Apparently stars are going to keep getting born, in and around Hollywood. Norman Maine will continue to stroll into the ocean until his hat floats, while Esther Blodgett is singing herself into Vicki Lester. Now, listen, Pat Fitzsimons. You're going out on that golf course a simple nobody from Salem, Ore., but you're coming back a winner. See that town down there below Riviera Country Club? It's yours, Pat Fitzsimons. No one can stop you now, kid. Your putter is tap-dancing on destiny.
Strange things are happening this year in professional golf when Johnny Miller is not winning a tournament. They are being won by an odd assortment of individuals. A Gene Littler, coming back from an illness, for example, or a J. C. Snead in a straw hat with a famous uncle, or a Gary Groh, who had never won before. And now this 24-year-old named Pat Fitzsimons, who last week stunned a great golf course, Riviera, and the strongest field of the new season by overwhelming everybody in the Los Angeles Open.
All the more amazingly, Fitzsimons made it look as if he had been doing this sort of thing forever: going out before thousands of people and firing a course-record 64 on Saturday, and then coming back for Sunday's final round and standing up coolly, stylishly and unbendingly to a closing rush from a pack of strong players, not the least of whom was Jack (Himself) Nicklaus.
Fitzsimons, who had little to recommend him other than the fact that he had made four cuts last year and had won something like $10,000, which is what Nicklaus marks his ball with, seized control of the tournament in the third round. He held a six-stroke lead on the field going into Sunday, but that would not be very secure if, for instance, Nicklaus were to shoot a 65. Fitzsimons, like all Fitzsimonses, was odds-on to go for an 80.
"Sleeping on a six-stroke lead is like looking at a three-foot putt for about five hours, and then finally having to putt it," said Fitzsimons, trying to describe what it was like to hang on the ledge of fame all night.
All he did, however, was continue to box Riviera around. On Sunday he shot a steady one-under 70, and this gave him a 72-hole total of 275, and a four-stroke margin over Tom Kite, who shot a fine 68. Nicklaus' spectacular finish—Jack did shoot 65—gave him third place and a "victory" over Johnny Miller, for those keeping up with the Nicklaus-Miller soap opera.
Fitzsimons has shaggy red hair, wears wire-rimmed glasses and has a good golf swing. Remarkably, he did not play a single practice round at Riviera. One wondered at first why it took him three days to get from San Diego to L.A., refusing to allow himself a single glance at the tough old course until his 7:15 a.m. starting time on Thursday. Perhaps he had been playing his way up Highway 405. Actually, he had flown to New Orleans to attend a turf convention, a command performance for his sponsors on the tour, those genial folks who bring you Penncross bent.
"I had several schemes in mind," Fitzsimons said, reflecting on how he spent Saturday night with his lead. "I thought, well, I'm six up and it's match play. I thought maybe I'll just try to shoot a 74. I also thought, why don't I try to go out and attack again? What I finally decided to do was just play one shot at a time."
He did that very well. His only shaky moment came on the next-to-last hole. "For some reason I suddenly got negative on the tee," he said. "I tried to guide the ball." He drove into a terrible uphill lie in a bunker, had to waste a stroke getting out, veered off another wood shot and ultimately reached the green in four with a long wedge. He was now a delicate 20 feet downhill from the cup. You had to think he had started to panic. He could easily three-putt and then do something equally horrible on Riviera's rugged 18th hole. For the inexperienced, a four-shot lead with two holes to go is not a lock.
But wait. The putt staggered into the cup for a par. Fitzsimons had not lost a thing. In fact, he had in that second won the $30,000 first prize for sure, something he had started doing the day before when he shot the 64.
"It's a funny thing. To get in a position like this, you don't really think about the money," Fitzsimons said. "I was just sort of conscious of wanting to play well in front of so many people and on television. And I thought if I played well, I could probably win."
If Fitzsimons' incredible seven-hole explosion on Riviera Saturday made no sense, it was nevertheless typical of what these strong young guys in their mid-20s are capable of. Take 1974, for example. The low 54-hole total of the year was posted by Terry Diehl, who shot 18-under at San Antonio and went on to win for the first time. The low nine holes of the year was 29 blows, and it was shot once by Kite at Doral and again by Tom Watson at Hartford. The most birdies anyone made in a row all season was six, and Johnny Miller didn't do it. A couple of fellows named Gary McCord and Mike McCullough did, at the Crosby and Hope respectively.
Now came Patrick Craig Fitzsimons at Riviera. Golfers will tell you it's impossible to fire four birdies in a row and believe you deserve anything more from a single round. Fitzsimons ignored this. He shot those four birdies, rested with a par, then made an eagle and another birdie.
The feat deserves a bit of detailed description, for it isn't likely that seven such holes will be played on a good golf course the remainder of 1975.
Appropriately, Fitzsimons' streak began at Riviera's 6th hole, a 162-yard par-3 with the bunker set uniquely in the center of the green. Fitzsimons hit a six-iron there and holed the putt from about 13 feet.
The 7th at Riviera is a 403-yard par-4, where you have to aim so far to the left off the tee you feel as if you might end up in a Malibu beach cottage. Walking down the fairway, which slopes to the right, you have to stay hard left or you might disappear forever. Fitzsimons hit a driver, then an eight-iron 30 feet from the cup. It was a dangerous sidehill putt, and he admitted he was "only lagging," but it went in.
