If Joe Namath can throw for 496 yards in a single afternoon in September, what are his odds off the tee on a dog-leg par 5 in February? Or to put it another way: if Johnny Bench hits 40 home runs in one season can he sink a 12-foot putt in another? To find the answer to these and other equally meaningful sports questions, American Airlines last week took one tropical island, added the cosmetic touches of an angelic resort hotel and a devilish golf course, threw in $30,000 in prize money for seasoning and nine smiling stewardess-hostesses for spice, and invited 64 bestselling sports biggies—most of whom couldn't tell the difference between a nine- and a six-iron—to play in a little tournament. Cooked for a week, it was served up as the American Airlines Golf Classic.
The money was not that much. Del Unser and Leroy Kelly picked up $5,000 apiece on Sunday for their 54-hole victory. Jack, Lee and Arnie make that much practicing putting. But where else could you sit down to dinner and see Joe DiMaggio or Willie Mays or Johnny Unitas or Joe Namath or Johnny Bench or just about anybody else who could throw, carry, catch, hit or pass a ball in Hall of Fame style all eating the same celery as you?
While hordes turned into autograph freaks and got sun poisoning monitoring the pool for a look at a beef-cake batting average, the golf itself verged on the comic. The three-day, best-ball, net-team format was the kind of event golf pros dream up on slow weekends to help move a little merchandise. It matched teams composed of a football player and a baseball player, both usually from the same city.
A typical hole went like this: top, slice, shank, putt, putt, putt.
February 12, 1973
"What'd you have?" an onlooker asked.
"No good," the misplaced athlete answered. "Only a net eagle."
With all the handicap strokes involved, an abacus was needed to keep score. Unser and Kelly shot a total of 177 to win, 36 under par, and on Friday they had the tournament's low single round of 57.
The El Conquistador Hotel and Club is one of those absolutely sensual places where time loses its immediacy and language is no problem. Everyone speaks American Money. Normally its gambling casino, which carries much of the operation, feeds off the flow of gambling junkets from the States. Beefy guys named C.A. or R.W., guys with hoarse voices, florid faces and sunglasses, arrive with all expenses paid courtesy of the hotel, which is counting on them to try their luck at the tables.
The hotel juts out of a cliff on the northeast tip of Puerto Rico, about 45 minutes from San Juan and light-years from the continental United States. You can stand in its lobby and gaze out at azure ocean frothing on the rocks several hundred feet below. Turn toward the front door and through the legs of a sculpture of a dashing Spanish conquistador astride his horse you can drink in the beauty of the golf course sweeping down the hill in lush, green trails. In the distance are dark mountains and a tropical rain forest, adding another dimension to the pastoral scene.
To this paradise American also invited and paid the on-the-grounds expenses of 64 businessmen, all of whom belong in the Balance Sheet Hall of Fame. They were presidents and board chairmen, executive home run hitters of major companies, thrilled to be in the company of a scrambling quarterback or a hustling shortstop. Even mother nature must read box scores: for most of the week sunny skies favored the course, the temperature hovered in the high 80s and a sea breeze cooled foreheads. Still, Otto Graham confused most people by wearing a long-sleeved sweater on the course. "It's not hot out there," he insisted.
With so many colossi around, the swimming pool became center stage. The curious tried to figure whether Mike Lucci was wearing a padded chest or if he really was that muscular. They speculated as to whether Johnny Bench would actually be able to persuade the stewardesses that he needed some live-in nurses to tend the scar from his off-season lung operation. And they wondered if and when Joe Namath would show up in a monokini, an event that seemed likely to send the pink-haired matrons with orange faces into a picture-snapping frenzy. Early in the week they fluttered through one false alarm when Joe Battaglia, a New York film producer, came over the hotel in a helicopter to shoot some aerial scenes. The poolside habitués wrongly guessed that it was Namath arriving.
The pool was also the posture capital of the world for this week as everyone paraded around with depressed stomachs—the men struggling to appear no less virile than anyone else and the women pining for even just one covetous glance. One afternoon a lissome creature in a scant bathing suit, her skin roasted to well done, sauntered up to a group that included Bench, Mike Lucci, Ron Santo, Ed Podolak, Wayne Walker and assorted others whose faces are big on bubble-gum cards. She was carrying a large rock.
"Why you carryin' the rock?" someone asked.
"I'm a schoolteacher and I want to take it back to show to my kids," she answered.
The schoolmarm asked Bench if he would be so gallant as to carry her show-and-tell prize over to the bottom of some nearby steps. Off went Bench, the girl and the rock.
"Where's Johnny?" someone asked a few minutes later.
"I saw him go into that room with the schoolteacher," someone else said.
The attentive players studied the door of the room. "Go get 'em, John!" they yipped. "Go, John!" Just then a guy—the girl's boyfriend, the gallery guessed, or maybe her husband—walked up to the door, found it locked and started fumbling for his key as the ballplayers hooted. "Out the window, John!" they screeched. "Run for it!" The perplexed man got the door open and went inside to view some unknown scene.
