Golf's $7 million road company hit the bituminous hills of western Pennsylvania last week, suffering a clear case of prickly heat and creeping ennui. Only the hostilities of Hazeltine and the heroics of St. Andrews had broken the relentless doldrums that have seemed to afflict the tour lately.
By the time the pros had cleared out of Ligonier and headed for the next stop on sport's equivalent of the Orpheum Circuit—the Westchester Classic—the tour showed signs of rebound if not recovery. Part of it was the prominence of a couple of faces whose familiarity breeds anything but contempt among the golfing public. By winning the PGA's $200,000 National Four-Ball Championship at Laurel Valley, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus had restored the cosmos to its old and comfortable order. Even the Almighty had seemed to lend an occasional hand, as if He, too, had had enough of all the Philadelphia Classics and Nowhere Opens.
But something else infused the tour with a sense of change at Ligonier, and that was the fact that this time it wasn't just another tournament. The Four-Ball, for all its suggestion of deuces and one-eyed Jacks wild, added an element of novelty for the golf fan grown too knowledgeable and too jaded by an enterprise going flat. The novelty was a simple one: instead of 144 players scrambling on their own, the Four-Ball grouped teams of two players, each member playing his own ball but counting only the best score on each hole.
The only mistake the other pros made was letting them hold the thing on Arnold Palmer's home course, for any hopes they had that old Arnie would play Mr. Nice Guy Host and treat his visitors to a little western Pennsylvania hospitality were dashed at once. First of all, he had Jack Nicklaus for a partner, which Terry Dill allowed was "not a bad team." When a deluge hit Ligonier on the first day, the other pros probably relaxed in the knowledge that at least Nicklaus and Palmer were not being joined by the Almighty. But when the clouds parted and the rain quit five minutes before the Nicklaus-Palmer starting time, nobody could be really sure. And after they came in at 10-under for the day—three strokes ahead of the nearest mortals—it was clear that their round had been not only splendid but perhaps divine.
Things got back to normal on the second day except that, yes, there was that peculiar break in the rain that allowed Arnie and Jack to finish their rounds—only four under par this time. Then the lightning and rain started again, prompting Dave Marr to suggest that Arnie and the Lord might want the round wiped out. A couple of twosomes operating on terrestrial guidance made runs at the leaders after that—Sam Snead and Gardner Dickinson on Friday, Dave Eichelberger and J. C. Goosie on Saturday—but the first-day leaders closed strong on Sunday for their $20,000-each payoff.
A good part of the spirit that suffused the Ligonier countryside last week came from the players themselves, who also seemed to regard the Four-Ball as a refreshing break from the boring routine of the weekly 72-hole tournaments they play. Seldom recognized is the fact that professional golfers play a longer "season" and perform in more "games" than athletes in any other sport. A pro who is exempt from qualifying may enter up to 35 tournaments a year. Counting the pro-am rounds on Wednesdays and assuming he makes the cut most of the time, this means he could play as many as 175 serious rounds a year. By the end of the tournament year the average pro is a package of raw ganglia. For that and other reasons the Four-Ball is expected to become a regular feature of the tour, and if they can swing it Palmer and his friends at Laurel Valley would like to keep it there.
"We'd sort of like it to be known as the Masters of the North," said George Love, the tournament's general chairman. Love and all the other members already wear hot-pink sport coats and hats on the club grounds, obviously borrowing from the green-coat tradition at Augusta, Ga.
The Four-Ball also is a part of pro golf Commissioner Joe Dey's master plan to revitalize the tour. Despite healthy television ratings and strong attendances at the gate, the tour is not growing as it has for the last decade or so. Many of the sponsors of tournaments offering less than $150,000 in prize money have become increasingly bitter toward Dey and the members of the PGA's Tournament Players Division. Dey admits there has been friction, but says. "Frankly, we can be cavalier. We have more sponsors than we have dales." Maybe. But some observers of the game feel that golf will be one of the first sports to feel the effects of economic hardship. More than any other sport, golf depends on the beneficence of institutional spenders—corporations or high-paid executives—and these have been precisely the sectors hit first and hardest by the economic downturn.
