A few miles southeast of the Alamo, in a sunken oven of pecan trees and thick, baked Bermuda grass, on land so unpicturesque it makes you wonder why Mexico ever wanted to keep it or why Texas wanted it even for shopping centers, a middle-aged man struck a marvelous blow for tired, portly, beer-drinking, slow-moving fathers of seven. Last Sunday Julius Boros, who is all of the above, and who says he doesn't so much play spectacular golf as simply "throw a lot of junk up in the air," won the 50th anniversary PGA Championship.
It was a rousing tournament that had just about everybody in contention at one time or another except Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie and Jack Nicklaus. With nine holes left to play during Sunday's final round, and the sun over San Antonio's Pecan Valley Country Club turning the course into the world's largest sauna, the 48-year-old Boros was one of 10 players all jammed up and sweating and within a single stroke of each other. Then Julius calmly emerged from the pack with a 69 for a four-round total of 281 to become the oldest man (Jerry Barber won the PGA at 45) ever to win a major golf championship. Boros did it by rescuing a par 4 on the last hole—a brutal, narrow, long, uphill, evilly conceived thing that had the golfers in a mutinous state.
Only moments before, Arnold Palmer, playing beautifully and hitting some of his finest shots in years, had come to this 18th hole looking like the miracle maker of yore. He had smashed a 230-yard spoon shot out of the Bermuda rough, up the hill and onto the rolling, grainy green about eight feet from the flag, while his multitudes, which had been swelled by deserters from Lee's Fleas when Lee Trevino double-bogeyed himself out of contention on the first six holes, went into a yowling fit.
Arnie would make the birdie and either tie or win. Just like old times, right? Palmer hunched over the putt, and absolutely nothing could be heard but the hum of the Goodyear blimp circling overhead, and perhaps a cricket or two. He gave it a good rap, as he had so many other good birdie putts during the afternoon, but he played just a hair too much right-hand break, and, for the ninth time in his brilliant career, Palmer was a runner-up in one of the big four tournaments.
July 28, 1968
With the crowd still agonizing for him, he moved into the scorer's shed and turned his back to what Boros was doing. "I can't play any better," he said.
"The way you hit the irons, it could have been a 64," a friend said.
And Palmer said, "That's what it should have been. That's right. But they just wouldn't drop."
It was Palmer's 11th try in the PGA, the one big title he has never won, and this was the closest he has come. Ironically, little was expected of him. He had missed the cut at the Masters, played terribly in the U.S. Open, finishing 59th, and was really never a contender in the British Open a fortnight ago.
Still, he was enthusiastic. He had won the Texas Open three times in San Antonio and considered it a lucky town. He said he liked hot weather and Bermuda greens. And one of Palmer's traits is that he has always been able to "get up" for something he hasn't accomplished—like winning the PGA. "I want this title," he said before the final round got under way. "I'm not playing for the $25,000."
Julius Boros never looks like he is playing for anything except self-punishment. He wastes no time; he just strolls up and slaps the ball. Good or bad, whichever it turns out, Julius walks away expressionless. He stands under an umbrella like a man who has had to wait for every red light throughout his life and is used to it. He smokes and sips a beer, and you can almost sense the pain in his back when he slowly bends over to mark his ball or to take another birdie putt out of the cup.
Boros had a long wait on the last hole while the Palmer melodrama unfolded. He waited on the tee as Arnold got a free drop in the rough out from under a television cable strung through the pecan trees. And after driving down the middle of the fairway, Julius had to wait for Palmer to miss that putt. Then Boros hit a poor shot, a funky three-wood that never rose and plunked miserably into the upslope. This left him 30 yards short of the green and about 45 yards from the pin, which was on the back side behind a hump of Bermuda.
"I can't plan what I'm going to do," Julius said. "I'm not like these young stars. I just throw some junk in the air and hope it stays out of the rough and eventually gets to the green."
Boros threw a pitching wedge into the green on this, his third shot, a low punch that hit the hump perfectly and skipped down to within three feet of the hole. It was a shot that knocked out not only Palmer but all of the other challengers who were in and out of it during the day, principally Bob Charles and Marty Fleckman.
