In the land of the fake waterfall, the creeping condominium and the orange bouffant wig—good old Rancho La Costa—golf's royalty held its annual reunion last week, the Tournament of Nicklauses. Jack was there, of course, and so were Johnny, Tom, Lee, Lanny, Ben—the whole gang. And, as it sometimes happens, there was one fellow in it who looked as out of place as a guy hanging around on the terraces without a brushed-denim body suit or a pair of white shoes. Sam. No, not Snead, Adams. Sam Adams may well have been the most obscure player ever to have hung around that sumptuous spa for a few days, but he was giddy with excitement all the way because he got to play four full rounds of golf for a change. Sam is usually COD by Friday evening.
The Tournament of Champions is such a select event—it is available only to those pros who have won a trophy over the previous calendar year, and therefore attracts a field of only 25 or so competitors—that everybody is allowed to play the full 72 holes. No cut, in other words. This was a new experience for Sam Adams, who has developed a habit of playing golf on Thursday and Friday and then driving down the highway on Saturday.
For a man who has actually won a professional tournament, Sam Adams has become the cut-missing king of the universe, and a left-handed one at that. He arrived at the Tournament of Champions courtesy of a victory last September in the Quad Cities Open and a lot of happy motoring. Quad Cities attracted the attention of just about everyone in Bettendorf and Davenport, Iowa, along with Moline and Rock Island, Ill. It was such a historic golfing event that the PGA promptly moved it up against the British Open this July, ensuring that even if Sam Adams wins it again he will remain as much a part of the game's non-elite as he was all last week amid the glitter of La Costa's T of C.
"I've heard all the jokes, and they don't bother me," he said one day during the tournament. He was sitting in the sprawling La Costa bar, sipping his favorite beverage, ice water. And he was explaining what a Sam Adams was.
May 5, 1974
A Sam Adams is a 23-year-old guy from Boone, N.C. who started playing golf left-handed before he realized the mistake he was making. He is a natural righthander when it comes to eating and writing letters.
"I can play right-handed," Sam said, "but not as well. That's kind of funny, isn't it? I'm not real sure I can play golf left-handed at the moment."
He has a point. The record shows that Sam Adams, since winning the Bettendorf, Davenport, Moline and Rock Island Open, has made exactly one cut out of 13 tries. One. It was at the Heritage in March and it earned him $325. That, plus the gratuitous $1,200 given to anyone who turns up at the Masters, was all he had earned in the seven months between Quad Cities and La Costa, where all he had to do was finish last to pick up $3,000.
"I've got a great wife," said Sam. "She doesn't start packing the bags on Friday morning."
Sam Adams has managed to retain his sense of humor through all of his terrible golfing troubles because he is a genuinely nice guy who says he doesn't need the game; he just happens to like it; he just happened to think he could play.
He grew up in the resort area of Boone, in the North Carolina mountains, without having to scratch and hustle for a living. His father is a well-to-do banker, and Sam knows he can go into banking, or become a club pro, if he has to. His exemption on the tour expires Sept. 30, and if he keeps missing cuts and wondering if he ought to go on tranquilizers to live with it—as a doctor recommended to him—he will probably take leave of the circuit as quietly as he joined it.
"My problem is, I think I can play this game," he said. "I'm not awed by any of it. I never was. I'm not that kind of person. When I was winning at Quad Cities, I felt like I was supposed to win, not that I was supposed to lose."
At Quad Cities he startled the field by shooting back-to-back 64s in the second and third rounds. And then on the last day when better-known players like Bob Goalby and Dave Stockton were taking a run at him, he birdied two of the final three holes and won by three strokes.
"All of a sudden, I was part of the tour," he said. "Once you become a tournament winner you get paired with other tournament winners, and I guess I wasn't prepared for it. It's been exciting to play with Nicklaus and Palmer, but I've found myself trying to hide and stay out of their way instead of trying to play golf. That's been part of my problem."
Sam has dark blond crinkly hair that spreads out in the wind and makes him look like an alternate on the British Walker Cup team. But he smiles constantly and he has the accent and good-naturedness of a happy Southerner.
He knows all of the "names" on the tour, and they have all befriended him. Some have even tried to help him. Like Nicklaus. "I asked Jack what was wrong with me," Sam said. "I told him he was the greatest who ever jacked it up, and I'd like some advice. He told me to separate my hands from my hips. That's helped me recently. What he meant was, you've got to lead the swing with your hips."
Adams has a sponsor who is not getting restless, he says, a citrus broker from Florida who can use the deductions of Sam's expenses. He has little else, but it does not bother him. Izod furnishes him some clothes but no money. He bought the set of Hogan clubs he uses, and sometimes somebody gives him gloves. He drives a Cadillac from one tournament to the next while his wife Jackie studies the road map.
Sam occasionally flies, as he did last week, but he enjoys driving and sightseeing and listening to the radio to find out who won the tournament he has just missed the cut in. He probably enters more tournaments than anyone on the tour, last year playing in a whopping 36 events.
Sam's routine at La Costa was pretty much the same as it is everywhere he turns up. The highlight of his social life during the tournament came when Hubert Green and his wife Judi invited Sam and Jackie to join them for dinner in one of La Costa's informal restaurants. Sam wore a tie, anyway. Sam and Jackie also attended two cocktail parties on the premises, and drank their ginger ale. "Those hors d'oeuvres were something else," Sam said.
He thought the T of C was one of the best tournaments he had ever been to. Officials met him at the airport when he arrived, just as they would a Nicklaus, and they gave him a sport coat and an umbrella. And they provided him with a courtesy car in case he might want to go somewhere off the campus.
"They really do a good job," he said. "We liked having the car because we got to go somewhere else for dinner." On at least two different nights Sam and Jackie went alone to the same restaurant in La Jolla, Chuck's Steak House.
Sam insists his life on the tour is not lonely. He has a good friend in Don Iverson. The Adamses and the Iversons spend a lot of time together around Holiday Inns. He and Jackie go to a lot of movies, and Jackie likes shopping and sight-seeing.
In the past the Tournament of Champions has had its share of Sam Adamses and they have usually distinguished themselves with some of the highest scores of the week. Only last year there was Bob Shaw, who had qualified because of a win at Tallahassee. Shaw shot 302 and finished last. In 1971 Bill Garrett, who had qualified because of a victory at Coral Springs, Fla., shot an 83 in one round, a tournament record, and he, too, finished last with a 317 total. And there have been others: John Barnum in 1963, Dick Hart in 1965 and John McMullin in 1959. In 1956, Max Evans played one round and withdrew.
Sam Adams did better than most of them. He began in typical fashion, shooting a 77 to trail the field, and he had another 77 at the finish, but in between he posted 72-73, creditable scores that enabled him to pass one man, a guy named Lee Trevino. So Sam Adams was not last, but he definitely was not first, either. That honor went to Johnny Miller for the fifth time this year, raising his season earnings to $192,877, or about $188,000 more than Adams. Still, Sam was not complaining. All in all, it had been a good week.