College golf is meat for a Hollywood gossip column. Everybody loves and hates everybody else, complains about courses, coaches and All-America selections and, in general, breaks all records for non-stop backbiting. Rona Barrett could have reported last week's NCAA tournament at the Tucson National Golf Club by dropping teasers like: Should B.B. and D.W. be invited to the same party? Will Lanny Wadkins of Wake Forest junk it all and turn pro before an NCAA official tees off on his dentures? Can Gentle (I'm gonna slam this dude) Ben Crenshaw of the University of Texas find love and eternal happiness with an NCAA trophy? Or is it only a step on his way from Austin to professional immortality?
Beyond such tingly items is the more important question of why the golfing public ignores the NCAA tournament and fails to recognize it for what it really is: a marvelous pastiche of confusion that winds its way through comic foul-ups, verbal harangues and plain chaos to produce probably the finest field and the best performances in amateur golf.
To doubters, it should be pointed out that Jim Simons, who a few days earlier had won instant fame by leading the U.S. Open after three rounds and fighting Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus to the 72nd hole before sagging and finishing fifth, won a scowl from his college coach the first day of the NCAAs by finishing fifth on the Wake Forest team. His 76 was surpassed by 140 other collegians in the 226-man field. Though Simons was obviously sapped both mentally and physically from his courageous effort in the Open, his performance at Tucson was grist for opposition coaches. "Jimmy's a good boy," said portly Buster Bishop of the University of Florida, "but we have a lot out here like him. Pick 10 other amateurs to play against the 10 best college kids here. No contest."
"Amateurs?" said University of Houston Coach Dave Williams, who has to disagree with Bishop even when he agrees with him. "Give me six of these guys and I'll take on any six pros in the world."
Williams may have been exaggerating, but this year's NCAA field could bear comparison with the name-spangled group that played in the 1966 tournament at Stanford, where Bob Murphy beat Bob Dickson, Ron Cerrudo and Vinnie Giles, among others. At Tucson were Florida's Mike Killian and Andy North, Houston's John Mills and Corker De-Loach, the Texas Walker Cupper Tom Kite Jr., Howard Twitty of Arizona State, Ray Leach of Brigham Young and Dave Glenz of Oregon, in addition to Crenshaw and Wake Forest's Wadkins, Simons and Eddie Pearce. As for the two coaches, Bishop and Williams, they had been at odds since Florida upset Houston for the NCAA title in 1968. Williams, whose teams have won 12 of the last 16 national titles, likes to quote the Bible and gives "90% credit to the Lord." Bishop calls Williams a "carnival barker." Their happy feud is put into excellent perspective by one of their players: "They both want to win so bad they're practically the same guy. Except one is a huge tubby and the other is a little roach."
Williams and Bishop are of the same mind when it comes to their conception of what a "contribution" to college golf is. Wake Forest, they feel, does not make its rightful contribution because the Deacons do not enter enough college tournaments. All that Wake Forest seems to be well represented in are such things as the U.S. Amateur, the Walker Cup, the British Amateur and the U.S. Open; jerkwater tournaments like that. Every year at the NCAAs Wake Forest is both favored and hated because everybody is aware of all those Arnold Palmer wind-up toys enrolled at the Winston-Salem school (Palmer played college golf there, and the university offers an Arnold Palmer scholarship).
But Wake Forest always loses the NCAA. Two years ago the Deacons gave away a five-shot lead on the final day, and last year a two-shot margin when Wadkins blew his own five-stroke individual lead and lost to John Mahaffey of Houston. Despite having Wadkins (the reigning U.S. Amateur champion), Simons (a finalist a few weeks ago in the British Amateur) and Pearce (the North and South Amateur winner), Wake Forest died again this time.
Tucson National's long, sprawling 7,300-yard par-72 layout did not favor the precise game most of the Deacons play nor did the 105° temperature sit well. Only Pearce, raised in Florida, was at home on a course where every fairway resembled an SST landing strip and the nearest rough was in Guadalajara. Just the same, Wake Forest Coach Jesse Haddock was optimistic. "Our attitude is good and, let's face it, we do have the best team," he said. But other coaches pointed to Florida and Houston, and even to Texas, whose hopes rode on Kite and freshman star Crenshaw.
"This place is made for a masher who can putt," said Williams. "That's Crenshaw."
