They gather every Monday at dawn while fog still blankets the fairways and the greens are soaked with dew. They are dressed colorfully, in the fashion of professional golfers, which indeed they are. They are about to begin a tournament, one you won't see on television or read about in the papers. There is no purse at stake, no trophies or smiling victory photographs. The only gallery they'll see all day is made up of a few wives and friends.
Yesterday, Sunday, another tournament ended somewhere else—at Pebble Beach, maybe, or Pensacola—but these players weren't in it. Many of them don't even know who won there, nor do they care. What matters is today's tournament, because if they don't make it today there is no tomorrow. There's just a long drive to the next foggy Monday.
These men waiting nervously to tee off are members of golfing's Ghost Patrol, a collection of once-weres, never will-bes and young hopefuls called rabbits, a term sometimes applied loosely to the whole group. There are perhaps 200 of them here, trying to qualify for a shot at this week's paycheck, to gain a spot in the tournament that begins on Thursday, the one with the $150,000 purse, the one the Palmers and the Nicklauses play in. The odds are that only one in 10 will make it, maybe fewer than that. Of the 144 starting positions in most pro tournaments, as many as 130 may be filled by players who are exempt from qualifying. The remaining spots belong to the rabbits.
Exempt: that is the golden word on the tour. For a golfer, a year's exemption from pretournament qualifying is worth thousands of dollars, as well as freedom from a season of mental anguish and heartache. An exemption means a pro golfer can play in any tournament he chooses, no matter how many 75s he shoots the week before. It means he can sit down at the beginning of the year and plan. He can pick the tournaments he'll play, when his wife can join him, when he'll take a vacation. In short, it means he can live like a human being and not like a rabbit.
There are 15 types of exemption, but four of them cover the bulk of the field. In the charmed circle are those who have won a PGA Championship or a U.S. Open, which makes them exempt for life. This category takes in most of the game's superstars. Next in line are those who have won any official tournament, which exempts them for the next 12 months. This exemption, as much as the $25,000 or so in prize money, is why you see such wide grins on the faces of the Tom Shaws and Larry Hinsons when they win their first tournament. When Hale Irwin, a rabbit, lost in the playoff to Billy Casper in this year's L.A. Open, he was less distraught over the difference in prize money ($20,000 vs. $11,400) than over the fact that he had missed a chance to free himself from Monday qualifying for the rest of 1970.
"I'd have gladly given up the money for that exemption," he said later. "Qualifying on Monday is the toughest thing there is in golf—except winning a tournament. After a while the body just can't take it, the mind can't take it—you go nuts."
The third major exemption goes to the top 60 money earners from the previous year, although this is to be replaced in 1971 by a more equitable point system based on this year's play, so that a $300,000 Dow Jones Open is no more important toward gaining an exemption than the $100,000 Robinson Open. It is this category that keeps many pros out on the tour in November and early December, when they would rather be at home.
Johnny Pott, a tour veteran at 34 and 24th on the alltime money list, though exempt through much of last year as a member of the Ryder Cup team, discovered to his surprise that this exemption ended with the PGA tournament in August. Still, in 52nd place on the money list, he seemed assured of finishing in the top 60 for 1969 and so passed up the Hawaiian Open. He was aghast to find later that several players just below him on the money list had done well in Hawaii and he was now 62nd.
Frantic, Pott accepted an invitation to the Heritage Classic but failed to make the cut. He went to the Danny Thomas Classic, tried to qualify on Monday but shot a 73, which was not good enough. Any rabbit could have told him that. "I thought I'd blown it," Pott says. "I was about to go home when Steve Reid mentioned the West End Classic on Grand Bahama Island. It was a satellite tournament, but the money was official and you didn't have to qualify." Pott hustled over, shot a 64 in the first round and finished second, collecting $2,437, enough to put him back in the top 60. Pott wears the look of a reprieved man these days.
The fourth major exemption is for players who make the 36-hole cut in one tournament, automatically qualifying them for the next. This is the best hope of the rabbit. Winning a tournament or finishing in the year's top 60 may be the impossible dream, but making the cut is always a possibility. Most rabbits insist that it is easier to make the cut than to qualify on Monday.
"Sometimes it seems as if the whole world is out there playing on Monday," says Joe Schwendeman, an aide to Commissioner Joseph C. Dey of the PGA's Tournament Players Division. Even when the qualifying takes place on two or three courses—"dirt tracks," as one rabbit calls them—the players are turned out early, 7 o'clock, or as soon as the greens are playable.
