The hills around the make-believe valley of Rancho La Costa, Calif. have been scraped slick and turned the color of shingles, making everything look as though a great civilization had once thrived in those parts until the killer ants, or the moneylenders, came along to prepare for the planting of that favorite California flower, the condominium. Down in the valley, near the golf course and the fake waterfall, ice plant and mustard blossoms flash pink and yellow, bouncing their colors off the deep suntans of mysterious millionaires and giggly, ripened ladies who like to dance to the old tunes.
This is La Costa Resort-Hotel, Spa and Country Club, all of it about 40 minutes from San Diego, the nearest liberty port, and a thousand light-years from reality. It is where golf comes every year to get a rubdown, and last week it was where Jack Nicklaus amazed himself by winning a championship he had not planned to play in on a tough course that buried everyone else in the rough—or the vodka and papaya juice. Nicklaus not only won the Tournament of Champions with ridiculous ease—his nine-under-par 279 gave him a smothering eight-stroke margin over the three pros who tied for second place—he won it with what he thought was sloppy, absentminded golf. And that says something about his dominance of the sport, or about the casual atmosphere this tournament evokes in a place far removed from the wonderful world of war, poverty, politics and small-business loans.
Nicklaus had been pretty depressed after barely losing the Masters and seeing his dreams of a Grand Slam erased as quickly as one could say Charles Coody. He felt he did not want to play another tournament until the next big one, the U.S. Open in June. He did not look at a club for several days, and then whipped around only nine holes with his two young sons about a week after Augusta.
"It always takes you two weeks to get over the Masters," he said. "Whether you win it or lose it, there is an emotional letdown and your game sort of collapses, or you feel that it does."
It was Barbara Nicklaus who woke him up. "She pointed out that playing the tour was my profession, and she said I ought to play in the Tournament of Champions, which is kind of special. Get back on the tour, is what she was saying. Go play golf, she said, and stop brooding."
Nicklaus, thus ordered from his home, arrived at La Costa, where the 19-year-old T of C landed in 1969 after Howard Hughes placekicked it out of Las Vegas, not really knowing or caring, Jack said, how he might perform. One always likes to pretend that he wants to win any tournament, but there are a number of weeks during the year when the competitor's heart just isn't in it. Most pros admit this.
Two or three things might tend to make the players feel less than ferocious about their efforts in the T of C. They are guaranteed $2,000 wherever they finish, and La Costa picks up the basic expenses all week for their families. The tournament is the fifth California event of the 1971 tour, and inevitably it has a sameness about it. After all, the pros had been out near San Diego for the Andy Williams tournament in January, and many of them had stayed at La Costa then. It was almost hypnotic.
"A good opening round can jar you awake," Jack pointed out, "but if you start off in a mood like this and nothing happens, you can play through a whole tournament without knowing you're in it."
Nicklaus almost did as much during the first three rounds of the Tournament of Champions. He went out on Thursday to see where the ball would go when he hit it. Nothing more. He shot a three-under 69 and wound up tied for the lead with Miller Barber. On Friday, which was another magnificently clear and refreshing day, very suitable to the plushness of La Costa, Nicklaus simply tried to avoid the deep rough that had been grown to toughen and tighten the course. He shot 71 and remained tied for the lead with Barber. He said he was still not playing very well and was not up at all. He was driving too often into the rough and having to strong-arm his way out.
This was the case again on Saturday when he shot another 69 in a gusty wind and ran off from the other 35 tournament winners in the field. Indeed, he took a five-stroke lead, but did not find that he had until after he finished his round. After all, winning meant a mere $33,000, and at La Costa that's only tip money. It was a strictly ho-hum day.
"I was just playing each hole as it came," Nicklaus said. "If someone had told me on the 18th tee that I had a five-shot lead, I'd have thought they were joking." Thus, the Tournament of Champions had quietly ended—except for the ritual of a final round on Sunday—and the winner had not even realized it.
Nicklaus has had tremendous success in West Coast tournaments and on desert-type courses. He won the Tournament of Champions twice when it was at Las Vegas, he won the Sahara at Vegas four times, he has won at Palm Springs and he has won at Pebble Beach. Was there a mysterious advantage involved? "Well, I prefer Bermuda fairways and fast, bent greens," Jack said, searching for some answer. "That's what I grew up on. California, or a desert course, doesn't look like Ohio, but some of the playing conditions are the same."