Most of the unwieldy field spent the first round asking Simons about the U.S. Open ("What did Big Jack say to you on 18?") and being awed by Crenshaw's strong 67. "I was two under par," said Dave Haberle of Minnesota, his playing partner, "but I had more fun just watching him. He hit it so good he should have made 60." But Houston's Mills—a refugee from the state of Maine—shot an even better 65 and led the Cougars to a four-stroke team lead.
Meanwhile, the NCAA officials, enjoying their usual hoo-hah of internal politics, public-relations difficulties and organizational buffoonery, went bogey, double bogey, pick-it-up. The NCAA couldn't find enough caddies. The NCAA couldn't open the practice greens or tees after five o'clock. The NCAA turned simple rulings on the course into lengthy discourses. Play was so slow that Florida's Killian, who went off last, finished his round in a cool 7½ hours. "Hurray, another NCAA fiasco," he said, while Wadkins, always apt at gentle criticism, commented, "This would be a great tournament if it wasn't run by a bunch of jerks."
Mills, whom Williams "wanted to get rid of" after his first year at Houston, got in a couple of licks at Wake Forest. "They've got the Walker Cuppers," he said, "but they won't win. They don't play as a team." But the next day, led by Pearce's 67, the Deacons moved past Houston by four strokes. "We'll put him up a tree," vowed Pearce of Mills, who still led the individual race. "He won't do much talking from here on." Then Friday brought a change in the course and in Wake Forest's fortunes.
Par had been riddled by the collegians the first two days (the cut was 145, two strokes lower than the 36-hole total needed by the touring pros on the same course last February). So the officials moved the tees back, stretching the yardage to 7,500, and, to hear the players talk, placed every pin on an anthill. Nevertheless, Mills shot his third straight subpar round for an 11-underpar total of 205 and a three-stroke lead over Crenshaw and Pearce. But Tom Case of Wake Forest, ill and vomiting, limped home with an 84, which meant that Simons' unimpressive rounds would now have to count for Wake Forest since the four players with the best scores on each team are the ones whose rounds are added together for the team total. Suddenly the Deacons were seven strokes back and all but finished as Florida, led by Killian and freshman Gary Koch, moved one stroke ahead of Houston.
That night Crenshaw, with Texas 15 shots behind, resigned his team to defeat. "I guess we're out of it," he said, "but Mills can't hold up. Pearce is tough but I want to make All-America. I want to be the first freshman to win this thing. And I'm going to set a record."
It is said around Austin that Texas left the Southwest Conference golf league just so Gentle Ben could play in more medal tournaments than the league allows ("I might not have gone to Texas if they had stayed in," he admits) and he had already become something of a local legend, what with a bunch of 61s and two impressive appearances in the U.S. Open. And what he did the next day was magnificent.
Crenshaw's teammate Kite, all but forgotten, started the Longhorns' stampede when he began with four birdies and an eagle. Six under through five holes, he faltered a bit but still posted a 68. When William Cromwell followed with a 70, Texas was suddenly in the thick of the team battle. Now Crenshaw, mashing it for all he was worth, caught and passed Mills and turned the tournament around. It was Crenshaw against the whole NCAA now, and it seemed that all you could hear were shouts of Hook 'em, Horns. "I give him a 66," said Florida Coach Bishop as Crenshaw turned the front nine in three under. "If we shoot par, we can still beat him." Houston's Williams just stared at the ground. "I know him too well," he said. "The kid could go for 62. It's all over." And it was.
With his coach, George Hannon, and his teammates roaring him on, Crenshaw birdied 11. He dropped one from 25 feet on 13 for a birdie. Ten feet on 14: birdie. Tap-in on 15: birdie. Now Texas was in a tie for the lead with Florida. Up ahead of Crenshaw, the Gators—not knowing exactly what was happening or how to stop it—folded. They lost 10 strokes on those last two holes and fell all the way to third, with Houston second, seven shots behind Texas.
The Longhorns, eight under, became the first team in NCAA history to break par for the four rounds. But, of course, it wasn't the Longhorns who did it. It was Gentle Ben. Alone, his 273—he ended up with a 65 on the last day—was 15 under par. As he came up the last fairway the 19-year-old Crenshaw asked, jokingly, "What am I doing here?" The question required no answer. He was right where he belonged.