The atmosphere is tense. "This is the first of what I hope will be three tournaments this week," says Bob Shaw, a young Australian. "The one today is the toughest. Then there's Thursday and Friday, when you try to make the cut. If you survive that, you play in your third tournament on Saturday and Sunday for the money. But Monday's the big one."
By the time they tee off every golfer knows how many spots are open for this week's tournament. It has been a subject of active speculation all the previous week, and the rumored number has fluctuated as often as the odds on a tote board. But nothing is set until Sunday at 6 p.m., the deadline for filing entries. Dave Hill, having shot three straight 74s, may have decided on Sunday morning that he was overgolfed and needed a rest. But a closing round of 66 has left him surprisingly refreshed, and he decides to sign up for next week. One spot gone. But Frank Beard, who intended to play, learns that one of his children has mumps, and so he goes home. One spot back. When the list closes Sunday night, perhaps 124 exempt pros have signed up. That means 20 spots for the rabbits.
There are often not enough caddies to accommodate so many entrants, and so the club turns out its fleet of electric carts, with club members recruited to drive them. "I hate to use a cart," says George Johnson, a promising black player. "When I hit a bad shot, I need a few minutes to settle down. With a cart, I'm on to the next shot too soon."
The players go off in foursomes, one group every 10 minutes. No ropes are needed to hold the galleries in check, for there are seldom any galleries at all. No scoreboards record the progress of the event, no neat ladies in straw hats and red-and-white-striped skirts walk down the fairways keeping score. From the time the players leave the first tee until they return to the 18th green some four hours later, they battle in near privacy. The wives, in raincoats, scarves and golf shoes, trail behind and suffer.
"What makes it so brutal is that it's like sudden death," says Bob Shaw. "One bad shot can wipe you out."
"I always tried to play conservative golf on Monday," says Bert Greene, a graduate rabbit who escaped by finishing 22nd on last year's money list. "Figure one or two birdies on the par 5s and the rest pars. There's no prize for shooting 66. Of course, if you make a double bogey you have to change your game plan in a hurry."
As the players come off the 18th green, they hand in their scores to the TPD official in charge, either Wade Cagle, Ed Griffiths, George Walsh or Steve Shabala, four advance men who leapfrog from tournament to tournament. When each score has been recorded, it is also listed publicly on a board near the clubhouse. Those who shoot 67 can return to their motels knowing they will tee it up on Thursday. Those who shoot 73 may hang around, but it's a faint hope that they're in, and most leave.
The players who shoot somewhere in between—71 or 72—are the ones who must stand and wait. On the tour they call it the sweat box, the predicament of an early finisher with a 72. As each foursome rolls in, he watches closely as the scores are posted. When he finished, he was third from the top. Now comes a 71, then a 70. The open spots dwindle to seven, now six. And there are still three foursomes out on the course. It is a long wait.
The PGA has no record of when Monday qualifying was born, but tour veterans can recall qualifications for the L.A. Open and other West Coast tournaments—favorite havens for pros from the cold weather regions—during the late '40s. With the explosion in golf interest during the 1960s, Monday qualifying rounds became standard practice.
Dave Marr, who has been around since the late '50s, recalls that it was easy to qualify then if you were able to play at all. "They'd have maybe 130 guys out there on Monday, but there was room for 80. Shoot 75 and you still had a chance." This year it took a one-under-par 71 at Spyglass to be sure of a starting spot in the Crosby. "I'd hate to have to shoot a 71 at Spyglass," Marr says.
The line separating the rabbit from the regular tournament money-winner is a thin one. Every week the Ghost Patrol includes several golfers capable of winning. Last year Bunky Henry qualified on Monday for the Monsanto Open, finished tied for 41st and won $322. The next week he tied for 78th at Jacksonville, earning $114. The third week, at the National Airlines in Miami, Henry shot 69-73-66-70—278 to win the tournament, $40,000 and, most important, a year's exemption. With only minor differences, the same story could be told about Tom Shaw, Larry Hinson, Larry Ziegler and Steve Spray. Spray, for instance, had to qualify for the Sahara, made the cut, then won at San Francisco the following week.
"Those fellows," says Bob Shaw of the exempt pros, "are no different than a lot of us out here. A whole bunch of players in our group are capable of winning if they can just get to play."
Tom Shaw (no relation) tends to agree. "I was the world's worst qualifier," he says. "In 1968 I tried to qualify 15 times and failed all but three. Even so, I made $14,000. When I played, I made money."
Monday's nonheroes can be divided into two groups. About half the field, roughly 100 players at any qualifying round, are club pros who enter five or 10 tournaments a year, usually the ones within hailing distance of their home courses. The rest are touring pros, men who try to make their living from the $6.7 million bag of prize money offered on the tour this year.
