Those well-heeled pilgrims of professional golf made their second annual Thanksgiving landing off the South Carolina coast last week to eat turkey, watch TV football and, as it turned out, get strangled on a little number known as the Heritage Classic, played on one of the meanest, orneriest courses that Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus or Miles Standish ever shook a four-iron at. The Harbour Town Golf Links at the tip of Hilton Head Island seemed to frustrate everybody but two smart and sassy amateurs who sauntered around the snaking bunkers and yawning marshes as if they owned the place. And as if one of them was going to win.
The upstarts were 250-pound Steve Melnyk, who from a distance—say, the length of one of his prodigious drives—resembles an alpaca mashed potato but who is really a solid citizen and businessman from Jacksonville, and Lanny Wadkins, a 20-year-old junior from Wake Forest with a curl in the middle of his forehead and the features of a matinee idol. Both Melnyk and Wadkins own U.S. Amateur championships, and at Hilton Head they demonstrated why to the more experienced pros trying to negotiate pines, oaks, palmettos, Spanish moss, dirt hazards, walls of planks, railroad ties, several alligators and a decaying cemetery, those being some of the dangers awaiting one and all at Harbour Town.
What Melnyk also had the effrontery to do in the first three days of the Heritage was shoot a one-over-par 72 on opening day (when only one pro was under par), fire six birdies and an eagle for a 67 in the second round and hang tough enough on the third day to tie for the lead with Bert Yancey at even-par 213. What Wadkins did was even more impressive—shoot 69-68 in the last two rounds to finish even par and second in the tournament behind the winner, Bob Goalby.
After his fellows had continued to embarrass themselves in the face of the amateur assault, it was left to Goalby—the 1968 Masters champion and winner of only one tournament since—to take matters into his own hands on the final day, shoot 66 (for a four-under-par 280) and become the only man to take the measure of Harbour Town's wriggling, twisting treacheries over the full 72 holes, the only one to break par. His labors were worth $20,000 to him.
The Heritage Classic, in its second year, has become a fixture on the tour, due in equal parts to the magnificence of its course (the tightest on the circuit and probably the most difficult that the pros play) and the setting. Sea Pines Plantation is the sort of place that convinces even the first-time visitor that John Alden and the rest of the Mayflower bunch must have lost their bearings when they put in along that bleak Massachusetts shore.
Oh, there were some cold temperatures early in the week at Harbour Town (the greens froze on Wednesday, limiting the pro-am to nine holes), but that proved to be the tail end of a cold spell that one local official called, "only a mirage, a figment of you-all's imagination." Doubtless Palmer, the defending champion, was seeing no mirage when he officially opened the tournament in 30° chill by blasting a ceremonial tee shot moments before a live cannon almost blasted him. The gunfire was an extension of a tradition begun 216 years ago at St. Andrews, where the winner of the Silver Club of the Society of St. Andrews Golfers was declared "Captain of the Golf." The Captain, whose duty it became to arbitrate all disputes touching the game, is required to "play himself" into office by hitting a drive to the boom of cannon shot.
Well, Captain Arnie didn't have to arbitrate much that first day at Hilton Head, but he did take an ancient "play" club, brought over from Scotland for the occasion by the official pro of St. Andrews, and to the accompaniment of spirited cannonading proceeded to hook six tee shots. And he didn't even flinch, which was considerable improvement over last year's ceremonial driver, Nicklaus, who heard the cannon go off on his downswing and nearly fell off the tee while his ball dribbled about 30 yards.
Tradition aside, the Heritage Classic had some other things going for it. Most important, perhaps, it was the first tour event anyone could remember that almost seemed to attract more golfers than spectators, making it also the first time his Army honestly saw Arnie (and discovered that the man is not Palmer at all but a twin brother of Roy Rogers). Since the sponsors limit galleries to 5,000 a day, preferring not to jam up the island or overtax their attractive accommodations, and since a satellite event was being held this year nearby, there was indeed a surplus of golfers: more than 300 were on the island early in the week before the cuts took their toll.
