Professional tournament golf eased through another period of bizarre hilarity last week and came out of it better off than anyone would ever have guessed, mainly because 21-year-old Ben Crenshaw was around to do what a lot of 21-year-olds think they would like to do—save the world. Actually, it was the World Open he saved with his sensational style and ability, almost with his very presence, down in the worshipful forests of Pinehurst, N.C.
This was a tournament with heavy pretentions from the moment it was announced, a World Open for $500,000 contested over eight rounds, 144 holes. Right away it was not only the richest championship ever staged but the longest. But also right away it was doomed to have problems, and some of them were of the kind that no one is ever going to solve. Like how do you tell Jack Nicklaus that he has to be somewhere he doesn't want to be?
Nicklaus, the golfer of the age, was not in the World Open and, as it turned out, neither were Lee Trevino or Tom Weiskopf or Johnny Miller or Tony Jacklin. As a consequence, in and around Pinehurst over the last two weeks everybody wondered which world the sponsors were talking about, especially after the event trudged along in this one, long, gigantic yawn of producing leaders through the first five rounds with such names as C. L. (Gibby) Gilbert, Allen Miller and Tom Watson.
Then came Crenshaw. He crashed onto the scene in the sixth round, shooting a seven-under 64 in a high, vicious wind on the architectural monument known as Pinehurst No. 2, and it was said that this round under those conditions was probably the best ever on a course that has felt the cleats of the game's finest players for 50 years.
November 26, 1973
Crenshaw's 64 vaulted him from 25th place and 18 strokes off the lead into a tie for second and serious contention. Suddenly the tournament took on life, for Crenshaw is a thrilling personality with devastating talent and potential.
He had come to Pinehurst fresh from a couple of remarkable performances, having already been, for three years, a most impressive amateur, one who had captured the NCAA championship at the University of Texas a record three years in a row, which is impossible, and who had taken almost every amateur tournament he had chosen to enter—the Western, Southern, Sunnehanna, Northeastern, et cetera—until he turned pro in August.
His performance in the PGA qualifying school in October was stupefying. Over the eight rounds that were required at Perdido Bay and The Dunes at Myrtle Beach, Crenshaw was 16 under par and he beat the field by 12 strokes.
After that he entered his first tournament as an official touring pro and merely won it. He took the San Antonio-Texas Open just as easy as you please. And then on to Pinehurst, looking as if he had been born for immortality. But it was asking too much for him to win the World Open, too. The experienced Miller Barber, who had been playing steadily all the way and was, incidentally, hitting the best shots of his life, was destined to grab the $100,000 first prize.
It came down to just the two of them Saturday afternoon. For a while Crenshaw and Barber were tied for the lead, but Barber closed with birdies on the 14th and 18th holes for a splendid 69. And Crenshaw, though firing a nifty 71, made a bad swing at a tee shot on the 16th hole, a par-5 he wanted to reach in two to pick up a birdie he felt he needed. The result was a bogey, and a comfortable walk home for Barber.
"It wasn't inexperience," Crenshaw said. "I know how to win tournaments. And I wasn't feeling any pressure. I was just trying to drive the ball 500 yards."
Afterward, one of those radio interview fellows rushed up to Crenshaw and said, "Guess you feel pretty proud to know that 240 players started out in this tournament and you beat all of them but one."
Ben smiled and said, "It's not as good as beating all of them, but it's sure better than being 240th."
Crenshaw took away $44,175 for his second-place finish, which happens to be more than Arnold Palmer won all year in 1958, the year Palmer got his first Masters and began pumping new enthusiasm into the sport. This gives Crenshaw total official earnings of $76,749. Not a bad figure for a guy who had to pause once during the proceedings at Pinehurst to receive a trophy for being "the collegiate golfer of the year."
How does Crenshaw like the tour so far?
"The best advice I've had was from George Low. He told me, 'Don't listen to nobody out here, including me.' I think the hardest part is gonna be missing that good Mexican food in Austin."
Corresponding with all of the gloom surrounding the early play in the World Open was the news that Joe Dey, the commissioner of the PGA tour, was finally going to resign next spring. As sports czars go, both for the PGA and the USGA, Joe Dey has ranked right up there with the NFL's Pete Rozelle. History will assuredly regard Dey as a man who did more for "the good of the game" than perhaps anyone ever. And the PGA is not going to have an easy time finding a replacement.
The job Dey is leaving has been described in a number of ways, none flattering. It has been called a "school superintendent for spoiled brats" and a "limousine driver for eccentric millionaires," the point being that the touring pros are so independent and prosperous that they are unmanageable. And there is a considerable amount of truth to that.
Proof enough was the simple fact that the U.S. Open champion (Miller), the British Open champion (Weiskopf), the PGA champion (Nicklaus), the best British player (Jacklin) and the tour's most colorful character (Trevino) did not show up for the richest championship ever staged on one of the earth's prettiest and best courses. They all had reasons for being absent, and one has to assume that if Joe Dey could not persuade them to go to Pinehurst, then no one else is going to be able to accomplish it in the future, short of using blackmail or kidnapping.
There are many aging players who would like to have the job of commissioner, although they will not publicly admit it. The only avowed candidate is a player, but not aging. He is Deane Beman, 35, who has had some business experience outside of golf. Dey likes Beman and believes him to be a bright, strong-willed fellow who just might be able to handle the task. But Dey alone is not going to make the decision about his replacement. Joe is one of five gentlemen appointed to a committee to screen candidates, other members being Bill Clarke, the president of the PGA; J. Paul Austin, a soft-drink executive and "friend of the game"; and two competitors, Lionel Hebert and Charlie Coody. Ultimately, the 10-man tournament policy board will vote on it.
