Normally on a slightly clear day at Riviera Country Club, in a kind of exotic land called Pacific Palisades, you can look down from one of the overhanging verandas of the clubhouse and see Glen Campbell's golf cart or a barranca where your golf ball might be heading. And if you glance to one side, you can see a layer of exhaust fumes protecting the ocean from the evils of sunlight. But last week, as another fat and happy PGA tour got started, things weren't normal. For one, the Los Angeles Open was back at Riviera instead of on the junk-food strip of Pico Boulevard, and there was heaven-sent cool and clear weather that revealed sailboats, islands and mountains. Also, for much of the tournament at least, you could gaze upon another equally rare sight—a 60-year-old man shooting sub-par scores with a putting technique that made him look as if he were paddling his boat to a spot where the catfish were biting.
It wasn't in the script, alas, that Sam Snead could hold on and go ahead and win the same tournament he had first won almost 30 years ago amid the same eucalypti of Riviera—the winning of the Glen Campbell Los Angeles Open was left to a mere 39-year-old, Rod Funseth—but Snead succeeded in so dominating the event that people must have started wondering whether golf, as athletic fare, might not fall somewhere between backgammon and country dining.
For a whole week, or right up until Sunday's finish, Snead was the best golfer in town, shooting rounds of 64 and 68 in pro-am events and then a couple of 70s and another 68 in the tournament proper, always putting with that style he describes as the sidewinder.
It was Arnold Palmer who best put Sam in perspective. "I'm wearing glasses and not hearing so good at times," said Arnold, "and there's Sam hitting the same old great shots. Who even wants to play that good when you're 60?"
January 15, 1973
In some ways the most marvelous thing about Snead's performance was not his age but that hilarious putting stroke. Since there are not likely to be any instruction books written on it, here's the way it goes. Use a regular putter of any kind. Put the head down on the ground behind the ball to the right of the toes of your shoes, so that you're standing behind the ball. Grip the club at the top with one hand and slide your other hand down the shaft as if you're using a tape measure. Hold on firmly. Take the club back. Poke at the ball without falling forward. "I had to do something," Sam confessed last week. "On the short ones, when I tried to putt normal, I'd catch myself hitting the ball twice, and I was losing too many bets."
They call this nerves, of course, and nerves were what finally caught up with Snead on Sunday, when the event turned into a hardly thrilling contest between Funseth and Don Bies, but Sam had certainly proved that if you just want to go out and play some golf, a golden oldie who has preserved himself can still move the ball around as well as anybody.
Snead began the last round only one stroke behind Funseth, who had assumed the tournament lead with a record 65 on Saturday. The entire gallery was pulling for Sam, especially since Funseth had announced that he probably would not win because he rarely ever does. "What I usually do after a 65 is go back to my normal 76," he said good-naturedly.
It was quickly evident, however, that Riviera on Sunday was going to yield only to the younger men. Snead bogeyed three holes on the front nine and thus joined Jack Nicklaus, Bruce Devlin and a few other challengers in the category known as out-of-contention. This left the first tournament of 1973 to three barely-knowns—Funseth, Bies, David Graham.
Bies, who likes to think of himself primarily as a club professional, birdied four of the first five holes and passed Funseth to become the new leader, but then, as the cynics in residence were thinking up funnies like "Things were a lot different around here when Don Bies was alive," Bies double-bogeyed the 7th hole and Funseth made a couple of birdies, giving him a two-shot lead going into the last nine. Back there he did something he had not done in seven years and something he had done only one other time in his life. He won a golf tournament. In fact, Rod Funseth, who has an easy, flattened-out type of swing and looks like the nice, wavy-haired guy who sold you a Pontiac, won with, to him, mystifying ease. He simply parred every hole on the back nine, hitting shots safely out of a rough that was more like a smooth and onto the soft greens, conditions that made Riviera play less ruggedly than usual.
Funseth did not shoot the 76 he had predicted, he shot a fine 69 for a 276 total to wind up three strokes ahead of Bies, Graham, Tom Weiskopf and Dave Hill, all of whom tied for second. At the last hole Snead sidewinded a nice putt for a par and a closing 73, which was perhaps predictable, but everybody had to admit that a tie for seventh place wasn't bad for a guy who was too old to be doing that.
"I must be a better player than I think I am," Funseth said. "Otherwise none of this makes sense."
Funseth earned $27,000 for his first tour victory since the 1965 Phoenix Open, and there is a lot more out there waiting for him. In 1973 the PGA tour will offer more than $8 million in prize money, up half a million from last year. Essentially, this sum will be available to a rather exclusive group of about 100 fellows who happen to be the approved tournament players and are exempt from having to qualify for the 45 events on the new calendar.
Think about that for a minute. Eight million bucks for 100 guys who can play golf. It must astound the 100 best sink fixers or the 100 best tire changers or the 100 best fry cooks in the country.
Every year when the tour begins in Los Angeles the money is bigger and the itinerary as exotic. The pros travel from California to Hawaii to the Florida wonderlands, all over the East and Midwest, back to the South and over and out, with sunshine, country clubs and heaps of cash at every stop.
