In a Texas river bottom last week professional golf tried to do something extra special with a tournament that might have been called the Colonial National Instant Designated Classic, and what was largely different about it was that for the first time in history an Indian whipped up on all the cowboys. O.K., gang, here comes Rod Curl, a real Indian. Cue the Wounded Nicklaus jokes.
Big Chief Little Name shoot many birdies. Dine on much Golden Bear. Kill white man's golf course. Buy much firewater with $50,000. That is how it turned out at Colonial when the strongest field of the year assembled on one of the country's toughest courses. A guy the pros call Little Beaver, who had never won before, went out and looked as if he had been doing it all his life, and by winning in the stretch against some heap big folks like Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Gary Player and Tom Weiskopf, he gave the game a fascinating new personality.
The white man will like Rod Curl. A dark, aggressive, talkative little fellow—only 5'5"—who slaps an abnormally long tee shot, Curl simply took charge of a tournament that most of the week had belonged in score to a methodical player named Chuck Courtney and in tone to Nicklaus.
What Rod Curl did was march out in front of the largest gallery he had ever seen, on the ruggedest course he had ever challenged, and shoot a final-round 68 to beat Nicklaus by one stroke. He even did it on television, where an Indian has never had any better chance than dirty dishes. In the moment of his victory the name of Curl's tribe seemed appropriate: Wintu. The Wintu Indians from Northern California. He is three-quarters Wintu, and the other part must be all golfer.
May 26, 1974
"Man, I was scared to death, whether I looked it or not," Curl said later. "You know how you want to play Jack Nicklaus? You want to have a six-inch, uphill putt for a birdie, and find out that Jack's just hit his fourth straight shot out of bounds."
In the heat of the final round at Colonial, Curl needed to make a 30-foot putt for a birdie instead of a six-incher. This was the birdie he made on the 16th hole that jerked him out of a three-way tie for the lead as Curl, Nicklaus and Courtney plowed toward the conclusion of the first of this year's three designated tournaments, events that will summon all of the game's top players.
The testing Colonial course slowly brought many of the game's stars to the front. Nicklaus finished second, Julius Boros fourth, Trevino fifth and Gary Player sixth. Courtney had slipped in there third, and although Chuck Courtney is not a celebrated name around golf, neither was Rod Curl until Sunday.
Not that Curl hadn't proved he could play a little in the five years he had been battling the PGA tour. Twice this year Curl had finished second, at San Diego in January and at Houston only the week before Colonial. He had come to Colonial ready, if only he knew it. And he was right there all the way. He began with a 70, shot a 67 on Friday and added a 71 on Saturday to trail Courtney by only two strokes when the last day began.
He continued to play superbly, ramming a wedge shot right at the second hole for a 1½-foot birdie and doing the same thing on the 7th for another. After still another stiff birdie at the 11th, he had a three-stroke lead.
"I told myself, 'There's no way they can catch me now,' " Curl said, "but then I started thinking, 'Well, they might.'" So he promptly bogied two holes at a time when Nicklaus made two birdies, and that is how it all came down to the last three holes. If Curl's birdie putt on the 16th hole was not the big difference, then Nicklaus' bogey at the 17th was. Jack put his tee shot in the rough. Worse still, it was sitting two inches "up," as the pros say. So he sailed his approach over the green, had an impossible chip, and was forced to settle for a bogey while Curl parred the last two holes as solidly as you please.
One of the more intriguing things about Rod Curl is that he taught himself to play golf on a nine-hole course in Redding, Calif. at the not-so-tender age of 19.
"I thought it would be a better thing to do than mess around as a construction worker," he said. "All I ever did was play games. Football and baseball in high school, and you might want to count pool. I don't know whether I was a hustler or not, but if I was, golf made me a gentleman."
Curl has some Lee Trevino in him, in looks and attitude as well as golfing skill. "Ain't this great?" he said. "First we had the Mex, then we had the black, my buddy Lee Elder. Now we got the Indian."
Colonial last week had just about anyone who understood the overlapping grip, regardless of color, because it had suddenly become a designated tournament, which meant that only death was good enough to excuse a top performer from showing. It was a command performance for anybody who is anybody on the tour, from the U.S. Open winner to the 30th man on the PGA's exemption-point list. In this sense it was perhaps the gaudiest field yet assembled. A lot of championships are strong at the top, of course, but Colonial was strong at the bottom, or all the way through. And Rod Curl furnished the proof that a guy from the tenement district is capable of winning if somebody will let him play.
In his victory interview Curl could not think of a good Indian nickname for himself. But later he returned to the Colonial press room, interrupted the writers and said, "My Indian name is Yo-So. It means Johnny Jump Up, Come From Behind Flower." What?
"Took my mother 31 years to name me, but that's it." He laughed at himself uproariously and left.
The experiment of golf's first designated tournament was a gigantic success as far as the folks around Fort Worth were concerned. Colonial Country Club was standing room only from Wednesday on. The sponsors sold everything, right down to the last packet of mustard and the final ice cube. The crowds were estimated at close to 30,000 daily and a man could believe it if he were looking for a place to sit down in the shade.