For the first time ever on the tour a 72-hole satellite, called the Sea Pines Open, was being played simultaneously—and right next door at the Ocean Course of the Plantation Club. Spectators who wanted to watch those whom the PGA likes to call its "stars of tomorrow" could quickly cross from the 5th of Harbour Town to the 13th of Ocean and see, for example, Lee Trevino start a hole and Vic Loustalot finish it. Since few wanted to, the PGA may decide to make its satellite a bit more distant at Heritage time next year.
Once the festivities and fulminations were out of the way (including, one might add, an astounding front nine of 30 by Nicklaus in the pro-am that still wasn't quite good enough to win), the pros got down to some serious golf. Nicklaus, who was a consultant to Pete Dye in the designing of the course, admitted he was at Hilton Head out of a sense of obligation, that he was tired and "considered the year over." Well he might. He has won the British Open, the Piccadilly, the Byron Nelson Classic, the national Four-Ball (with Palmer) and the World Series of Golf. A finish as high as third at Hilton Head would have put him past Billy Casper for top money honors this year. This incentive didn't overcome his year-end ennui, and as Nicklaus faded out of contention he spoke of how frustrating it is to play poorly on holes of one's own making. "I get angrier here than anywhere we play," he said. "This place is designed for some shots I'm not supposed to be able to play, and that's a challenge. Then when I can't play them, it just burns my rear end."
Sadistic pin placements, especially on the par-3s, made the first round a nightmare despite ideal playing conditions. Goalby, charmed by the setting, said, "I could shoot 50 coming home and still love it." He almost did. His 40 on the back nine Thursday spoiled a fine 34 going out. He was not alone. As the day dwindled and par held up, those who thought to inquire found that only twice in the last two years had par stood up so well in the first round of a tour event—once in this year's San Antonio Open, when Rod Funseth managed the only subpar round in sleet and hail, and at the U.S. Open at Hazeltine, where Tony Jacklin shot a 71 while everyone else was getting blown away.
Sure enough, just when everybody was preparing adjectives for the place ("horrible, horrifying, hard-boiled Harbour Town"), here came Homero Blancas back from the lighthouse behind 18 with a one-under 70, and all vowed to have tacos with their turkey that evening. John Miller may have done more than vow. A prolonged case of stomach cramps that struck him Friday morning didn't keep him from coming in with a 66, and when Melnyk carded a 67 (after a night of relatively restrained feasting and a visit to a home where Hollis Stacy, U.S. Girls Junior champion, was staying with her family) Harbour Town didn't seem quite so ominous.
But winning the Heritage was especially on Melnyk's mind. "I don't play in these things just for the experience," he said. "I want to beat the pros." It is no secret that Melnyk remained an amateur this year only so he might go to Spain for the World Amateur Team Championship and to St. Andrews for the Walker Cup in May. When he was not named to the World team despite his impressive record in the amateur ranks over the last two years, he felt jilted. "I guess I'm not one of the four best amateurs in the country," Steve said bitterly.
If Melnyk is not the best amateur in the country, then Wadkins certainly is. Lanny won eight amateur tournaments last summer, including the U.S. championship, and Harbour Town seemed perfectly suited to his driving game, which is startling in its accuracy, and to his feathery iron play. "I'm just bangin' it in and havin' some fun," he said after one day's round. "I know I can shoot par here."
At the end of the second round Miller (with a four-under 138) and Melnyk (one stroke behind) were the only players under par. The next day the two fell back into the field, as everybody suspected they would, but Miller fell too far back with his 80, while Melnyk birdied the picturesque 18th to hang onto a share of the lead. At that point, nine players, including Captain Arnie and one of his protégés, Jack Lewis (who shot an amazing third-round 65), were within two shots of the top and 19 were within four.
But Goalby quickly unscrambled all that on Sunday with two birdies on the first two holes. Melnyk soon faded (to a final-round 77), but Wadkins still had a shot at the tournament until taking a double bogey on the 11th hole. "I wish I had that one to play over," said the young amateur.
There will be time for that later. The Heritage Classic—and the touring pros—have not seen the last of Melnyk and Wadkins.