And when it seems to the oldtimers that perhaps the thing has peaked financially, along comes a year like this one in which no fewer than 20 tournaments raised their purses, some by as much as $75,000, and, to top it all off, a bunch of golf nuts in Pinehurst, N.C. decided to give away half a million in a single event to be played over two weekends in mid-November.
This 144-hole extravaganza is called the World Open Golf Championship and the winner gets the unprecedented sum of $100,000. It is hard to imagine the tournament paying for itself, but that is not the point. The Diamondhead Corporation, which purchased the old relic of Pinehurst a few years ago and is in the process of rehabilitating it as a resort and "the cradle of American golf," is putting up the money but is mainly interested in selling lots.
As a side benefit, this real estate promotion gimmick will bring to the tour another of the country's great courses, Pinehurst No. 2, just as the tour took on luster when the Los Angeles Open returned to Riviera last week.
"I don't know what to say about it," said Lanny Wadkins, one of pro golf's new stars. "I knew it would be good out here but I never thought there'd be anything like this. For the tour to pick up a half-million tournament and have it be at a place like Pinehurst is like a dream." That it is.
Along with the sumptuous new event, the tour will be a little more orderly this year. For example, the first eight stops take care of all the celebrity types, these being the Glen Campbells, Dean Martins, Bing Crosbys, Bob Hopes, Andy Williamses and Jackie Gleasons who lend their names to events.
Then come the other five Florida tournaments leading up to and following the Masters. In late April and May comes the usual three-event swing through Dallas, Houston and Fort Worth. By this time the lush courses in the East and Midwest will be ready and 1973 will find both the U.S. Open and the PGA Championship on classic oldies—Oakmont and Canterbury in Pittsburgh and Cleveland respectively.
Moreover, a number of tournaments get better dates. The American Golf Classic at Akron finally got out of late summer and into June. The Canadian Open is no longer back to back with the British Open and will be played in late July. The Heritage Classic on Hilton Head Island got away from Thanksgiving and into a mid-September slot, where it hopes to get an airing on TV. Milwaukee won't be going head to head with the British Open anymore, the Robinson Classic taking those dates, believing them to be infinitely better than the ones it had in the fall.
Along with increased purses and a more sensible schedule, however, there is one sad change—the partnership event at Laurel Valley was canceled. The tour thereby loses both a unique format and a fine course.
Los Angeles was a perfect time and place for the PGA to announce the new package. With Riviera furnishing the surroundings, the L.A. Open fairly reeked with class as well as with nostalgia for the days when most tournaments were held on good layouts. On top of that came the cool, clear weather.
Riviera, which is situated on a wooded bluff not terribly far from the delights of Beverly Hills, has been one of the marvelous, rugged tests, falling into the category of courses that includes Oakland Hills, Pebble Beach, Oakmont, Colonial, Pinehurst, Augusta and Merion. It is an old-fashioned layout in that its greens are fairly small and the bunkering is, in places, dramatically severe. This, together with more than 7,000 yards of length, groves of tall eucalyptus and the notorious Riviera barranca, gives the course great character.
Everywhere you turn Riviera has atmosphere, from the enormous clubhouse done in a style that might best be described as neo-Prado, to a par 3 (the 6th) that has a bunker in the middle of the green, to that barranca crawling across the fairways, to the steep slope called Cardiac Hill leading to the clubhouse.
And then there's the history. Riviera was Hogan's Alley, so named because Ben won a couple of L.A. Opens there and then took the U.S. Open on it in 1948, all in the space of 18 months. Riviera was also where Hogan made his comeback after his automobile accident in 1950, limping along to tie Sam Snead for the title, only to lose the playoff in his first competitive try after months of battling death and lameness.
Last week there was no Hogan at Riviera nor any camera crews filming segments of Follow the Sun, but wondrous Sam was on hand. Here was a man who had won the L.A. Open in 1945 and had not returned to Riviera in 23 years. Here was a 60-year-old, for God's sake, going out there and shooting under par day after day after day. He has lost 25 yards from his tee shots through the years—and put about 25 pounds on his waist—but he looked unmistakably like Snead and he claimed to feel better than ever, even as he sidewinded those putts like an aging curler.
"I've still got 20-20 vision," he said, sitting in the clubhouse, and he proved it by reading some fine print across a grill room that younger men would have had to crawl up to in order to decipher. "It's just the yips that make me putt like I do."
Smoking and drinking have never been among Sam's habits, except for an occasional beer. He was asked if that might have anything to do with his secret for good health and continued birdies.
"I've never thought about it," he said, "but I've never thought about my age, either. I just keep playing golf and feeling good."
Snead did confess that he had smoked twice in his life. "I did some cigarette commercials once," he said. "I had to pose with those nasty things in my mouth and even drag on 'em for pictures."
Did he feel silly doing commercials for something he would never use? Did that tell him anything about America?
"They paid me," Sam laughed. "That's all I know."
Arnold Palmer knew Snead's secret even if Sam didn't.
"It's very simple," said Arnold, shaking his head. "Snead's an absolute total freak."