Once summer is over and the last of the designated tournaments has been played, it takes more than just a bundle of money or a Las Vegas chorus line to lure the stars of the PGA tour from their autumnal pursuits—elk hunts and football games interspersed with trips to Japan.
Last week at the $200,000 World Open the bait was Pinehurst's No. 2 course, the Donald Ross masterpiece in the sand hills region of North Carolina that has captivated golfers since it was built in 1903. Tom Weiskopf declared the course was fun. Johnny Miller said it motivated him. Jack Nicklaus, absorbed as he is these days with golf architecture, spoke of the greatness of the Ross design. And none of them seemed to mind in the least that for a while it looked as though some lesser mortal, Pat Fitzsimons or Ed Sneed, perhaps, might walk off with the $40,000 first-place money that was rightfully theirs.
But only for a while. Then the big boys moved in. On Saturday, Weiskopf, who had been calm and confident all week, finished fast with birdies on the 15th, 16th and 17th to shoot a 68 and move into the lead. Fitzsimons, who had held the 36-hole lead, had a 71 that was a mixture of birdies and bogeys, but it was good enough for second, one stroke back. "I know I can play the difficult course well," he said later. "Riviera, Medinah, this one. I played Augusta well, too, except for one round."
Nicklaus? He was fiddling around back there, five strokes behind Weiskopf. He had shot a 70 but said he had played poorly. "I haven't quite put it all together this week," he said, as if even he now considered it too late. Then in an afterthought he added, "But if I jump in with a 65 tomorrow, the game's on."
Sunday dawned clear and windy and Nicklaus knew the game was on. "As soon as I saw what kind of day it was, I knew I wouldn't have to shoot a 65. I knew the field would back up."
And how it backed up. Fitzsimons dropped three strokes in three holes as he made the turn and never got them back. Weiskopf bogeyed four holes on the front side and began to lose his composure. A child picking bark off a pine tree at the 9th green, a photographer shooting at too close range on the tee at 10 became agents of the devil that plagues all golfers in contention, especially Weiskopf. Actually, he recovered his composure sufficiently to birdie the par-5 16th, but then, on 18, when a par would have put him into a playoff, he missed a six-foot putt after a good 30-yard trap shot and bogeyed the hole.
Meanwhile Nicklaus was making a pair of birdies, avoiding windblown mistakes and watching everybody but Billy Casper come racing back to him. Casper, who started the day four strokes off the lead and one stroke ahead of Nicklaus, bogeyed a couple of holes on the front nine but got them back, and when he birdied the 15th from 25 feet he drew even with Nicklaus.
Casper kept the tie alive through the last three holes of regulation play, but like the others, he too was a goner when his tee shot dived into the rough on the first hole of the playoff. Nicklaus' routine par—two putts from 20 feet—won the tournament, his fifth of the year, and raised his earnings for 1975 to $291,849. He missed only one green all day, the par-3 15th, when his tee shot landed off the right edge. But, as was typical of his round, he nearly holed his 35-foot chip shot and tapped in for a par. It was a quiet, professional 69, the lowest score of the day.
When it was noted that 13 of his 16 pars were two-putts from distances of 20 feet or more, Nicklaus said, "When you get Pinehurst with wind and the pins are tucked away, it is very difficult to get close. That's the way No. 2 is supposed to play and what makes it a great course."
Jack added that he considers this his best golfing year yet. His record was slightly more impressive in 1972—more money and more wins to go with the two majors—but in terms of consistency, he thinks 1975 has been superior.
Each year since its flashy inception in 1973 the World Open has lowered its sights and raised its rating. The first year, the event, then held in November, was 10 days and 144 holes long, and the prize money was a record $500,000. It was played on two courses because the field was so large, and it was an unwieldy flop that Miller Barber won and Nicklaus, Weiskopf and Lee Trevino didn't even bother to enter. Weiskopf and Nicklaus went hunting and Trevino said he was incapable of staying anywhere for 10 days, much less in Pinehurst, N.C.
Last year the Tournament Players Division gave the World Open designated tournament status and a September date, so a glittering field was assured. Johnny Miller won a four-way playoff, beating Nicklaus, Frank Beard and Bob Murphy, but two courses were still being used and the field remained huge.
This year, at last, the Diamondhead Corporation, which acquired Pinehurst lock, stock and village five years ago, decided to let its greatest asset, No. 2, do the talking. The field was pared to a normal 156, the purse to $200,000 and the play was entirely on the one course. Suddenly the tournament had character. The presence last week of the British Ryder Cup team, on its way to Pennsylvania's Laurel Valley, did not hurt either. The nine Britishers and three Irishmen gave the old spa a cosmopolitan air as they tried to make their chip shots run on slow American greens.
On Thursday, opening day, a carillon in the village chapel played a noontime medley of old fundamentalist favorites ("... was lost, bu-ut now am found") and the cannons from Fort Bragg 30 miles away thumped like distant thunder while Lee Elder shot a 65, his best round in a difficult year and the lowest round of the tournament by two strokes.
Friday seemed like two days. The rain that had interrupted play briefly on Thursday held off until evening, but a strong gusty wind blew up in the afternoon and scores blew up with it. The morning rounds produced two 67s, Ben Crenshaw's and Joe Inman's, but no one who teed off in the afternoon could do better than 69. Leading the field after 36 holes with a 67-69—136, six under par, was the L.A. Open winner Fitzsimons. Even Nicklaus was impressed. "Some good golf was played out there today," he said, after shooting an even-par 71. "Better than I'd have expected at Pinehurst. I haven't been throwing any shots away and I'm five strokes off the lead and there are 10 or 12 guys ahead of me." Poor Jack.
Off the course, however, Nicklaus was a walking diplomatic incident. On Thursday a reporter asked him whether the real reason he had refused his place on the two-man U.S. team for the World Cup in Bangkok was that he feared for his life in politically unsettled Thailand. Jack answered, "You hit it on the button," and the story flew out over the AP news wire. The upshot was that the U.S. State Department, possibly for the first time in the history of the Republic, was forced to take a position in re a golfer. Its position was to "take exception" to Nicklaus' position.
Then there was the inevitable request for Nicklaus' opinion of the golf course. With characteristic candor Jack complied. "I used to think this and Firestone were the top two courses in the world," he said. "But they've made some changes here. I still think it is one of the top five or six."
Furthermore, he said, "This is a better golf course than Augusta. Augusta has the nostalgia and all that. But it's probably the worst-conditioned golf course we play. It's pretty and green, but there's no grass in the fairways and every shot is a flyer. A month later it would be perfect." Augusta National? Worst-conditioned? Say it isn't so, Jack!
Even Nicklaus' silver-topped caddie, Angelo Argea, got into the act. Argea drew a 30-day suspension from TPD Commissioner Deane Beman for being seen inside the clubhouse, clubhouses being off limits to caddies just as they once were to pros.
After this week's Ryder Cup, a dwindling troupe of players will cross the continent one more time, but Nicklaus will be with them only as far as Napa, