It has been the fate of the Greater Greensboro Open in recent years to be held the week before the Masters, a sort of eve before Christmas Eve. Masters preview stories start popping into the papers well before the Greensboro and continue on through it, all but pushing the results of Greensboro into the obituary pages. Clifford Roberts issues almost daily bulletins to the press: a larger field of foreign golfers have been invited this year, galleries to be reduced, a larger scoreboard behind the third hole, a new bunker at No. 2. Over the years many pros have regarded Greensboro as spring training for the following week. Assuming they have qualified for the Masters, should they take the week off before it, relax and play a few practice rounds at Augusta? Or should they keep a fine competitive edge by playing Greensboro?
Last week three of the biggest names in golf decided against Greensboro, or the GGO. Arnold Palmer regretted. He began the week by attending Dwight Eisenhower's funeral, then flew to Augusta in his jet for a few practice rounds. After a quick trip home for Easter, he returned to Augusta for a final tuning. Palmer hated to skip Greensboro (he had played in it five straight years) since he attended nearby Wake Forest and he held a special press conference to break the bad news.
"I haven't played well in the Masters in recent years and that's the big reason I've decided to pass up Greensboro this year," he said. A year ago the tournament was delayed by a day of rain and Martin Luther King's death, so that Palmer and the rest of the field had to play 36 holes on Monday. Perhaps not entirely by coincidence, Palmer missed the cut at Augusta for the first time in his life.
"Some of my close friends felt I should give myself a little more time to get organized for this year's Masters," Palmer continued. "It's not really a case of practicing at the course to learn something new about it. If I'm successful this year, I'll have found out something. If not, I'll have to take another look."
Jack Nicklaus also passed up the GGO. Nicklaus, after a good start this year that included a victory in the Andy Williams, began to founder. His game was not at all sharp at the National Airlines tournament in Miami two weeks ago when he missed the cut. So rather than continue in his rut, Jack flew to Columbus for a lesson from his old coach, Jack Grout. Then he returned to his home in Lost Tree Village, Fla., where he showed how concerned he was about his game by taking his wife, Barbara, fishing for a few days. Late in the week he flew to Augusta in his jet, arriving while Palmer was there. The two of them played separately in absolute solitude, save for their caddies. A week later they would be drawing thousands.
Billy Casper was the third of the big-name golfers who avoided Greensboro although, like Palmer, he would have preferred to have done otherwise. Casper, as the world must know, has allergies and one of the things he is allergic to is the chemical pesticide used on Florida golf courses. In recent years Casper has skipped the Florida tour, but this year he decided that his allergies were well enough under control to permit him to play in two Florida tournaments. He did, whereupon his hands and feet ballooned to twice their size, forcing him back to San Diego. Thus Billy Casper spent last week preparing for the Masters by trying to get well.
So poor little old Greensboro had no Palmer, no Nicklaus, no Casper. Poor Greensboro? The one thing Greensboro is not is poor. Just ask Gene Littler, who won his second tournament of the year and the $32,000 first prize that went with it. In all, the GGO gave away $160,000 last week, which is only $10,000 or so less than the Masters will shell out this week. Indeed, the GGO is the sixth richest tournament on the tour—ranking behind the Westchester Classic—($250,000), the National Airlines ($200,000), the U.S. Open ($200,000), the PGA ($175,000) and, of course, the Masters. And, for the tradition-conscious, the GGO dates back to 1938, not a particularly hoary year it would seem, until you realize that only six American tournaments are older—the U.S. Open (1895), the Western Open ('01), the PGA ('16), the LA Open ('34), the Masters ('34) and the Crosby ('37).
Now, not for a moment should it be thought that officials of the GGO consider their tournament equivalent to the Masters. Yet they are quite frosty when they admit that, yes, they did adopt their green blazers after the Masters had adopted the color but that they felt the name of their town—Greensboro, Suh—was reason enough to use it. They are not overly eager to explain that since the middle '50s they have scheduled the GGO for the week before the Masters instead of waiting for better weather in the week following because, as one official put it, "When Ike was President he always insisted on playing at Augusta with the Masters' winner the week after the tournament. Automatically that left us—year in and year out—without the current Masters' champ in our field and that hurt the gate. We changed."
Other things have changed, too, since the first GGO, when Sam Snead—then just a wide-eyed wisp of a youth with a full head of hair—came to Greensboro and won the $1,200 first prize. The Greensboro was the first Southern PGA tournament to let black men play (Charlie Sifford broke the barrier in 1961; ironically, last week some drunks in the gallery so angered Charlie with their "Miss it, nigger" taunts that he threatened never to play the GGO again).
Yet, in some ways, the GGO still seems to be an oddly—if charmingly—outdated operation, a civic-minded promotion run by platoons of eager, flushed young Jaycees who are occasionally given to florid little speeches about the "greater good of Greater Greensboro." Much of the money to run the tournament is still raised through hat-in-hand collections from local businesses—Grady Petty's Used Cars, Deno's Spaghetti & Steak House, Gardens of Memory, Inc.
But, of course, the GGO is big business: since 1966 it has been a $100,000-plus tournament, thanks to a heavy influx of cash from the rich and mighty Allied Chemical Corp. When Allied first offered to get involved with the GGO four years ago, all of Greensboro turned instantly suspicious—assuming that their beloved little tournament would soon be known to the world as the Greater Allied Chemical Golf Tournament & Nylon Yarn Show. In fact, Allied Chemical (unlike Buick, Carling, Kemper Insurance, National Airlines and others) chose not to own the tournament but simply to assist—mostly by contributing the first-prize money each year. And that, more than any single thing, has allowed the GGO to jump from a pre-Allied peanuts-paltry $70,000 tournament in 1965 to this year's moneybags operation.
This serves to attract all but the very richest golfers, those who can afford to pass up the money of Greensboro for the prestige of the Masters. As Julius Boros says, "A few years back, when this was a $45,000 tournament, you could afford to skip Greensboro. Even if you won it wasn't worth all that money and you'd be all worn out for the Masters." Last week Boros was one of three players (along with Tom Weiskopf and Orville Moody) who lost to Littler in a playoff, but his second-place tie was worth $12,373.33.
Sam Snead, who has won Greensboro eight times (the latest in 1965 at the age of 52), says, "If I had their [Palmer, Nicklaus] loot, I'd skip this tournament too, I suppose. You don't have to be an Oxford graduate to know a week's rest puts you in better shape than a week's playing if you've been on the tour regularly. If you're just trying for the Big One, skip Greensboro."
Whether or not Snead is right, whether or not Palmer and Nicklaus have chosen the best method of preparing for the Big One, will be proved this week. One thing is certain: a lot of folks around Greensboro are going to be rooting for Gene Littler to win the Masters.