The second category, the touring pros, is made up of three subgroups: the real rabbits, players in their first year or two of the tour; the older hands with small reputations built on wins or high finishes in things like the Azalea Open or the Magnolia Classic—guys like Monty Kaser, Babe Hiskey or Larry Mowry; and finally there is the fallen star, the player—like Jacky Cupit or Marty Fleck-man or Al Balding—who made headlines once and may again. But not now.
The rabbits are the most anonymous, except to each other. "If Jack Nicklaus walked in here, he'd know me," says Dick Carmody, "but that's only because we played golf against each other in college. I doubt if he'd know many others out here." Carmody has known such modest successes as winning the Quebec Open, which earned him $2,500 but no exemption, since it was not a PGA event. Last year Carmody suffered the embarrassment of having his player's card revoked, a penalty of the TPD for bad play. Now he is back on the trail again as a Class A player, the category under which most club pros compete. He finished 39th in the L.A. Open but missed the cut at Phoenix, which put him back in the pit. At the Crosby qualifying round at Spyglass he shot a 73 in the rain, which would have been good enough except that it rained so hard the round was canceled. The next day he shot 72, which put him in a 16-way tie for nine spots, and a sudden-death playoff was scheduled Wednesday.
Carmody was awake most of the night worrying about the first playoff hole at Pebble ("It's a narrow fairway, and I told myself I had to keep the ball in bounds"), then delighted himself next morning by hitting his drive down the middle. Perhaps overcome, he knocked his approach wide of the green and out of bounds. End of tournament.
Most rabbits such as Carmody are sponsored, else they would not be able to afford the tour. Besides, the TPD insists a player show proof of support. Sponsors are generally wealthy club members who pass the hat until they have raised enough—usually $20,000 or so—to send their young assistant pro out on the tour for a year. A few celebrities—Lawrence Welk, for one, and Dean Martin and Glen Campbell—are currently backing golfers on tour. One promising rabbit, John Jacobs, talked his wealthy girl friend into backing him.
One level above the true rabbit are the modest successes like Kaser, Hiskey and Mowry, with their horticultural wins at the Magnolias or Azaleas, satellite events that rarely carry an exemption but whose money is official. Pete Brown, before his dramatic victory in the recent Andy Williams-San Diego Open, fell into this category. Although Brown had been on the tour for 16 years, he had won only one minor tournament. Last year he was 84th on the money list with $20,893, about $12,000 shy of getting him into the top 60. Brown has competed in qualifying rounds for years and got into the Andy Williams—despite missing the cut at the Crosby—by surviving the cut in the Crosby pro-am, a side-door exemption for which his amateur partner deserves as much credit as Brown. Brown later said all he could think about as he lined up his final putt in the last round at San Diego was "one putt for no more Mondays." He missed that putt but won the tournament in a playoff. No more Mondays.
The top level of qualifier is the veteran player who has made headlines, has won tournaments (but not recently) and who, in some cases, has come within a shot of earning a lifetime exemption. Jacky Cupit in 1963 had the U.S. Open all wrapped up until he double-bogeyed the 71st hole and finished in a three-way tie with Arnold Palmer and Julius Boros. Boros won.
Now here is Cupit, seven years later, sitting in a golf cart waiting to tee off. He is not bitter, he says bitterly, adding that if he qualifies today he will phone his wife in Texas and have her come out for the tournament. Then he goes out and shoots 80.
Others who currently hare Cupit's fate are Marty Fleckman, who as an amateur led the 1967 Open at Baltusrol going into the last round; Kermit Zarley, a former tour winner whom Bob Hope made famous by calling "the pro from the moon"; Labron Harris, the 1962 U.S. Amateur champion; and Al Balding. Less than two years ago in Rome, Balding, a lanky, gray-haired Canadian golfer of 45, teamed with George Knudson to win the World Cup. Balding was low individual. Balding has been on and off the tour for years, was eighth leading money earner back in 1957. Several weeks ago he had to qualify for the Andy Williams. He was having a coffee-shop breakfast early Monday morning when a friend spotted him.
"Alsie," said the pal. "What the devil are you doing here?"
"Have to work today," said Balding.
"Work?" asked the friend. It took a moment for the meaning to sink in. "You mean...?"
Balding's friend never finished the question.
