As everybody knows, there is nothing wrong with the professional golf tour that Arnold Palmer can't cure by living forever. But as everybody may also know by now, another multimillion-dollar season got started last week at the L.A. Open in rather the same old way—with the crescendo of a Billy Casper yawn, the thrill of a Dave Stockton smile and the intriguing question of whether Hale Irwin was really Larry Mowry or Bill Brask Jr. or just exactly who?
The tour might have entered the 1970s in grander style had Palmer got the thing started the way he ended it in 1969, by winning. Palmer victories have the knack of correcting all of the ills of spectator golf. And the scene was perfect for him. It was the L.A. Open, a tournament he had won a few times before. It was also a Hollywood-styled affair just up the road from where 20th Century-Fox's massive Hello, Dolly! set poked into the sky and where the gallery glittered with its usual array of actors whose names you can't quite remember and couples in matching his-and-hers neck braces.
Palmer excited the town and everyone out around Rancho Park by shooting a 67 in the first round and taking the headlines away from a group of tri-leaders that included Dave Hill of Hill's Angels, last year's third-leading money-winner and lowest stroke-average player (opposite). The world was quickly alerted that Arnold was going for his third win in a row because he had closed out 1969 by capturing the Heritage Classic and the Danny Thomas/Diplomat tournament in Hollywood, Fla. back to back. In short time, however, Palmer fell into his old putting woes and got a hard case of the 72s, and the L.A. Open became that never-ending thing that constitutes most of the PGA tour, a vehicle for the Hale Irwins to battle it out with the Paul Harneys and Dave Stocktons and, if it's lucky, the Bill Caspers.
As it happens, L.A. got lucky. While Casper sat in the Rancho pressroom with his eight-under 276, Irwin was out on the back nine, dribbling away a two-stroke lead in the chill Southern California drizzle. On the 18th, still one up, he hit a shot into a tree, then tried to recover with an approach that left him 25 feet from the hole. His putt came up two feet short, and it was sudden death. Listening to all this on the pressroom radio, Casper observed, "Too bad. He's a nice guy." Then he stepped out in the wet and sank a five-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole that slammed the door on nice guy Irwin.
Maybe it was the day or the fact that the Super Bowl had drained off most of the gallery, but whatever it was, hardly anybody seemed excited—not even Casper, whose $20,000 payday made him golf's second million-dollar winner, along with Palmer. And, suddenly, for all of the glamour of another opening of another show, Rancho Park was all the Tucsons, Hartfords and Pensacolas that had ever been played.
Just as suddenly the question might have occurred to some: does the L.A. Open signal the start of a new tour, or is it only another stop on a tour that has been going on steadily since Walter Hagen passed the hat?
As one looked fancifully into the future, one might imagine the big stories of the next few years: in a single season Bill Brask captures the U.S., British, Australian, Argentine, Japanese and Turkish opens, completing the first Global Slam. Joe Dey, the czar, announces a National PGA Match-Play Championship for assistant pros. Bruce Fleisher captures the Hattiesburg, Tallahassee, Newport News and Montgomery opens, completing the first Satellite Slam. Frank Beard comes out of retirement to take the $500,000 Frick Museum Open and the $750,000 AFL-CIO Invitational and lead the tour in prize money and write another book. Joe Dey announces a National PGA Mixed Foursome Championship in which teams will consist of one exempt tournament player, one heavy-industry president, one country-western singer and one airline stewardess. Mark McCormack signs the President of the United States and refuses to let him attend a summit meeting because it conflicts with a pro-am. Arnold Palmer's other hip hurts. Frank Beard comes out of retirement again to take the $800,000 Bloomingdale Festival and the $900,000 Versailles Treaty Memorial. Joe Dey announces the National PGA Satellite Four-Ball. Mark McCormack signs Joe Dey.
Some of these fantasies aren't so farfetched. Pro golf will definitely undergo some changes, and some of them have already begun. Although the tour faces fewer problems now than it did in the days when players and officials were constantly challenging each other to honed niblicks at 20 paces, there are always improvements to be made.
Guaranteeing names for a tournament sponsor, upgrading players, scheduling, providing a continuity for the long season—all of these are problems. But they are problems that can be solved pretty much to everyone's satisfaction, especially now that the PGA has Joe Dey and the "instant status," as Dave Marr called it, which the appointment of Dey guaranteed.
Dey has been awfully quiet in his new job for a year, but he has been quietly at work. Proof of this can be seen in a couple of ways. For example, the pros have long discussed changing the present arrangement that qualifies the year's top 60 money winners, in favor of a point system based on finishes. So in less than a year—a new world record for the PGA—Dey has instituted such a system. Without going into great detail, it will work like this: the winner of most events this year will get 120 points, second place 90, and so on down to one point for 70th place. PGA and U.S. Open champions get 25-point bonuses. The 60 leading point getters at the end of the year will automatically be exempt from qualifying the next year.
This plan will prevent a player from coasting a whole year on a big week or two, as some do now under the system that exempts all tournament winners. It will prove who the most consistent players are. Money? Everybody makes big money.
There are swarms of marvelous players now on the tour, and 1969 was a classic example of how the upstarts have little or no respect for their elders. Hale Irwins were thicker than cashmeres. Guys like Tommy Shaw, Jim Colbert, Bunky Henry, Larry Hinson, Larry Ziegler, Ken Still, Dale Douglass and Dick Lotz, not to forget Orville Moody, won tournaments for the first time, while the Palmers, Nicklauses and Caspers were doing whatever they were doing. For a while the big tour looked like a satellite tour.
