On the first day of play the high-priced foursome reached the 13th tee, and there they were told they would have to wait for a while. NBC's baseball Game of the Week, the Cubs vs. the Cardinals, was still in the ninth inning and, until it was over, action in the World Series of Golf would come to a halt. The network's cameras remained poised, ready.
"Tell whoever's pitching to hurry up and pitch so we can get going," said Jack Nicklaus to a network official who carried a walkie-talkie.
"Hey, Jack, I'm wearing a pair of your slacks," put in a voice from the crowd, enriching the already pervasive climate of casually ragged disinterest. "Have you got time to do a commercial?"
Despite ingredients that are invariably prime stuff, the World Series of Golf continues to be a sporting enigma, a spectacle whose time somehow seems to have come and gone, or perhaps never came at all. Once again last week the event, which for 12 years has thrust together in a precisely television-shaped, two-day, 36-hole face-off the winners of golf's four major championships, was loaded with potential excitement—and produced barely stifled yawns.
The most resourceful producer could hardly have lined up a more interesting cast of characters. Here were Tommy Aaron, golf's Mr. Also-Ran until he won the Masters at Augusta this spring; brisk, blond young Johnny Miller, whose electrifying final-round 63 had brought him the U.S. Open; Tom Weiskopf, who climaxed an incredible summer hot streak with the British Open title; and of course, Nicklaus, the old reliable himself, making his ninth appearance in the series. As Miller put it, the contest was three World Series rookies vs. Mr. Invincible. And the course was one of golf's finest, the long and demanding Firestone Country Club in Akron.
Yet, when Weiskopf had fashioned a two-round score of 137 to earn the winner's check of $50,000 by a three-shot margin over Nicklaus and Miller, when the television cables and cameras had been folded up and hauled off, and the gallery of some 6,000 had faded away with the setting sun, what remained for the record books was an exhibition containing about as much significance for golf or golfers as a big fat divot.
"It's hard to say exactly what's wrong," said Nicklaus before this year's show began. "It certainly has the perfect format. It's played on a very fine golf course. But it has just never evolved, it has never been accepted by the public for what it should have been, a true test of who is the best golfer of the year."
Nicklaus had sought seclusion in the locker room after completing only nine holes of his Friday practice round. An infected finger had required potent antibiotic injections, and muscular Jack was feeling weak and washed-out. "There was no way I wanted to play another nine holes," he said. "I didn't even want to play the first nine." Then he added, "But if this really meant something, you can bet I would have finished out even if my hand was falling off."
What should be done? Keep up with inflation by raising the winner's purse to, say, $100,000? Keep up with Women's Lib by bringing in a champion from the women's tour and letting her play from the short tees?
"No," said the man who had won the Series four times and taken $252,000 out of Akron. "It's got to be moved around the country, not played on the same course every year. Firestone is already overexposed from another annual tournament and an annual network television series. I certainly don't want to malign Firestone, it's a very good course, but this World Series should shift every year. That way, I think, you could revive the excitement and the atmosphere it needs and make it a real tournament instead of just a TV show."
Jack's three opponents also seemed infected with ennui. Before a gallery of a few hundred spectators they trudged through the last nine holes of the practice round without him. Afterward, at a postpractice interview, the atmosphere in the press tent did not crackle with suspense. The major question seemed to be whether all four players would lay their heads down on the table in front of them and fall fast asleep. Almost, but not quite, it turned out. Miller, having shot an excellent four-under-par 66, showed all the jubilation of an eight-over shooter.
"Maybe I'm just speaking for myself, but I think we all get pretty tired about this time of year," he said, plopping his forehead into a cupped hand in a mock gesture of fatigue. "We've played the four big ones and after the PGA we're drained. That's probably why no one ever rips this course apart during the World Series."
Aaron and Weiskopf and Nicklaus certainly looked bloodless and glassy-eyed, too, but they struggled to emit encouraging noises. "Oh, yes, I'll be trying hard to win," said Nicklaus. "In fact, for some reason I feel even more desire than usual." Jack, however, could elaborate no further on why he felt this way.
"Yes, yes, I wouldn't be here if I didn't think I could win," said Weiskopf, propped in his chair as if he feared top pling over. "In fact, maybe my being here for the first time will give me more incentive to win than Jack. He's played in this so often." No one seemed particularly impressed at this assessment of the situation and even Tom looked doubtful.
"I don't mind being considered the underdog," murmured Aaron, whose play since last April's Masters has gone from good to bad to yecch, and who maintained this tempo with a dismal practice round of 74. But Tommy, at least, strode off to the practice tee for a 90-minute workout. It attracted a gallery of seven.
Nothing that occurred during the first official round next day disproved the notion that these usually keen golfing minds were thinking about something else: the UCLA-Nebraska football game, perhaps, or how to get out of town quick. Drives sprayed, patches of rough and clouds of sand flew as if the foursome had been drawn from Firestone members exclusively. Weiskopf spun dizzyingly from bogey and double-bogey to birdie. When he birdied the 225-yard par-3 seventh, even Nicklaus expressed pleasure. "I'm glad you did that," said Jack to Tom. "I was beginning to think we might lose you after the ninth hole."
On the 13th, after the cameras had finally switched on for real, Weiskopf socked his drive far to the right of the fairway, where it rolled behind a tree. Perhaps bored, tired, vexed at the delay or annoyed by a course that has never been high on his popularity chart, Weiskopf glowered and snapped: "Another one of my favorite holes."
The scrambling, the bogeys and the grumbling continued right to the finish, with the day's only real bit of interest occurring at the 16th hole, a safari-length par-5 of 625 yards with a pond fronting the green. After two monstrously long strokes Nicklaus inexplicably flipped a short wedge shot into the mucky embankment on the green side of the pond. As Jack dramatically removed a shoe, pulled a pair of waterproof pants over his lime green slacks, put the shoe back on for better traction and then, half in and half out of the water, blasted his ball out of the mud and onto the green, the spectators uttered their loudest roar of the day. It may not have been good golf, but at least it was good show biz. Nonetheless, Jack bogeyed while Weiskopf birdied, and the two finished the first round with 71s. Miller trailed at 73, and Aaron had a fat 76.
The four emerged from the ordeal subdued and ever so slightly apologetic. "We played medium-lousy to lousy," summarized Jack, "but not as bad as we looked. The course was playing tough."
Perhaps Weiskopf had the most logical explanation. A 71 is no disaster at Firestone, but he, like the rest, had been wild and sloppy. "Maybe I haven't practiced enough for this," he said. "Maybe it's a natural letdown. Maybe I'm just not putting enough thought into it."
The next day at least three of them did put more thought into it. Nicklaus had a 69, and Miller a 67. But Weiskopf's 66 proved him the deepest and most profitable thinker of all.