Everybody had his own reason for playing in the Bahama Islands Open last week. Arnold Palmer wanted to win one. Lee Trevino showed up to make sure nobody grabbed his place at the top of the money heap. One of Tommy Aaron's sponsoring firms offered him a bonus for a good performance. Frank Beard, a tough man with a buck, decided to take his family when Dave Stockton got him a deal on a villa.
But as the last of the professional golf tour's 47 official events of the year—and the final $130,000 of nearly $7 million in prize money being offered in 1970—the Bahama Islands Open had something more precious to offer a particular group of touring pros. These players, who include such regulars as Dave Eichelberger, Jim Jamieson and Herb Hooper, weren't there for a good time or to soak up the Freeport sun or even earn money, at least not primarily. They were there to fight for their lives.
"Oh, I wouldn't say it's quite as serious as that," said Jamieson one afternoon, while Eichelberger, right behind him, rolled his eyes and snickered.
For these players and others, the Bahama Islands Open offered the last chance to win enough exemption points to finish among the top 60 on the PGA list. In the past, the PGA gave exemptions to the top 60 money winners, an exemption meaning a golfer is eligible to play in any tournament that isn't invitational, such as the Masters. Otherwise, unless a golfer has some other exemption, such as a U.S. Open title, tucked away, he must qualify on Mondays, which is a bad scene.
Commissioner Joe Dey created the point system so that, among other reasons, a monster money tournament like the $300,000 Dow Jones would not assume three times the importance of the good old L.A. Open. It was a sound idea, but the players have rejected it to return to the gold standard in 1971. As Dave Marr said, "The public can't identify with points. You can't spend them in the A&P."
Nevertheless, points were it this year. Win and you got 120, second was worth 90, and so on. But the players fighting for those last few spots at Grand Bahama last week were not concerned with first and second. Realistically, what they wanted to do was finish, say, 15th and pick up 56 points.
Before the start of the tournament Eichelberger was 61st, Jamieson 63rd and Hooper 64th. At 62nd was Don January, who wasn't there and didn't need to be, since his victory in the 1967 PGA Championship gives him lifetime exemption. Eichelberger was only 10 points behind the 60th man, Steve Spray, but Spray was entered in the tournament, of course, as was Bob Stanton at 59. Even Jim Colbert, who would have had to be passed by six players to miss out, was there. Not that it's all that important, mind you.
"What I mean is this," Jamieson continued. "So I don't make the top 60. I'm still in the top 70 and there are 15 tournaments, including the PGA in February, that are going to accept the top 70 of the list. If you play any good at all, you make the cut and that gets you into the tournament the following week. So it's not a matter of life and death."
"Says you," said Eichelberger.
Jamieson, a chubby young man along the lines of Bob Murphy, was in danger of losing his player's card last year, a letter from Commissioner Dey notifying him that unless his game improved and he started earning some money he could no longer play on the tour. Early this year he married, which evidently was a tonic, for he made the cut in 17 straight tournaments, tied for third in the Western Open and earned $28,385, assuring him of no more letters from Joe Dey.
Eichelberger is tall, strong, swarthy and intense. He stalks around a putting green, generally with a cigarette stuck in his mouth and looking angry, but it is a mask for a friendly, outgoing personality. He is from Waco, Texas, and he can hit a ball 18 miles, often straight. His best 1970 finish was a 10th at the Greater Milwaukee Open, and before Bahama his earnings were $23,238.
Herb Hooper is as quiet and unassuming as the President of almost the same name. He has a slight build, and it follows that the best part of his game is chipping and putting. Hooper was bothered by a bad back early in the year and earned no points at all during the first two months. He was apparently out of contention for the top 60 when a tie for sixth at Coral Springs, the week before Bahama, gave him 63.50 points and a chance. Hooper had earned $28,335 when he arrived on Grand Bahama.
It was quickly apparent that it was going to be a rugged week for Larry Null, who travels with the tour and whose duties include compiling and publishing the point list. None of the players involved were all that interested in the point standing, of course, but they kept hanging around Null's desk in the press tent early in the week, looking like a pack of hungry dogs, and when Null produced an informal, scratch-pad version of the list, the players almost ripped it to shreds.
On Thursday it looked as though the battle for the top 60 would never really materialize. Eichelberger started like lightning, sticking an approach shot one inch from the first hole for a kick-in birdie, but things got away from him and he wound up with a 76. Poor Herb Hooper was even worse, at 79 an excellent bet to miss the cut and pick up no points at all. Of the challengers, only Jamie-son, with a 72, could smile. That was six strokes behind the leader, Doug Sanders. Palmer, in his bid for his first victory since 1969, was in good shape at 68. (A win would make him the 1970 money leader if Trevino faltered.)
Then, on Friday, all sorts of wonderful things happened to the three challengers. Hooper rescued himself from oblivion by shooting a 69 for a 148 total, which was exactly the score it took to make the cut. Eichelberger had a strong 70 for 146, and Jamieson, with a 69 for 141, was up among the leaders. Beyond that, disaster struck some of the golfers ahead of them. Steve Spray, the 60th man, missed the cut, and Bob Stanton, the 59th man, after almost overcoming a shaky first-day 76 with a nice round Friday, blew it, taking a hideous nine on 18 and was also out.
And there was one more. John Schroeder, son of Ted, the Davis Cup hero, shot a 149 to miss the cut by a stroke. Schroeder was 56th on the point list and had enough of a margin to almost assure him of finishing among the 60. But at dusk, when he learned he was out, he sought out Larry Null. Where would Null be Sunday night? At the hotel. Schroeder said he would call.
Saturday was a disaster for Eichelberger. He shot a 76, which put him in a tie for 62nd and which, if the tournament had been over, would have given him roughly nine points, not even enough to overtake Spray. Worse, the quietly determined Hooper shot a 68 to go six shots ahead of Eichelberger. The players who gathered around Larry Null's desk after the third round were agreed: Jamieson, who had a 71 to remain among the tournament leaders, and Hooper were virtually in. Poor Ike had blown it.
It was an equally disastrous day for Palmer. Paired with the leader, Chris Blocker, a longtime rabbit and a distant 93rd on the point list, Palmer fell apart on the back nine and shot a 75.
Eichelberger tried to produce a miracle on Sunday, but his 54th-place finish was good for only 16 points, and he was out. Both Hooper and Jamieson made it, however. Hooper completed a remarkable comeback by shooting a 69 and finishing tied for 16th. That gave him 52 points, enough to send him past Stanton for 60th place. Jamieson, with a final-round 72, tied for 10th and moved up to 58 on the list.
As for Arnie, well, he didn't get his win. Doug Sanders did, after a playoff with Chris Blocker. Trevino finished third to keep his money lead. Aaron earned his bonus. And the Beards had a good time. But in the end Hooper and Jamieson had the best time of all.