Colonial has always drawn people, even in those years when Nicklaus or Arnold Palmer chose not to appear. It is one of the older events on the tour, having begun in 1946, and it has done a good job of selling itself as "the Masters of the Southwest." But as the first of the PGA's designated tournaments for 1974, the Colonial promptly sold $150,000 worth more tickets than normal. The only problem then was whether there would be room enough to play golf.
The idea of a designated tournament came about because the PGA felt it had to do something to guarantee sponsors the kind of field they all want. The original thought was to have 15 such events, each offering at least $200,000. The players fought it, of course. A touring pro wants to pick his spots. The compromise was for three must-appear events this year and work up from there.
Colonial, Kemper and Pinehurst were selected because they had the facilities, enthusiasm and courses, and they were perhaps more deserving than some others. Likely designated tournaments in the future might be the Western Open, the L.A. Open, Doral, Heritage and the American Golf Classic. In other words, tournaments on superb courses with sponsors willing to put up the money.
The players are not certain the idea is going to work. Some of them are not even sure it is necessary. "I don't see anything wrong with the way things were," said Gary Player. "To designate certain tournaments is to downgrade others. The sponsors and the fans are educated enough that they understand you can't play every week. A lot of us try to spread ourselves around. We might skip this tournament one year, but we'll try to go back the next. I don't see any tournaments suffering from it. The crowds get bigger everywhere I go, whether Nicklaus is there or not."
But all this was a boardroom problem that the hordes in Fort Worth last week cared little about. They had Nicklaus back in town for the first time in four years, and they had everybody else, and the navels were on display, as they invariably are at Colonial. Fort Worth is one of the better girl-watching tournaments and there were parties around every corner. The whole week added up to a designated triumph.
When the crowds were not barging after Nicklaus on the course, they were spilling over the outdoor terraces of the massive Colonial clubhouse, cocktails in hand, whooping about the latest thing to parade past in a halter and cut-off Levis. One day in the downstairs bar, glass enclosed, with vistas of girls in different directions, a man leaped up with his cocktail and beat on the glass at someone outside. A particularly well-endowed young lady had appeared to take her stance by a scoreboard. The man indoors had spotted a friend of his near the young lady. When he got his friend's attention, he held up a sign he had prepared for just such an occasion. It said: TELL HER TO TURN AROUND.
One of the better parties of the week took place on Friday night. Tom Weiskopf recommended it highly. A lavish Texas-style barbecue in a ranch house on the outskirts of town. Weiskopf had gone the year before, stuffed himself with ribs and won the tournament. He was back again, along with Nicklaus, a smattering of TV types, even a few players like Lanny Wadkins who had missed the cut but didn't want to miss the party. So were no less than 100 local revelers, a grand mixture of Fort Worth society ranging from businessmen to artists—"rich hippie scum," as someone put it.
At one point the host tried to get everyone's attention on the porch of the ranch house, which overlooked downtown Fort Worth and several hundred platters of ribs. "I got to get that Ferrari moved out there on the grass," he said. "I can't get the piano on the porch, and we need to hear some singin'."
Nicklaus looked around and said, "Did I hear that right?"
The piano made it to the porch, and a black lady began doing Billie Holiday. She was the only black at the party.
"It's O.K.," she said. "Everybody thinks I'm Rose Elder."
One reason for the traditional hospitality of Colonial is because Fort Worth has some limitations in the way of entertainment for out-of-towners. There is no shortage of restaurants that serve Mexican food or calf fries, but for drinking and dancing pleasure the town seems now to be specializing in clubs that feature either twanging guitars or ladies who dance with boa constrictors. A couple of players were taken by an ad in the paper that said a lady would rise up out of a pit of vipers and do other exotic things. So they went. But the star performed without the props. A waitress explained: "Sir, she don't work with them things 'cept on weekends."
On Thursday, when the Colonial got under way, most of the snakes were holed by Hale Irwin, a few 35-footers that gave him a 65, one of the lowest rounds in the history of the tournament. It sent Irwin into a three-stroke lead, but Colonial caught up with him and sent him soaring to six-over-par by Sunday. Curl, with his 70, was back in a tie for 14th.
The course knocked a lot of the big stars out. Johnny Miller opened with a 78 and withdrew, explaining that he had a sick child. Which encouraged a member of the press corps to make the usual crack, "A 78 will give you measles every time." Arnold Palmer shot 74-73 and missed the cut. Ben Crenshaw shot 70 and then 80, and was gone. So was Wadkins—gone to the party.
The lead was then taken over by Courtney, a businesslike fellow from La Jolla who had been on the tour—and off—for 10 years without causing much excitement. He shot a 66 on Friday, one of the windiest days of a windy week, to lead Curl and Irwin by a stroke. On Saturday Courtney survived a complete loss of rhythm, hacking his way out of trouble and sinking putts for a 70 that kept him in the lead by two over Curl. Courtney even survived a bomb scare, which briefly emptied the clubhouse that afternoon. Just another Colonial thrill.
His good play earned him the wonderful opportunity of being paired in the final group with Nicklaus and Weiskopf on Sunday. Oh, fine. Nicklaus, Weiskopf, thousands of navel-flashing spectators and a $50,000 first prize. Purely routine. Of course, as it turned out, Courtney's big problem was in the threesome just ahead, where Curl was making all those birdies. When it was over, pro golf not only had a way to designate the success of a tournament, it had another first-rate attraction: old Johnny Jump Up, Come From Behind Flower himself.