The 8th hole is a 362-yard par-4 and relatively unthrilling. Fitzsimons drove nicely, hit a wedge up to about 20 feet and dribbled it right in. He said, "I was kind of relaxed on that one."
Riviera's 9th comes back toward the clubhouse, at 407 yards another par-4. He drove in the rough and wedged into a front bunker. That was all right because the pin was impossible, anyway. Close up and tight. His sand shot went into the hole. On a box score it would read: no fairway, no green, birdie.
"Here's where I got pretty excited," Fitzsimons said. "I started thinking, boy, the cameras will be on in a minute."
The 10th was at last routine. Driver, wedge, two putts from 15 feet. But then came the long 11th, a 557-yard par-5. He caught the drive pretty good—and Fitzsimons was driving right up there with Watson all day, which means he has plenty of length.
What Fitzsimons removed from his bag at this point was a relic. He took out a two-wood, a brassie, that thing nobody even carries anymore. Whereupon he hit the brassie out of sight and reached the front edge of the green. The putt for the eagle was a mere 75 feet, and normally a guy only hopes to get within crawling distance of the cup from that distance. Fitzsimons' putt never left the line and dived into the hole.
The last part of the semi-miracle was the birdie at the 12th, a 408-yard par-4. He made this one the way birdies are supposed to be made. Nice drive, six-iron, five feet, good putt.
It was time now for Fitzsimons to seriously consider what he was up to, and he well might have if Watson had not done something that helped take Fitzsimons' mind off his own improbable performance. On the 13th tee Watson was four under par, and the closest challenger to Fitzsimons for the tournament lead. So Watson promptly hit two consecutive drives out of bounds and made a quadruple-bogey 8.
"I felt so sorry for Tom," Fitzsimons said. "But it was a good thing for me because it took my mind off my own round. It was weird. I only started out the round hoping to play decently to impress Watson and Kite, who are contemporaries and friends of mine. And then all of a sudden I'm winning a tournament they're supposed to be winning."
They is a lot of people these days, this whole new wave of talent which seems continually to be on the leader boards. Watson and Kite are nearly always there, even though Kite has yet to win a tournament and Watson has only last summer's Western Open to his credit. John Mahaffey and Len Thompson are others. There are also Allen Miller and Eddie Pearce and Vic Regalado. Each of them is hard at work, trying to become the Ben Crenshaw that Ben Crenshaw has not become.
It is more than possible that this group of young players is the best to hit the tour since the mid-1950s, which produced Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Gene Littler, Ken Venturi and Dow Finsterwald, among others. If these aggressive and rather irreverent newcomers reach the potential they're seeking—the Crenshaws, Watsons, Kites, Mahaffeys, Pearces, and, oh yes, Patrick Fitzsimons—the change that would occur in the tour would be fascinating indeed.
Fitzsimons' 275 tied another Riviera record, one that Ben Hogan set in 1948, back in the days when Clark Gable and Humphrey Bogart were in the gallery. Only six events still being played are older: the U.S. and British Opens, the National PGA, the Western Open, the Canadian Open and the Texas Open. Back in the 1920s it was the L.A. Open, following closely after San Antonio, that did much to give rise to what we now think of as the American tour.
Over the almost 50 years of its history, the tournament has been played on just about everything from the classiest of clubs, such as Los Angeles Country Club, Wilshire, Hillcrest and Riviera, where it returned in 1973, to the back lot of 20th Century-Fox. In the early days Riviera used to alternate with the other swells, but beginning in 1945 it was the host for nine consecutive years. Those were the days when the tournament produced a few pretty heavy winners—Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Lloyd Mangrum.
The combination of the game's best players capturing the L.A. Open at glamorous Riviera with Shirley Temple riding around in Bill Stern's sound truck did nothing to dull the luster that pro golf was developing. It was one of the few pre-TV tournaments that were broadcast nationally on radio. People could huddle by the fire at home and fantasize over Rita Hayworth and Katharine Hepburn standing under Riviera's eucalyptus trees in Jug McSpaden's gallery. They could hear Bill Stern saying, "Ben Hogan is preparing to putt, so I'll have to lower my voice," and visualize Hogan glaring at Stern and perhaps saying, "I hope that will be sometime soon."
This is part of the reason why the Los Angeles Open has regained the importance it once held. Going back to Riviera from 16 years at Rancho Park was like going from junk food to caviar. Among other things, it attracts one of the strongest fields of the year, just as if it were 1948 again and the U.S. Open were back. Last week, for example, only Hubert Green and Gary Player, among the notables, were missing.
As a test of golf Riviera has always rated among the best. It is not quite in the Merion-Pine Valley-Augusta-Pebble Beach division, but it is in there with Winged Foot, Colonial, Medinah, Seminole and a few others.
Moreover, the place still reeks with a certain sort of charm. It has something to do with the rambling clubhouse, multi-leveled, presiding over a canyon that is the golf course, and styled in what might be described as neo-Prado with a hint of silent-film-mogul. In any case, to be at Riviera is to know that you are not at any old stop on the tour, and last week no one appreciated that more than Pat Fitzsimons.