There they were, showdowning it again. Supermex versus the Gringo Kid. Captain Appendectomy meets the Mod Blond. Healing Scar against Golden Bear. In short, another chapter in the continuing saga of Lee Trevino and Jack Nicklaus, head to head for supremacy on the golf course and, with their disparate life-styles, personalities and backswings constantly intruding, another sampling of delightful incongruity.
The occasion this time was the World Series of Golf, that venerable (What? It's only 10 years old?) institution of the video waves that seems to come along every September at Forest Hills just about halftime of the Grambling-Kansas City Chiefs game. Last week, it seemed, any armchair viewer with deft fingers could have watched Nicklaus hit a wedge into the hands of Otis Taylor, who scampered in for six over the outstretched backhand of Arthur Ashe just before Trevino dropped a four-footer for the extra point.
In truth, of course, Nicklaus hit too few accurate wedges and Trevino neglected to drop enough putts to keep their match from being anything like a U.S. Open repeat. While the two stars of the game were busy staring each other down, along came that old talking fool, Charles Coody, the pride of Abilene ("Prettiest town that I've ever seen"), Texas and Augusta, to steal off with the $50,000 first prize by shooting a 68-73—141. He beat Nicklaus by a stroke, Bruce Crampton by two and an obviously rusty Trevino by five.
The World Series of Golf is a noteworthy event each autumn if only because it is as good a warning as there is to all of those concerned about the ultimate control television is gaining over sport. Golf, of course, was way ahead of Hollywood in introducing "Made for TV" dramas. First, there were those filmed matches in Yucatan and Samoa and places like that with Gene Sarazen interviewing the Abominable Snowman. Then, in 1962, the Firestone Country Club and NBC decided to bring together the winners of the four major championships—the Masters, PGA, U.S. and British opens—and play a live 36-hole tournament in Akron.
September 19, 1971
Nobody will ever know whether the World Series would have been born if the winners of those titles that year had been named Winken, Blinken and Nod instead of Nicklaus, Palmer and Player. No matter. They were The Big Three at the time and most people assumed they would meet in the World Series forever. Though the triumvirate has a combined record of 13 appearances in the tournament since its beginning, 1962 was the first and last time they qualified together. Indeed, the World Series has had some slow moments of late due to a lack of glamour names—people such as Orville Moody and George Archer started winning major titles and showing up at Akron. Still, it can count on Nicklaus, who qualifies practically every year, and Palmer, who flies over from Latrobe to walk down the fairways with marvelous metal TV things sticking out of his head. These enable him simultaneously to comment on the play and look like a character out of Sesame Street. Arnie Antenna, Big Bird might call him.
This year's World Series seemed perfectly planned for drama and high intrigue, with the cast a nice blend. Here was Nicklaus, the leading man who, hopeful of a Grand Slam at the beginning of the year, had won only the PGA despite brave efforts in the other big ones (he finished in the top five each time). Also Trevino, the character actor who had thrown a rubber snake at Nicklaus and then defeated him in their Open playoff at Merion, after which he took the Canadian and British opens within the month before succumbing to appendicitis.
And Coody, the tall Texan of whom Don Rickles once said, "He's O.K., if your dog died and you need a sheriff," but who is no joke with his long irons and deadly short game. Finally Crampton, the dour Australian. The foreign-intrigue element, the villain. He is the man who qualified by winning the Western Open and who, in personality and disposition—according to some of his touring brethren—could give Attila the Hun two a side.
What would happen? Would Lee throw Jack a rubber snake in the rubber city? Would Lee throw Jack a cotton-mouth, water-moccasin real snake? Would Jack strangle in the huge collar of one of his great new shirts? Would Coody bury the dog? Would Crampton eat everybody?
What actually took place was none of these, along with mostly unexciting golf. But the anticipation was always there. Nicklaus has played Firestone's "Monster" South Course impeccably since turning pro. In nine appearances in the American Golf Classic there he has been out of the top six only once and he has won the World Series four of the six years he has played in it. In all, he has earned more than $288,000 at Akron. And he wanted to win again, badly. "It's not a major event and it's not the money," he said. "It's just that I'm here. I have a better record than the others. I feel like I should win. And...I don't like to lose. Especially, I don't want to lose to Lee."
For his part, Trevino had worked hard on his game since his appendectomy. Supermex is hot after all sorts of medals, trophies, belts and year-end honors and he felt a win at Akron would "put the icing on the cake." Last week he kept asking about Vida Blue. "What's Blue doin' now, what's he up to?" Lee would ask. "He's the only one close to me. He was way ahead, but his changeup hurts him. The cat's goin' backwards now. If I can win me some money, the Mex has got the Vida."
At times during the two days, Nicklaus played as if he expected one of Trevino's snakes to come thrashing after him at any moment. Trevino himself looked as if he were swinging at a Vida Blue changeup. Though he birdied the first two holes on Saturday, he ran into difficulty and lost the fairway so regularly that one man in the gallery called out: "Hey look, it's Tree Levino."
If Trevino was never truly in contention, Nicklaus and Crampton were, right up to the final hole. After trailing Coody by three strokes the first day, Nicklaus made an eagle to Coody's double bogey on the 2nd hole Sunday, and suddenly it was even. Two holes later he took the lead, but Coody was back in front again at the turn. Crampton kept pecking away and when he made birdies at 16 and 17, he was tied with Nicklaus, one stroke behind Coody. But the Masters champion, faced with a delicate wedge from the rough at 18, gunned it close like a sheriff should and claimed the $50,000 reward.
Yet it was not Coody's win but an incident on the 13th hole on Saturday that somehow epitomized this World Series.
Television instructs the players to wear the same colors each day—for spotting purposes—including Friday when they run through a practice round; "rehearsal" to the TV people. At that time stopwatches are used, interviews are conducted and everything is turned out just so. On Saturday, however, at the 13th hole, just as Trevino was addressing a wedge shot, Don Higley, the TV coordinator whose job it is to keep track of the pace of the play and to communicate with the NBC "men in the booth" by walkie-talkie, suddenly ran at Trevino calling to him to "stop, stop, we're not on the air." Lee backed off the ball and slammed down his wedge in disgust. When the cameras were ready, Trevino half-shanked the shot and bogeyed the hole.
NBC later explained that Higley's instructions, garbled in the transmission, were to wait for Trevino to hit and then to hold up the other players for a station break. It is doubtful whether the interruption had as much bearing on his score as Lee insisted ("I didn't hit another good shot the rest of the way"). But Higley's frantic manner in commanding the golfers when to hit and, especially, his attitude in analyzing the incident later left much to be desired.
Lee Trevino acknowledged that "without TV we'd all be on vacation. I'd be willing to wait anytime but I was just about to pull the trigger. After all, this is still a golf tournament. Isn't my game the most important thing there?"
"No," said Higley, when asked the same question later. "I had to weigh the risk of upsetting all of Lee's TV fans who would miss the shot or risk upsetting Lee. The decision was important. Maybe I chose wrong."
Obviously so. Then again, what does Tree Levino know?