Down in a dark, cozy forest last week, near the end of a golf tournament with the world's longest proper name—the Liggett & Myers Inc. Tournament Players' Division U.S. Professional Match Play Championship—any spectator who took the game casually was forced to ask himself a serious question: Would he rather wander through the pines and gnats of The Country Club of North Carolina to see DeWitt Weaver go 18 with Phil Rodgers or fly out to El Paso and watch Lee Trevino's appendix scar heal?
In terms of drama and a climactic final curtain, the Carolina tournament—let's shorten it to the U.S. Match Play—didn't leave the spectators or L&M or television with much reason to tap dance and play the banjo. It had started on Wednesday with 64 top professionals on hand, including the biggest names in golf (except Trevino, of course, who was recovering from his operation, and Billy Casper, who had a virus infection). But the big names melted away and by Sunday the head-to-head tournament had worked itself down to Rodgers, a man who wore his hat brim turned down like a muni player and who hadn't won a tournament in five years, and Weaver, who had never won a tournament in seven years on the tour and who had such a deeply ingrained habit of spraying his tee shots into trees that he bore the underground nickname of Dutch Elm Blight.
Early Sunday a Southern fan pondering the prospect of Weaver meeting Rodgers for the title, and those charisma kids, Ken Still and Bruce Crampton, in a consolation match for third place, said, "Hell, Ah wish I'd gone to Southern Pines airport yesterday and watched Arnold take off. Ah'da got my money's worth." Yet everybody sort of had the feeling this might happen when plans for the tournament were announced. That was why TV backed away from it for so long and why advance ticket sales were slow. And it was certainly the reason the championship never drew many more people than normally frequent the musty old resort area of Pinehurst. Everybody knew the final match would probably pair a DeWitt Weaver and a Phil Rodgers, although the odds were probably more in favor of John Schlee fighting it out with Fred Marti. Match play does that. Wasn't Toney Penna always eliminating Ben Hogan by 10:30 a.m. on the first day of the old National PGA?
Even so, for people who truly understand and appreciate golf, particularly the fascinating mysteries of match play, this new experiment on the PGA tour was well worth following to its conclusion, right down to the last hole on the last day, when Weaver could have knocked down a dozen trees and lost a sleeve of golf balls in the waters of a big black lake without worrying too much about Rodgers catching him. It was a truly exciting event much of the week, often dramatic, at times hilarious, always frustrating, and it just might be that, forgetting the financial bath, the tournament will be more widely discussed in the months to come than anything else that happened in golf in 1971—excepting only Lee Trevino.
The sponsors—and TV and the fans, too—would have been ecstatic if Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer could have fought their way into the finals. That was what everybody hoped for on Wednesday until Ray Floyd dusted Nicklaus with a 67. Oh, well, everybody said, Palmer and Floyd won't be too bad on Sunday. Friday took care of that, when Tom Weiskopf dusted Floyd. Oh, well, everybody said, Palmer and Weiskopf won't be so bad. Saturday morning Bruce Crampton dusted Palmer. Oh, well, everybody said, Crampton and Weiskopf will be O.K. A half hour later Still had dusted Weiskopf. Oh, well, everybody said, a little weakly now, are you ready for Crampton and Rodgers? Saturday afternoon Weaver dusted Crampton. Oh, well, everybody said, what's the movie in Southern Pines?
But that's the way it goes in match play, the original competitive form of golf and in many ways the most engaging. Match play is head-to-head competition, one on one, man to man. In true match play—such as they still use in the British Amateur—two golfers try to see who can win the most holes from each other, and the man who is ahead by more holes than there are remaining on the golf course has captured the match.
The U.S. match play tournament last week, designed by PGA Commissioner Joe Dey in a noble effort to break the monotony of the tour, was not true match play, but match-medal, which is a tougher variation. There can never be a letup on the part of the man who is ahead. He can't walk to the clubhouse triumphantly if he leads his opponent by, say, six strokes with five holes to play. It is his 18-hole total against the other man's, and a six-stroke margin can change drastically in a couple of holes, what with birdies and bogeys and things like that. Match-medal play can be exhausting. As Ray Floyd said after he upset Nicklaus 67 to 69 on the first day, "I feel like I've just played a final round on Sunday trying to beat Jack for the championship. I'm mentally whipped. And I've got five more matches ahead of me, if I keep winning."
Floyd did not like the format, and he probably did the most damage to the tournament by eliminating Nicklaus so early. He also made some disparaging remarks. "The guys who play the best golf here may not win," he said, meaning those who played the best golf against par. He missed the point of the whole thing. This was never meant to be another Pensacola Open at stroke play.
Floyd also made an unfortunate wisecrack about L&M holding a Tuesday pro-am to soften its financial strain. He undiplomatically suggested that L&M shouldn't have held the pro-am, that the tournament should have had 128 players instead of 64 and that it should have started on Tuesday. "L&M will write it all off, anyhow," he was quoted as saying. "Are they going broke?"