His big advantage at La Costa was the rough. He could drive into the rough and still reach the greens, which was beyond the power of most of the others. The reason had to do with more than just his strength. He has an upright swing, upright as opposed to, say, Arnold Palmer's swing, which is flat. Nicklaus therefore does not have to swing the club head through as much grass as the others, and this, combined with his natural strength, gets him out of high rough faster than the opposition. He can use a six-iron, for example, where another competitor with the same lie might have to take a wedge and gouge the ball out to the fairway.
There was quite a bit of gouging at La Costa. Scores were the highest of the year, soaring all the way up to the 317s that were posted by Bruce Crampton and Bill Garrett. There were more than 25 rounds of 77 or higher, and only six players broke 290. La Costa's scores looked something like the U.S. Open of 1927.
Perhaps because of the course itself, the tournament seems to have trouble staging a close finish. Two years ago Gary Player won by four strokes, and last year Frank Beard galloped away by seven. This has created a few problems for television coverage, among other things. By the time the telecast went on the air last Sunday Nicklaus had a seven-stroke lead on everybody from Bruce Devlin to Chris Schenkel. Someone suggested the answer for ABC would have been to stretch out the Trenton 200 automobile race, which preceded the T of C telecast, to the Trenton 500. But things might have been worse. This could have been the 1955 T of C at Las Vegas, which Gene Littler won by 13 strokes while the rest of the field discovered blackjack and the Parisian floor shows.
But it was O.K. for the tournament to be over early. La Costa's guests could then turn their full attention to the other pleasures the place offers—tennis, riding, weight losing, dancing, drinking, gossip, celebrity watching, trying to guess which guys might be Clyde and which girls might be Bonnie.
La Costa, ever since it sprang out of the land near Del Mar with overnight swiftness, has had an identity with Las Vegas. The main buildings—the hotel and the country club—resemble those hotel-casinos on the Strip. From the outside, La Costa looks like a Marriott Inn that kept growing, while inside it is a Southern California version of heaven—woody, plush and cushioned.
The reason for the Vegas identity is clear enough. The men who put La Costa together made part of their fortunes there. Alphabetically, they are Merv Adelson, Irwin Molasky and Allard Roen. They were the ones who stood on the hills and saw that the valley could be bulldozed and a golf course built. They envisioned the spa with the Swiss showers. They sensed the houses and condominiums settling on the 5,000 acres like fallout from a suburban blast in Orange County. They saw the 17 tennis courts that might make La Costa the West Coast Forest Hills. They saw stables and trails for 50 horses, health food, medical care 24 hours a day, lodges that all the Sandy Koufaxes and Robert Youngs would want to own, the whole thing a glittering alternative to Palm Springs or Las Vegas for the wealthy, smog-choked Los Angeles resident.
Roen was one of the men who sold the Desert Inn to Howard Hughes, although the momentous sale did not include the rights to the Tournament of Champions, which Hughes did not want anyhow. It is said that Hughes was opposed to having the event at the Desert Inn, where it had originated, because he did not want a lot of people milling around looking up at his suite. Whatever the reason, the tournament left the Desert Inn and then Las Vegas. The PGA was delighted, because it had never really liked the idea of so much betting going on in connection with one of its tournaments. Legal betting.
Even so, the T of C cannot shed its old reputation. The La Costa crowd is from Vegas, and it is no secret that there is other Vegas money in the spa. And Teamster money, too, probably, which should not matter to anyone since there is probably Teamster money circling the moon, in the Vatican and on the monuments in center field at Yankee Stadium. Last week when a newspaper ran another of those stories trying to connect the place with elements of the underworld, about all that happened at La Costa was that everybody yawned. A few of the players came out of the spa and the bar and expressed their irritation with the story, knowing Merv and Allard and the boys to be good, honest fellows, fun to be with. And guys who run a good store, as they say.
La Costa stood firm on its plushness and comfort and its newer reputation: the place where Ford introduced the Pinto, where American Motors introduced the Gremlin, where CBS introduced its fall TV promotion campaign, where all sorts of conventions are held, for theater owners, racetrack operators, glassware people and various other giants of industry. It stood on its spa, which guarantees a weight loss and creates diet cocktails. It stood on its Bob Hopes and Carol Burnetts, identifying La Costa with America. So there.
If La Costa survived last week with laughter and dancing, so did the game of golf, even though it had to admit that Jack Nicklaus could win a tournament without knowing. And so, as the condominiums climbed slowly in the West and the sun turned into a corned-beef patty for breakfast, the PGA tour moved on from its annual week of rest and relaxation.