Sometimes you have to get into interior America to find out what is really on the nation's mind. For instance, on one coast you may get the population burning candles, shredding newspapers and waltzing hysterically through the streets over the matter of the Mets. On the opposite coast they can be burning candles, too, but only by moving inland to Las Vegas do you get to feel the real pulse of the republic. Those who were there last week and could spare time from the blackjack tables were largely concerned with Arnold Palmer's hip, a piece of calcium that may someday be enshrined.
Palmer's hip has been in seclusion ever since the first round of the PGA championship last August when it flatly refused to function. Some of the time it has been sitting in a chair back home in Pennsylvania while Arnold labored over the Palmer conglomerate. Occasionally, the hip went down the road to the Latrobe Country Club golf course to see if it could still pivot. Which it could, sort of, with a few sharp twinges.
And now the hip was being publicly unveiled in Las Vegas for the inspection of off-duty croupiers, cocktail waitresses and several thousand other strays who were willing to risk a $2 taxi ride from the air-conditioned casinos to the wilds of the Sahara-Nevada Country Club on the edge of the great desert. It was there that the owner of the hip, along with a hundred and a half other golfers, was after the $100,000 prize money of the autumn's first real contest, known as the Sahara Invitational. "I was getting itchy just sitting around home," explained the owner of the hip. "I still have trouble getting through 18 holes, so I'm not sure I should be playing. But you know how it is."
It had been a long time between serious golf tournaments, so a lot of other immortals were itchy, too. Like Ted Hayes Jr., Bob Menne and Herb Hooper—all up there with leaders after the first round. Fuchsia-clad Doug Sanders reappeared from behind the partial eclipse in which he had been laboring for much of the year, scoring a fine 65 to lead the field on opening day.
October 27, 1969
Frank Beard, the year's leading money winner, was on hand, bringing home a 65 to take the third-round lead, which seemed a bit greedy for a fellow who had already banked close to $160,000 of the year's loot, but then Frank has his expenses like the rest of us.
Jack Nicklaus had more serious things on his mind than just income. He ranked 19th on the list of money winners, pro golf's major yardstick of achievement, so this seemed destined to be the first time in his eight years as a pro that he has finished lower than third. "Sure I'm concerned about the way I've played, and I'm here because I hope to salvage something out of the year," said Jack.
He did. He went out and fired four sub-par rounds, including his 65 on Sunday, to fly past Beard and coast home with a four-stroke margin. His 272 total was 12 under par, and the $20,000 prize jumped him to seventh on the money list, which is a little more like the Jack we used to know. Beard had to settle for a paltry $11,400.
Time was when the fall tour was something the rabbits had pretty much to themselves after the big boys had packed their sticks and headed home to Texas and Florida. The rumor is that Del Webb, who likes to build hotels and other things that attract spenders, got bored counting his money one day about a dozen years ago. A bunch of the stuff was still lying on the table, so Webb said to an assistant, "Let's see if the golfers would like to come out here to little old Vegas and play for what's left." Thus the Sahara was born, along with the fall tour.
Of course, in this day $20,000 first prize hardly merits a drive across town, but a lot of golfers' wives discovered they could get away from home for a week and see Dean Martin in person. So this impressive collection of rich golfers was trudging along the Sahara fairways alongside the likes of John Levinson, Paul Moran, Howell Fraser and Jerry Heard.
As usual, however, most of the gallery just clung to Arnie, who was struggling along in the middle of the pack. The awful thing about watching today's Palmer agonizing through a round is that you know that he knows he is not about to win. Not that he is playing all that badly. In Vegas there were moments when he seemed on the verge of making one of those old charges. There would be a couple of birdies, and the gallery would be working itself into a swivet. But then the putts would refuse to drop and some of the vitality would leak out of Arnie's still-powerful frame.
In the past there was the beautiful excitement of waiting for one of Palmer's miracle shots. Now, perhaps because of the hip, perhaps because the putts aren't dropping, perhaps because the concentration is no longer what it once was, disaster is apt to compound disaster. It happened last week toward the end of Palmer's second round. His 69 on the first day had left him only four strokes off the pace, but then he came to a dogleg par-5 that is, as the saying goes, eminently birdieable.
Palmer's drive was a little off line in the short rough to the right. He took out the spoon and went for the green with a vicious whap. The ball took off on a parabolic cross-country flight over a fence and out of bounds into somebody's backyard. Naturally, Arnold dropped another ball and prepared to hit his provisional, but a yell came up the fairway that the first ball was safe. Arnold picked up the provisional and marched off happily toward the green.
The good news turned out to be false. Palmer had to return to the original spot and drop a second provisional. It cost him four strokes, and he had a nine for the hole. Moments later he missed a two-foot putt, and an otherwise good round was ruined. The third day's 68 was some consolation, particularly for the celebrated hip, but Palmer was never again in the running.
Nicklaus' problems are a bit more subtle than Palmer's. Jack freely admits that his only serious goals in golf at this point are the major championships, and he still must win four of them to tie Bobby Jones' alltime record of 13. Yet, Jack asks, "If you play the other tournaments in a sloppy way, how can you expect to play the big tournaments well?"
Nicklaus has been trying. He has pruned off 15 pounds. While not yet an hourglass, he is relatively svelte and hopes to drop another 10 to make 185 before he dares look at another mashed potato. He is not sure what effect it has had on his golf except, perhaps, to make it a little easier to move his hips through the ball.
As Nicklaus sees it, the trouble with his game this year has only been some little flaws in his swing—minor but still enough to cost him a stroke or two a round, which is the difference between 19th and first on the money list.
"My trouble," Jack explained after the tournament, "was on my backswing. I was crossing the center line to the target. That's all right for a hooker, but I hit the ball with a little fade. So it wasn't going where I expected. Gardner Dickinson, who has been nice enough to help me when we're at home, pointed out just a little thing to me on Wednesday afternoon, and it made a big difference. Normally when I address the ball I keep my hands high and my wrist well arched, but I was dropping my hands on the way back. I made the correction on Thursday, and it was the first time all year I haven't had to make a conscious effort not to cross the line on my back-swing. By Friday I was able to repeat the same swing more times than I have all year. If I wanted to fade it I could. If I wanted to hook it I could."
Hoping to salvage something from a disappointing season, Nicklaus now plans to continue through several more events on the fall tour and a few other tournaments before the curtain rings down on the PGA statistics for 1969.
It may not be as easy as it once was. It is no fluke that those people named Ted Hayes Jr. and Bob Menne are up there walking step by step with Beard, Nicklaus and Dave Hill. Jack Tuthill, the PGA tournament director, was talking about it at Vegas one morning while he watched a few dozen of the anonymous new bodies warming up for their rounds. "I don't know," Tuthill mused. "It seems like every week there's a whole bunch of these new kids showing up with great swings and beautiful putting strokes, and next year there'll probably be twice as many more. I don't know what's going to happen."
Nobody can be sure what is going to happen next year, or even next week, but it looks as though Jack Nicklaus will be around with all those anonymous new bodies, at least until he gets the Big Four.