A few minutes later the door opened again. Out came the girl. Out came Bench. "He's just a friend," the schoolteacher explained to the audience at poolside. "But I was so embarrassed when he walked in. I said to him, 'This is Johnny Bench.' And then I said, 'Johnny, this is....' You know, I couldn't remember his name."
But wholesale debauchery was mostly an illusion. The spectator-tourists liked to believe that the young girls around the resort were playing star-swapping. They relished the thought of the athletes drinking themselves into stupors and then passing out on the floor of the men's rest room (as indeed one memorable former invitee did last year). And they wanted to see celebrities spraying $100 chips around the casino.
Alas, most of the athletes were with their wives, who long ago discovered the hazards of separate vacations. And about the only evidence of that good, good alcoholic feeling came when a Bench or a Bobby Murcer or a Norm Cash would climb up on stage in the hotel nightclub and sing. For the most part they sounded like the guys at your neighborhood parties except they weren't wearing lampshades. And a lot of the professionals, especially those blessed with watchful spouses, stuck resolutely to the $1 chips, although Willie Mays hit a couple of grand-slammers one night and walked out with about $1,200.
Generally speaking, the athletes took the golf and the solemnity of the event about as seriously as they would a Fan Photo Day. They were more interested in comparing sunburns. "Look at my partner," hooted Wayne Walker, waving at Norm Cash. "His skin is so white that he looks like he lives in a coffin. I have to pull the stake out of his heart each morning before we go play."
But there were occasional zealots. "Jim Lonborg really wants to win," said Mike Lucci, shaking his head over his dedicated partner. "I don't know how to break the news to him that we got no chance. We've got no way with me playing. He's out there today playing a practice round with the greenskeeper, learning the grass. I saw 'em. He was pumped up. I said, 'How you doing?' He said, 'Great. We're three under.' I told him, 'What do you mean, we're? I'm not even playing with you.' "
Professional Golfer Dave Stockton had a busy week. Stockton, who has a working agreement with American Airlines, was present to hit a few shots and try to correct some golf swings. He went out one day and shot a 40 for nine holes and was abashed to learn that Jimmy Wynn had gone around in 39.
Stockton also informed Norm Cash that he ought to quit playing left-handed. Cash is a blithe spirit who wears cowboy boots, talks country and lives happy. Last year he shot a 32 on the first nine holes, including an eagle on the opening hole—a feat that so excited him that while hugging his partner, Walker, he spiked him in the foot, causing Walker to limp around the course the rest of the day. "I didn't even know what I was doing during that nine holes," said Cash later. "We were late teeing off and by the time we were ready to go I had had five or six drinks."
Handicaps were the subject of frequent debates. "You put down what you think you can get away with," said Cash. The golfers police themselves through a handicap committee that endeavors to keep things on a level of parity, but for the most part the committee only strengthens the impression that athletes should never be allowed to officiate their own games. Ron Santo and Willie Richardson both are on the committee, which someone said was akin to asking Bonnie and Clyde to hold your money while you went to use the telephone. "I don't even want to win," protested the genial Santo, a victor with George Andrie in the 1970 event. "I've won before. I want some of the young guys to get a chance." Moaned Lucci, "Well, why don't you play with Lonborg then so he can win? I think he's really counting on it."
Predictably, Lonborg was to be disappointed. With Lucci he finished 20 shots behind the winners at 197. "I told you so," said Lucci to Lonborg.
Unser and Kelly didn't add to the good name of the handicap committee. After their first-day 57, the two patched together a 61 and a final round of 59 for a five-stroke edge over Juan Marichal and Bruce Gossett. Unser was playing with a 16 handicap, Kelly a 22—though both blushingly admitted that they had broken 80 on past occasions. Among those muttering about the result were Jim Palmer and handicap committee member Richardson, who won the event last year. They were, at least, familiar with the problems of avarice.
Other teams had other problems. Bobby Murcer's hand ran into something early Friday morning and he had to withdraw, leaving Ed Podolak to find a new partner. And of course there was the celebrated dissolution of the Namath-Mays combination when Namath missed a wake-up call and arrived 40 minutes late at the 1st tee Friday to find a distressed and jittery Mays waiting with patience long since expended. "Say hey," said Mays, or words to that effect. "I'm not playing with him." Officials judiciously placed Mays with Donny Anderson and teamed Namath with Steve Blass. Contrite, Namath even appeared at the official tournament cocktail party later in the evening.
Bench and his partner Bob Trumpy were near the lead at four under after the first eight holes on opening day, but then a tall, blonde girl arrived. "She literally came right out of the bushes," recalled Trumpy, with wonder. "And that was the end of us. John found it pretty hard to swing a golf club with her sitting on his lap."
On the final two days of the tournament the girl stayed at poolside, drawing half the gallery from the course, and Bench and Trumpy concentrated on golf. They did better, shooting a 60 and then a 61 to finish in fifth place. "With the girl we were five under par," Trumpy noted. "Without her we were 21 under. Now I know why the coaches lock us up in hotels on the nights before a football game."