who led the Houston comeback last year. Hal Underwood, an All-America, has the nerves of a test pilot and can make a golf ball do everything but keep score. The two of them could have been enough; they could have been except for the 15th hole, on which there is a tiny pond less than two weeks old.
"The water hole?" said Herb Wimberley, New Mexico State's energetic young golf coach and club pro. "Why, we just stuck that little thing in there to make the course more interesting." As a water hole, it's not much; a bathtub, 30 feet by 60 feet; perhaps a nuisance, hardly a menace. The 15th is a par 5, stretching 525 yards, and all week the long-hitting college kids had been playing it like a pitch-and-putt. In the first three rounds, 175 birdies and seven eagles had been scored there. Underwood had three of the birds; Olson had one.
But on this day it was to be different. Olson discovered it first. His second shot landed in the water. Nettled, he skipped his fourth shot 40 feet past the pin. "I skulled it," he said later. From there he three-putted, taking a 7. A short time later Underwood arrived at the same hole, dunked his second shot and took a 6. That did it. Dave Williams' latest string of NCAA championships had ended at four straight. "Well, you win some and lose some," Williams said, managing a smile from the shade of his Panama straw hat. "The three times we lost, two of them were seconds. I guess that's not too bad."
Florida finished the 72 holes (before this year the team championship had been decided in 36) in 1,154 strokes. John Darr had set the pace with a 285. All-America Steve Melnyk ended with a 287; John Sale a 290; Richard Spears a 292; and Wendell Coffee a 303. The first four are juniors; Coffee is a sophomore who was red-shirted last year. As freshmen, that same five played together and won five tournaments and 13 dual matches. The next time they were together was in this year's Southeastern Conference tournament, which they won. "The NCAA was their second 1968 tournament together as a five-some," said Bishop. "Nobody has beaten them yet."
Houston came in with 1,156, followed by Wake Forest (1,160), Oklahoma State (1,162), Texas, the pre-tournament favorite which fell 16 strokes behind in the first round (1,162), and Arizona State (1,166). Then came New Mexico, Colorado, Michigan State, Florida State, San Jose State, Stanford, USC, New Mexico State and Michigan.
The individual title went to Grier Jones, Oklahoma State's All-America, who led all four rounds (65-68-71-72) and finished with a record-setting 276. The old record of 281 had been set in 1965 by Marty Fleckman of Houston. Underwood, who birdied the last three holes after his disaster on 15, finished second, three strokes back.
New Mexicans are a warm, friendly lot. They took one look at the youngsters coming in from the East and the Midwest and decided they had better soften the introduction to the 7,108 yards of fairway that play like green tile, and to the killing rough of sand and rock and cactus and mesquite. And to a sun which heated the course to 107° Friday. "It's like playing on a course in the Holy Land," said Les Bolstad, the Minnesota coach. Every night, a million gallons of water was poured on the fairways. "Anything growing out in the rough," said Green-keeper Wayne Quick, "we just let keep growing. We figure anything is better than nothing."
To make the first round less frightening, the tees were placed forward and the pins were placed in the fat part of the greens. Sixteen players came in under 70, eight more with one-under-par 70s.
"Well, we made it easy." said Herb Wimberley. "Now we'll toughen it a little." Back went the tees, to the rear of the greens went the pins. Up went the scores. Up and up and up, and then, splash—splash. "Darn that old water anyway," said Dave Williams.
Across the way, on the first tee, they were already handing out the huge trophy that Williams has carted home so often, and Buster Bishop was saying thank you and, boy. was he hungry. For breakfast, the 126-pound Florida coach had settled for a cup of coffee; lunch was the end of a stubby yellow pencil. "I'm a highly emotional person," he said laughing. "During a tournament I eat very little, sleep even less. But I never sleep much anyway. Always up at dawn. Just automatically. Don't have an alarm clock, won't wear a wristwatch. Don't like them. They worry me."
He held out his trophy at arm's length and admired it. "Isn't it a beauty?" he said. "But I knew we were going to win it. Weren't afraid of Houston. I got on a radio program this morning and told the world we were going to win. That my boys weren't afraid of Houston. Confidence. That's what we had, confidence. All the confidence in the world."
Labron Harris came shuffling from the crowd and shook Bishop's hand. "Say, coach," said Harris, "how many of your boys are you going to lose this year?"
"None," said Bishop. "Four juniors and a sophomore."
"Oh," said Harris. "Well, I guess you won't be hurting until the year after next. Well, I'll see you."
"Yes, you will," said Buster Bishop. And so will everyone else.