"It's not in the code to mention qualifying," says Dave Marr, who has been permanently exempt since he won the PGA in 1965. "You see certain players on Thursday and you know they must have had to qualify to be there, but you never mention it. You just say, 'Hi, Pete, hi, George.' "
The brightest fallen star at the moment is Doug Sanders, golf's flamboyant dresser, who has won 17 tournaments in his career and is seventh on the all-time money list. But his last tour win was in 1967, and last year he was 64th in earnings with $30,311. So, technically, Sanders is not exempt. Yet he's never out there on Monday. Why? Because the rules allow sponsors of every tournament to exempt eight players not otherwise eligible—a ploy to insure the presence of local favorites, or players like Sanders, whose reputations outlast their putting strokes. At one time players were allowed to accept only three such exemptions a year, but now the TPD permits players to take as many as they want. The rabbits are restless over the rule.
"Everything is for the established pro," says one young player. "It kills you to see some of the guys who can't even swing anymore taking up spots that could be ours. Jerry Barber, Paul Runyan—some of these players with lifetime exemptions. And now this sponsor thing. Life's tough enough without that."
Tougher still is when a sponsor gives an exemption to an amateur—an amateur, mind you—usually one who has a big reputation (and no worse than a two handicap). Everyone wants to see how old Bill will make out against the pros, never mind that old Bill is taking up a spot that might otherwise go to someone struggling to earn a living. That's why Oscar Fraley of the Danny Thomas tournament became an instant hero among the rabbits last fall when he didn't use any of his sponsor's exemptions, but threw all eight spots to the qualifiers.
Now it is Monday afternoon, and the scores are all in. The successful qualifiers return to their motels and inform the desk clerk that they will be staying a few days longer, perhaps even for the whole week. Then they begin to scout around for a place to practice on Tuesday and Wednesday because, unlike the exempt players, Monday qualifiers are not allowed to play in pro-ams. But at least they get to tee it up Thursday.
What about the others, the 150 or so who didn't make it? "It's tough on them," admits Jack Tuthill, the TPD tournament director. "Nobody wants them. They aren't supposed to hang around for the tournament, and they sure aren't wanted at the next tournament course—tearing up the fairways and making spike marks on the green."
The experienced rabbit can usually find someplace to play because he has been around long enough to meet a lot of club pros. But the younger players, the ones on their first or second swings, often find themselves paying 50¢ to hit a pail of balls on a driving range beside the highway between here and there. Bert Yancey remembers stopping his car by an empty lot, hitting his bag of practice balls and then shagging them himself. Not long ago Bob Shaw tried to play at a public course in Los Angeles where a qualifying round for the L.A. Open was scheduled. He was told pros were not welcome. Shaw offered to pay the greens fee. The answer was no. Desperately, Shaw offered $10 merely to be allowed to walk the course so he could get to know it. The answer was still no.
Another problem that comes with failing to qualify is keeping faith in your game. "After a while, you start to think bad thoughts," says George Johnson. "You get the idea you can't play."
"It's the most terrifying thing in golf," recalls Yancey. "It's worse than missing a cut or blowing a U.S. Open. When you miss on Monday, you haven't got anything."
The problems of the Monday qualifier have, of course, come to the attention of Joe Dey, whose policy board recently approved a change he recommended, making club pros who are not TPD members enter an 18-hole prequalifying round on Friday. Only the top 20% from Friday are now allowed into Monday's round, reducing that field.
Perhaps more pertinent is the whole question of whether the rule is fair to club pros. Joe Dey thinks it is. "The regular touring pros have already earned the right to compete in qualifying rounds," he says. Besides, he points out, for an initiation fee of $50, plus $250 a year dues, any club pro can join the TPD and thus avoid the pre-Monday qualifying. The new system went into effect last month.
Commissioner Dey is toying with another solution, a periodic 36-hole qualifying round to replace the weekly one. This would establish a semipermanent ranking, from which available starting positions would be filled. If National Airlines had 24 open spots, the top 24 in the ranking would get to play. This system would give the top 10 or 12 a respite from qualifying every week, and it would permit those who are below 30 or so to return home to sharpen their games for the next 36-hole round. For those in between, unfortunately, it would mean another form of the sweat box, having to travel from tournament to tournament in hopes that enough exempt players decide not to enter.
A more agreeable solution to the Monday crush would be the long-dreamed-of solid "second" tour. Dey is thinking in terms of a kind of minor league of golf, success in which leads to the major league tour. And staying up there might well depend solely on merit, i.e., stroke averages or victories. Dey can understand the rabbits' resentment of lifetime exemptions, and may soon propose they be limited to 10 years. You can almost hear the growls already.
Until that happy day, that first Monday when all the rabbits can sleep in and still have their nibbles at pro golfing's lettuce patch on Thursday, the struggle goes on. They will continue to gather at dawn, and by dusk most of them will have nothing to look forward to but a long wait till next Monday.