Players with perhaps more tact than Floyd and certainly a stronger awareness of where the golf tour's $7 million in purses comes from do not greatly enjoy hearing one of their contemporaries knocking the people who put up the money the pros get rich on. "Anyone who raps a sponsor is just showing his ignorance," said Arnold Palmer, rushing to the defense of high finance. Joe Dey leveled a $200 fine on Floyd for his remarks, and on Friday, with the crowds scowling at him and cheering his opponent, Tom Weiskopf, poor Floyd lost and took leave of the tournament, much to the relief of the sponsors.
Despite Floyd's criticism, the match-play tournament was never a question of who could shoot the hottest golf over four days with par as the enemy. Palmer did just that for the first four rounds—and went home in the midst of the semifinals. Palmer played marvelous golf against Bruce Devlin, Mike Hill and Dave Eichelberger, firing rounds of 68, 68 and 69—11 under par. But it didn't matter after Saturday morning, when he could manage no better than an even-par 72 against Crampton's three-under 69. He was beaten and he was out of the tournament, a disaster that cast no more of a pall over the area than if the entire championship had been drowned out by tropical storm Doria.
Palmer had shot a 277 for four rounds, better than anyone else. Next was George Knudson with 279—and he was eliminated Saturday morning, too. Next best were Weiskopf, Lou Graham and Ken Still at 284. "Palmer won this thing as far as I'm concerned," said a spectator fiercely loyal to his hero. The two men who made the final, Weaver and Rodgers, were thrashed soundly at 72 holes by Palmer, who was nine strokes lower than the first and 12 strokes lower than the latter.
There were all sorts of jokes about this from the beginning, as the golfers tried to decide how they felt about playing head to head. Nicklaus smiled graciously after his defeat on Wednesday but said, "I played 18 in the pro-am and 18 against Raymond and didn't make a bogey, but I'm going home." When Gary Player lost his first—and only—match at the third extra hole to Homero Blancas, he said, "I've just flown 20,000 miles to make a bogey."
The familiar names of pro golf were disappearing so fast, so soon, that the big Carolina Hotel in Pinehurst, where most were staying, looked as if it were undergoing a constant evacuation. Spectators who didn't get out to the course until Thursday missed seeing not only Nicklaus and Player but Miller Barber, Frank Beard, Bert Yancey, Bob Lunn, Bobby Nichols, Don January, Bob Goalby, George Archer, Gay Brewer, Bob Rosburg, Tommy Aaron, Bruce Devlin, Tom Shaw, Bob Murphy and Dale Douglass. All lost the first day. Those who didn't get out until Friday could add Charles Coody, Doug Sanders, Mason Rudolph, Dave Hill, Larry Hinson, Lionel Hebert and Johnny Miller to the list. Those who arrived Saturday morning had to add Floyd, Julius Boros, Gene Littler, Dave Stockton, Art Wall and Gardner Dickinson.
And those who didn't make it until Saturday noon, when the big hordes usually begin to turn up for most tournaments, missed all these and Palmer, too. They did get to see Crampton, Still, Rodgers and Weaver, of course.
Yet what was left in the end on Sunday were two guys who had managed to play the best golf in the situations and conditions that faced them each day through five successive rounds, which is what match play is about. Weaver and Rodgers had survived, and that was all that mattered. Neither had been pushed to extravagant under-par figures to reach the finals. Each, in fact, had faced only one opponent who had shot as low as 72. Rodgers, who has a bit of the gabby hustler in him, like Trevino, caught Goalby shooting 77, for example, Littler 76 and Still 76. Weaver, the son of the old Texas Tech football coach of the same name and a big hitter when it goes in the right direction, had such soft touches as Sanders at 76 and Crampton at 78. Weaver shot a 77 against Crampton in a battle of catastrophes, which again was the essence of this unique tournament.
In the final match Weaver never had to worry about how many pine limbs his drives might saw off. He caught Rodgers in as horrid a round as he had caught Crampton. Phil just missed equaling the worst nine of the tournament when he went out in 41, compared to DeWitt's one-under 35. So a big bulge was opened up and Weaver's demoralizing length off the tees—which is up there with Jack Nicklaus'—weighed more and more heavily on his opponent, as it no doubt had on others during the week, particularly since he was staying in the fairways most of the time. People aren't used to seeing DeWitt Weaver drive that straight. At least not that often.
When the two reached the 10th tee, even Rodgers was laughing at what had become a laughable climax. He teed up his ball there, sat the driver behind it and said loudly, "Say hello to the clubface. You ain't seen it too much today."
By the time ABC's telecast came on the air, the competitors were at the 15th hole and Weaver had a seven-stroke lead. One imagined that Chris Schenkel might be telling his audience, "We've got plenty of action for you today, folks. We'll be going out to Latrobe to watch Arnold Palmer file down an eight-iron and then we'll take you to Palm Beach to watch Jack Nicklaus scrape his boat."
If it had been true match play, Weaver would have closed out the affair at the 13th hole 6 and 5, but this was match-medal so there was still the remote possibility that Rodgers could do unto Weaver what Casper once did unto Palmer over the last nine holes of a U.S. Open playoff. It didn't happen. Weaver played on to a fine 71, while Rodgers slogged home with his disappointing 77.
Thus DeWitt Weaver, the 44th-seeded player in the field, the superwinless nobody, came away with $35,000 and the championship of a tournament that people might learn in time to relish.
If, of course, this wasn't the first and last annual.