Dey was in Pinehurst last week celebrating his 66th birthday, enjoying the glorious weather that finally set in and trying to save the World Open for next year, which he did after a series of compromises with Bill Maurer, the president of Diamondhead Corporation, which owns Pinehurst. Maurer is the man who put up the cash and then had "less fun than I've ever had in my life" because of the no-shows and all of the jokes about the End of the World Open.
"We tried to do something different and worthwhile for golf, and nobody cared," said Maurer with obvious bitterness. "I'll argue with anybody who says we did it strictly to sell land. We're selling all the land and condominiums that it's prudent for us to sell."
Maurer is a rather humorless fellow most of the time who appears to be all business, no nonsense, and in something of a hurry. Without question, however, he has improved the Pinehurst area without destroying the old charm. And in making the announcement that the tournament would be renewed, he displayed a flair for dark comedy that even his employees did not know existed.
Nicklaus had said it was the "time of year" that kept him away, and Weiskopf had said he already had scheduled an elk hunt, and Trevino had said he couldn't go anywhere for two whole weeks. So when Maurer went before the small band of media assembled for the World Open and Shut to inform them that next year's event would be held in September, that it would be a normal 72 holes, and that the money was coming down to $325,000, he took some aggressive delight in remarking, "I hope September is a suitable time for Nicklaus. Trevino only wants to go somewhere for a week, so we've fixed that up. I don't know what we'll do about Weiskopf. Maybe we can stake out a caribou on the first fairway."
Throughout the whole affair in Pinehurst every conversation seemed to work its way around to why—really, honestly, deep down, why—so many of the game's top stars refused to enter the tournament. And this in turn led to the larger problem of how the sport can ever guarantee a sponsor the glamour types he wants.
"The great thing about a Crenshaw is that he gives golf an instant new hero," said Maurer. "We need more. And then it won't be so important that you don't have a Nicklaus around."
The gossip was that Nicklaus and Maurer had once discussed a business opportunity, that Jack had been disenchanted with Maurer's approach to him, and this was the true explanation for Jack's absence. Both Nicklaus and Maurer deny this.
Nicklaus was saying not so long ago that he would "love" to play at Pinehurst because he likes to play nothing but "great golf courses." On the other hand, the dates were inconvenient for him; he had other commitments he could not get out of, such as the World Cup in Spain and the Disney, where he has to defend, and he had long ago scheduled these two weeks in November as a period of rest and relaxation, and that was that.
Weiskopf argued that he was emotionally "drained" after the streak he had been on—winning six tournaments and never finishing worse than sixth over a 14-tournament stretch—and he was not entering another event the rest of 1973 even though he could capture the Vardon Trophy by simply showing up somewhere. He was going on the elk hunt (with Nicklaus, as a matter of fact), and then he was going on an African safari, and then he was going to do nothing but rest up and get ready for the whole grind again after the first of the year.
Trevino was serious when he said, "Man, I can't go anywhere for two whole weeks." To know him is to believe that. Also, Lee despises playing golf in cold weather, and he suspected the weather at Pinehurst would not be to his liking. He was correct. There was ice in some of the bunkers the first week and the wind had a bite to it.
Johnny Miller had intended to enter but he withdrew with the flu, and everyone at Pinehurst accepted this as being reasonable. And, finally, Tony Jacklin has given up competing in the U.S. altogether, except for major championships, and he was not willing to leap up immediately and dash over here with the feeling that Pinehurst had created a fifth portion of the modern Grand Slam, which seems to be the goal of every new tournament.
Joe Dey will leave the office of commissioner hoping that his plan to cure the player-sponsor problem will someday be adopted. Dey wants a shorter tour in America, for one thing, and he understands as clearly as anyone else that a world tour is inevitable. "It's upon us, really," says Joe. "It just needs some thought and cooperation."
What Dey would like to see the PGA do is establish 15 or so tournaments, apart from the major championships, as "must enter" events for the stars. These would be big-money tournaments on good courses, things such as the renovated World Open at Pinehurst next summer and a Tournament Players Division championship at Atlanta Country Club—which smacks a bit of being a National PGA by another name.
The super heroes at present are all against this plan for an upper-level tour. They just do not want to be ordered to be somewhere. As Nicklaus has said, "I'm not salaried out here, so what right does anybody have to dictate my schedule?"
Joe Dey argues that the plan would help uncomplicate their lives and, in fact, give them more free time, weeks of free time they can rely on and plan for. And in doing this, Dey insists, they will be helping the game that has been so good to them. Not to forget safeguarding against the day when sponsors might become so frustrated the tour will not be the golden goose the pros have long taken for granted. Already it is possible that the 1974 prize money will be lower than 1973's.
"If a recession were to hit the tour and their backs were against the wall, the players would surely guarantee the sponsors a representative field," Dey points out. "It's for their own good and that of the game that they take the initiative when they can deal from strength. Maybe my plan isn't the best answer, but they're going to have to do something."
The best cure for whatever ails the game was obvious to the loyal hundreds who followed the World Open. He had blondish, mod hair covering his ears, a campus-hero smile, the warmth and excitement of a young Arnold Palmer, the classic swing that is seen so rarely. Ben Crenshaw has it all. As Miller Barber said, "He's the best that's come along since Nicklaus. He's gonna be the new gunner. I knew when I beat him that I'd done beat somebody."