Pro golf was playing the name game last week. The question was: How do you create a major championship? The Galloping Gourmet says you take succulent ingredients like diced Nicklaus and chopped Palmer, a head of rich prize money and a golf course stronger than garlic. Add such condiments as blazers and armbands, mix well and simmer for 40 years on a back burner. When done, the dish serves the world.
The trouble is that golf is trying to make a banquet out of a frozen TV dinner. Stripped of its adornment, what Al Geiberger won was a big-money tournament over a strong field on a tough course. The event was the Tournament Players Championship, something golf's hierarchy hopes to squeeze onto the major-status plateau of the Masters, the U.S. and British Opens and the PGA.
Usually the pro tour virtually ends with Jack Nicklaus winning or losing the PGA in early August. True, there might be a World Open or Walt Disney team championship to maintain sales of graphite drivers for the rest of the season, but for the most part the top players make personal appearances in Japanese drugstores or practice getting out of Istanbul sand traps for the final months of the year.
The guest list for last week's tournament was one that even Truman Capote might envy. Everyone was there except Johnny Miller, who was home nursing a sore wrist suffered when he hit the first practice ball of his career. And the course was ready—the Colonial Country Club in Fort Worth is so tough you feel like the settlers did when the Indians were circling the wagon train—but there are a few built-in weaknesses. For instance, the name is a loser. TPC sounds like a gasoline additive. And while Colonial was a good choice, last year the TPC was held at the Atlanta Country Club and next February it will be staged at Inverrary in Lauderhill, Fla. Both courses are of the housing-development variety. "You don't have a major championship on a course where someone's picture window is out of bounds," said one player. Also, you don't have a Wednesday pro-am, which the TPC does. Of course, time will be the final judge. After all, Bobby Jones never thought in 1934 that the ponds at Augusta National would have to be dyed blue for television.
Before the TPC began, interest focused on Nicklaus, who won last year's inaugural event. Nicklaus can't be called the General Motors of the sport anymore, because he has had a much better year than GM. Up to last week he had played in 14 tournaments. He won four and finished in the top 10 all but once. In fact, he missed the grand slam by a total of three strokes. Surprisingly, Nicklaus has never won at Colonial, a course that asks you to tickle it rather than twist its arm behind its back. The fairways and greens are small and guarded by all sorts of water and agriculture, and this year the rough was so high it almost buried the concession stands.
Colonial would seem to suit a golfer like Gary Player, except that the South African is quietly going about having the type of unobtrusive season he had when he used clubs with fiber-glass shafts. Player's best finish in a major championship this year was a tie for 30th in the Masters.
None of the other big names appeared ready to dominate. Tom Weiskopf, like Nicklaus, didn't seem to have the game for Colonial, even though he won there in 1973. But that was the only time he has finished in the top 10 on the course. And Lee Trevino said that every time he picks up his putter, it feels different in his hands.
That left people such as Gene Littler, who is having the best year of his career, although not even his wife may have noticed. Littler, like Geiberger and Lou Graham, can carry his golf bag through a crowd of fans and not get a hello. He has won three tournaments and close to $170,000 on the tour this season, and rarely has to sign autographs. He goes about his work like a man who never heard of a hook or a slice, and with his fluid swing, he probably hasn't.
Geiberger won the 1966 PGA and became the peanut-butter man because he munched on sandwiches he kept in his golf bag to bolster his blood sugar. But then his game began to erode. From 1969 until 1971, bothered by poor health, he finished 65th, 91st and 99th on the money list before he regained his touch. Last year he won a tournament and $91,000, and this season he won the Tournament of Champions. He has a reputation among the players of being a leader whose hands don't sweat, and his strongest expletive is a sigh. He walks along tipping his hat as he makes birdies and pars. Wednesday at Colonial he tied the course record of 63 in the pro-am, and then apologized to his peers in the locker room because he knew that miffed tournament officials would play hide-and-seek with the pins on Thursday.
The course was playing easier, which was like saying a shark's bite will not hurt as much if he is not hungry. The Colonial National Invitation usually is staged during the spring, when a brisk wind swirls over the grounds. The greens are hard then, too, but last week they had to be kept soft and watered because Fort Worth in August is a whole lot hot. The temperature was in the high 90s most of the week, and it was humid. On Thursday the thermometer atop a bank located half a mile from the course read 106° at 4 p.m. It was so hot that Nicklaus bought a visor. With four holes to go on Friday, he saw a friend in the gallery, held up four fingers, dropped his head to his chest and stuck out his tongue to indicate he needed a shot of air conditioning.
Nicklaus had opened the tournament with a 67, just one shot behind Geiberger's leading 66, but Jack went into the water in front of the ninth green, his last of the day, double bogeyed for a second-round 75 and was not heard from the rest of the week. Colonial, a course that had been modified and redesigned by Ben Hogan, had beaten him again.
Geiberger added a 68 in the second round and upped his lead to two strokes, but Hubert Green and Dave Stockton moved into contention with strong rounds. Green had a 65, and Stockton a 64 that included a 30 on the front side. Stockton and Geiberger are good friends and both attended the University of Southern California.
The other big names were suffering Nicklaus' fate. Trevino had a 75 in the opening round, a number matched by Weiskopf, and started joking about withdrawing. Player could not seem to put together two sub-par 9s, and Littler was experiencing the same frustration.
Late Friday afternoon a heavy squall hit the course and turned much of it into a creek of the nearby Trinity River. Play was suspended, and 36 of the players had to arise early Saturday morning to complete their rounds. It was a bad way to start the day.
Green was one of those who had to finish in the morning, shooting his 65, and he birdied the first two holes of the third round to move into a tie with Geiberger. But the peanut-butter man's plodding game seemed better suited to the conditions. He went into the water twice on the first nine, but he refused to get ruffled and salvaged bogeys. He added three birds on the back side and finished with a 67 for a 201 total, Colonial's 54-hole scoring record, which did not count the 63 in the pro-am.
Stockton shot a 68 and lost ground, but he was not disheartened. He remembered that a few years ago he had a nine-stroke lead early in the third round at Colonial and wound up tied for the lead at the end of the day.
Ben Hogan won at Colonial five times and finished second once. Geiberger is no Hogan, but when he has the right feeling, as he did last week, he puts the ball on the fairway and putts the ball in the hole. He looked unbeatable going into the final round.
There is a local saying that you never order tamales in a Mexican restaurant until you make certain your pet dog is still around and breathing. On the tour, the saying is you never give up while you've still got life's breath. So, Nicklaus was talking about catching Geiberger even though he was 11 strokes back. He didn't, finishing in a tie for 18th. Stockton did manage to catch the leader and twice took a one-stroke lead. But ol' Al looked about as flustered as a man feeding a goldfish. He birdied three holes on the back nine for a 69 and a tournament-record total of 270, winning with room to spare. Stockton was three strokes behind, humming the USC fight song.
That left only the name game. It seems presumptuous to call a tournament that contains only professionals and mostly Americans at that, a major world championship, without even a token Chinese or left-handed amateur. And so for now, the event is Mickey Rooney dressed up in an officer's uniform. In other words, a minor major.