Well, there are more of these young men on the way—the Grier Joneses and Bill Brasks—and what to do with them is a big problem. An open event usually has only 144 entries, and there are many invitationals like the Masters and Colonial and Houston that limit the field even further. Thus, there is the need for the so-called satellite tour to develop and expand.
This year may find no fewer than 10 such tournaments backdropping the big scene, with a total purse of more than $300,000. The real tour, of course, has its $6.8 million dangling out there, but 300 thou is as much as the whole tour totaled 21 years ago, and therefore quite a handsome living can be made on the second-string circuit, if you don't mind grits.
Already scheduled are such events as the $12,000 Hope of Tomorrow (up against the Bob Hope Desert Classic), the $35,000 Florida Citrus Open Invitational (50 miles away from Orlando's $150,000 Citrus), the $35,000 Magnolia Classic in Hattiesburg, Miss, (for the Masters unwanted), the $50,000 Tallahassee Open (for those who didn't qualify for the Tournament of Champions), the $25,000 Kiwanis Peninsula Open at Newport News (for everybody who isn't in the Kemper) and the $25,000 West End Classic in the Bahamas (for the Danny Thomas dropouts). In addition, the PGA plans to announce satellite tournaments to be staged opposite such events as the PGA Championship, the National Four-Ball at Laurel Valley, either Colonial or Houston and the Heritage Classic at Hilton Head. What the PGA hopes, naturally, is to get some 20 to 30 of them going during the year. When this happens, there will then be, full-fledged, the two tours that the players have long argued were both needed and coming.
Barring a recession, the money will continue to increase because, for some mysterious reason that no one has ever been able to figure out, the list of sponsors who want to give away money is endless. Come this year, for instance, two more whopping big ones, the $300,000 Dow-Jones Open in New Jersey in late August and the $200,000 Kiwanis Open at Kiamesha Lake, N.Y. in late September. Comes also the National Four-Ball to Laurel Valley, Pa., a welcome revival seeking what it may have found: a permanent site on a good course with Palmer's name to dress it up. It's his neighborhood.
Pro golf needs as many different types of tournaments as it can develop without getting too gimmicky—such true classics as the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA, and also events like the Crosby and Hope. The National Four-Ball, in which two-man teams (Palmer-Nicklaus, Trevino-Moody, for example) compete over 72 holes, will be another something different, and in a good time slot, the latter part of July—just after the British Open.
The National Four-Ball has a very real chance to become a classic on the order of the Big Four, and if the PGA also comes up with a national match-play championship, which it hopes to do, then the tour will have even another special week.
One thing the PGA is going to do with its annual championship, starting in 1971, is slip it in there ahead of the Masters in the month of March on a permanent basis and, like the Masters, on a permanent course, the PGA's own in Palm Beach Gardens, which is about two miles from Seminole by car and two light years from Seminole in class.
The logic in the move is that nothing can hurt or detract from the Masters anyhow, which is true. And a mid-March date will give the PGA a distinction, being the first of the Big Four, it has never had. Always it has been the last of the major championships, played in hot, dreary July or August, when a great many enthusiasts felt the golf season was over, at least emotionally.
All of these plans for the American tour do not say much for the global aspects that golf has taken on, and probably will take on in greater force. For one thing, this is because the U.S. tour is always going to be infinitely richer than that of any other area. Even with jets permitting a golfer to get anywhere in the world in the space of a meal and a movie, the touring pro is not all that adventurous or inquisitive. If he had his way, he really wouldn't go anywhere. He would sit in Dallas or Palm Springs and have Jack Tuthill mail him checks for dreaming up 274s.
Granted, splendid opportunities are taking shape in Britain and Australia and all over (the British are holding one this year with the thickest first-place purse of all, $60,000), but for now not many Americans are going to go darting around the globe when they can go to Milwaukee more easily, play for more money and get an American hamburger. They will go only when extracurricular business can be tied in, or when appearance money and expenses make it worthwhile. The British Open is different. It is established and marketable, a treasure to win. But the Argentine PGA might as well be Tallahassee.
There are those who believe that the gravest problem confronting tournament golf is the fact that there are only a few superstars, and they can't play every week. When they don't appear, goes this theory, a tournament loses so much glamour it is doomed. Every sponsor does, of course, want all of the names he can get. But it has been proved that Arnold Palmer's presence does not always save a tournament, and it has also been proved that his absence does not necessarily ruin one. Established events like the Colonial are going to draw no matter what, and attendance records have occasionally been broken without Palmer or Nicklaus. On the other hand, San Francisco failed miserably last fall, even though Palmer was there—to the point of cancelling for 1970.
Nevertheless, everybody would be happier if the PGA could guarantee every sponsor at least one or two Palmers, Nicklauses, Caspers or Gary Players. And this it pretty much does. Very often, Arnold or Jack or Billy have been told, "Hey, we're in trouble in Tucson. Could you go?" and they've gone.
The manufacturing of names will take care of itself, though not overnight. Palmer didn't happen overnight after Ben Hogan and Sam Snead had faded. A Grier Jones or Bill Brask, or whoever the big new names will be, will not happen quickly, either. But they will turn up. As Billy Casper was saying in L.A., "Somebody will always be a little hungrier, and he'll emerge."
This is true, of course. Golf's future has always been in the stomachs of the Hale Irwins.