Tournaments such as the Texas Open, the Greater Milwaukee Open, the San Francisco-Lucky Open and Houston Champions International have all had run-ins with Dey and the TPD. The San Francisco tournament was canceled after Dey and the TPD arbitrarily shifted dates without consulting sponsors. The Greater Milwaukee Open, played opposite the British Open last month, has been ironically dubbed the Lesser Milwaukee Open because so many top golfers went to St. Andrews.
The most bitter sponsors, though, are in Texas. The Texas Open, once known as the father of the winter tour, has been offered 1971 dates during football season or on New Year's Day weekend—which, with so many Texas teams in bowl games, is about the same thing. Says Gilbert S. Brown, president of the San Antonio Golf Association, "I'm fed up with the TPD and I'm in favor of telling them to go to hell. It's a damned insult to the association and all of San Antonio to be treated this way.
"Everyone I have talked to has said to hell with the pros. They want everything for themselves and don't want to give a thing. They have no respect for tradition or sentiment."
In a sense Commissioner Dey is caught between the demands of tournament sponsors, who want stellar fields for their events, and the touring pros, who want a maximum of prize money and prestige for a minimum of travel and discomfort. The TPD contract guarantees sponsors a "representative" field, but, as Dey points out, TPD members are independent contractors who must play only 15 tournaments a year to keep their membership. Dey admits it is bad PR for players to drop out of tournaments with only a few days' notice, and he has considered assigning certain players to a limited number of tournaments. Members of the TPD reject the idea. "No one is going to tell me to play golf when I don't want to," said one. "If the purse isn't right and the course isn't right, I won't go."
Dey sees a possible solution in a revamped schedule of 20 or 25 major championships with as much prize money as possible, then as many other tournaments as the sponsors want—two or three at once if need be. All members of the TPD would play in the top 20 or 25 tournaments, but the sponsors of other tournaments would have no guarantees on participation. Dey would also like to see a variety of tournament styles. In addition to the Four-Ball, he envisions an elimination championship that would be conducted under stroke play and, possibly, a Scotch tournament.
To complicate his problems in trying to resolve the difference between sponsors and players Dey also must contend with a generation gap in the TPD. "Dey tries to railroad us," a young player said. "One meeting, a young guy got up and said, 'Mr. Dey, I think I have a solution' and Dey just laughed. He was acting like, 'How can you have a solution when I've been working on the question myself?' " Nevertheless Dey and the younger group of pros did work out an agreement recently whereby inactive players with lifetime exemptions are added to full starting fields at tournaments instead of displacing younger players.
The National Four-Ball Championship seemed just the elixir to alleviate some of these vexing problems. The players at Laurel Valley were noticeably relaxed—sometimes too relaxed, according to Johnny Pott. "Team golf is fun golf," he said, "but fun golf also gets to be careless golf." In other words, with a partner, you don't always feel that disaster awaits you on every stroke. Still, it's a fan's delight, watching a player go for broke knowing his partner is safe.
Most of the team pairings at Laurel Valley were fairly predictable: Palmer and Nicklaus, who won the second Four-Ball Championship together in 1966; Bob Charles and Bruce Devlin, both from Down Under; Miller Barber and Don January, both Texans; Bob Lunn and Dave Stockton, Californians; and Hale Irwin and Dale Douglass, Coloradans. The most predictable pairings were the family acts—Charlie Sifford and nephew Curtis, and brothers Dave and Mike Hill, Dick and John Lotz and Tom and Mickey Shaw. Perhaps the most unusual pairing in the field was the integrated twosome of Bob Murphy and Lee Elder. "People say it's unusual," said Murphy, a Floridian, "but it's nothing unusual to us. We've been close friends since our first days on the tour."
About the only American name player missing from the championship was Frank Beard, whose recent book. Pro: Frank Beard on the Golf Tour, gave some interesting and occasionally embarrassing glimpses of golfers off-guard. Nobody was exactly saying Beard would have a tough time lining up a partner at Ligonier, but one player did remark: "It's tough to play four-ball with a tape recorder for a partner."
And, as any Laurel Valley native can tell you, God is better than a tape recorder any day.