Of course, there was a slight chance that Boros would miss the putt and find himself in a playoff with Palmer and Charles and even Fleckman. On Saturday he had missed shorter putts on the 14th and 15th holes for a double bogey and a bogey, turning a 68 into a 70. The grain on Pecan Valley's greens jerked a lot of putts off-line, and nobody in the field took them for granted.
As Boros got ready to study the putt that would win the championship, some of San Antonio's less-than-golfwise fans giggled, and one of them, trying to break the nervous tension around the green, bellowed, "Worried 'bout makin' that 'un, June-is?" Boros either didn't hear it or didn't acknowledge it if he did. He went ahead to the putt as a bunch of PGA officials in their funny red hats growled "Quiet" at the fans. Of course, Julius took an awful lot of time on the putt. Must have been at least two or three seconds. Someone even said he broke stride to stand over the ball.
The PGA Championship that Boros won has been a long-suffering tournament that never quite seems to know what to do with itself. Only out of kindness, or perhaps a sense of history, have people outside the Professional Golfers' Association kept it a part of what are considered to be the four important titles in the game. The others, of course, are the U.S. Open, the Masters and the British Open.
The PGA lost its personality a few years ago when it gave up the only thing that made it distinctive—match play format. It might have made up for that loss if the championship had been played on famed courses, the way the Open is, or if a lot of unexpected guys hadn't kept winning it. PGA champions are not as well-remembered as they were when the Ben Hogans, Sam Sneads and Byron Nelsons were struggling with one another head to head. PGA champions are folks like Al Geiberger, Don January, Dave Marr, Bob Rosburg, Lionel Hebert and Bobby Nichols—players who list it as their only major accomplishment, fine fellows and good golfers though they are.
The PGA has been a freaky tournament since it changed to stroke play, and usually it is played on freaky courses. Last year it was held at Columbine in Denver, a city that has Cherry Hills. It was at Columbus Country Club in 1964, a city that has Scioto. It was at the Dallas Athletic Club in 1963, and Aronimink in Philadelphia in 1962 and a whole suburb full of Llanerches in the past. Occasionally, there would be a beauty among new courses, like Laurel Valley in 1965, where Marr won. But mostly the PGA has let itself be sold on courses which simply do not look good whether they are or not.
Pecan Valley was such a course. It was new, and, with the overlarge supermarket-type sign out on the street and with its small, one-story, modern clubhouse and a row of condominiums straying off in two directions and no trees anywhere near the 9th and 10th greens, it looked pretty much like a place where you pull in, drop off your cleaning and pick up hamburgers for the kids. The fact that the championship had been awarded to Pecan Valley during the late Warren Cantrell's term of office as president of the PGA (Warren Cantrell being from San Antonio and being in the employ of the man who built Pecan Valley and started the development) led to several jokes about the place. It was Dudley Green of the Nashville Banner who said, "The president of the PGA could get this tournament on a nine-hole course in three years."
However, despite the look of Pecan Valley, it proved to be a course that provided the best PGA tournament in years, an old-fashioned kind of tournament, in fact, that forced the players to think and plan and finesse their shots instead of just slamming the ball as hard as they know how and then reaching for the wedge or putter. Many of the large pecan trees down in the bottom land leaned out into the fairways, prompting either low shots or high, hooked shots or fade shots. Salado Creek ambled in and out of the premises, a dark little snake of a wet bed, but troublesome enough to force lay-ups. Finally, the greens were irregular and grainy and rolling and humping so that the flag positions made a good deal of difference.
It was the kind of course where you could envision a Ben Hogan really working and managing a round of golf. You had to stay left here and stay right there, be short this time, get around the corner and play to the side of the green, regardless of the pin, so you could putt with the grain.
All of this took a couple of the big hitters out of the tournament right away. Jack Nicklaus, with the aid of a 120-yard, left-handed, upside-down seven-iron—he was up against a tree trunk—survived the first day with a 71 but not the second. He shot a 79 and missed the cut for the third time in a major championship. (Previously, he had missed at the U.S. Open at Brookline in 1963 and at the Masters in 1967.) After his first round he went to Hemisfair, a sort of mini-World's Fair going on in San Antonio across the alley from the Alamo, and perhaps, as both Jack and the song said, he stayed too long at the fair.
"I just played really sloppy," he said. "I certainly didn't expect to after playing pretty good at Oak Hill and Carnoustie. These weren't my favorite kind of greens, and I'm not overfond of courses where you have to lay up a lot."
Tom Weiskopf, another of the boomers and a man who had won two tournaments on this year's tour, managed to let Pecan Valley annoy him even more. He shot 77-82 and went home.
But if Pecan Valley was getting to some of the long players, it didn't get to all of them. Marty Fleckman, for example, can hit the drive right up there with Nicklaus and Weiskopf and, surprisingly, he was either the leader or tied for the lead through the first three rounds. Fleckman, who is in his first full year on the tour as a pro, took an early lead with a 66. He followed it with a 72, after a double-bogey six on the 18th, and was tied with steady Frank Beard. Fleckman shot another 72 and was still tied with Beard after 54 holes, Beard having fired rounds of 68-70-72. Fleckman was playing smart, and Beard was playing smoothly, hitting more fairways than anyone else, and both had a reputation, being Texans, of putting well on Bermuda greens.
As a matter of fact, as the last round began, the top eight or so players in contention all had reputations of being good finesse players or straight hitters or were experienced, as in the cases of Boros and Palmer, and Pecan Valley's members could certainly take some pride in the fact that their course was responsible. After all, this was what golf was all about, wasn't it?
One of those bracketed in a seven-way tie for third behind the co-leaders through 54 holes was Lee Trevino, the happy-go-lucky character who won the Open in Rochester and gave golf a shot of Methedrine. Trevino scrambled all through the pecans during the first three rounds, waving at his Fleas, chatting with most everybody, fungoing golf balls from the practice tee with his family size Dr Pepper bottle and generally being the likable, comical guy that he is. He also shot 69-71-72.
He had his usual collection of wisecracks and headline grabbers for the gallery. "If I win, I'm gonna throw a picnic for 25,000 kids," he announced. "Naw, I didn't bring my wife here. Do you take a hamburger to a banquet? I didn't take a six-pack to Milwaukee, did I?"
For the last round, when he was paired with Palmer—it would be the Army vs. the Fleas, everybody said—Lee wore the red and black ensemble he wore at Rochester—but he didn't have the same swing, or luck. He double-bogeyed the 1st hole and then the 6th, and as the day wore on, he slowly faded into the background, shooting a 76 and finishing tied for 23rd.
Fleckman, who at 24 is half Boros' age, got off to a good start, with a birdie at the 2nd hole. For a while there the former University of Houston star, who wears a cap he must have inherited from Hogan and takes pointers from Byron Nelson, opened a two-stroke lead on the field. Palmer was one-under at the time, after his only birdie of the day at the 4th hole, but still two back. Boros was three over par, after a bogey at the second, and he didn't look like he was going to do anything about it.
Suddenly Julius punched an iron up to the 5th green and got an eight-footer in for a birdie, and then he flicked an iron onto the 6th green over Salado Creek and dropped this 15-footer for another birdie, and he was back in the game.
When the crowd moved to the last nine holes the scoreboard briefly blinked with the names of the four players tied at one over par for the tournament—Boros, Palmer, Fleckman and Bob Charles, the left-hander who quietly hangs in and threatens to speak more than three words before the end of the year. Six other golfers, including Dave Stockton, Frank Beard and George Archer, who was still trying to recover from an eight on the 1st hole of the third round, were only two over, and people were trying to imagine what a play-off would be like with seven or eight guys in it.
Then Julius put it away. He birdied the 11th from 15 feet to break out of the pack. He bogeyed the 14th to fall back into a momentary tie with Fleckman, and then with Charles when Bob birdied the 15th. But Boros laid a four-iron onto the par-3 16th and made this 12-foot putt to jump ahead again. And even after slicing into the woods on the 17th, which led to a bogey, he still held the lead into the last hole, mainly because Palmer couldn't get a putt to fall.
Sixteen years ago, in Texas, Boros outlasted the sun and a strong field and won the first of his three major championships, the 1952 U.S. Open at North-wood. Eleven years later he won another U.S. Open at Brookline, at The Country Club, and now, five years after that, he has won the National PGA.
How does Boros keep doing it? Like he says, throw the junk up, watch it come down in the right place, walk don't run, study the hell out of things for two seconds, give it another whack. Nothing's going to stop "June-is" from winning tournaments when he's 58—his kind of game is made for the long haul.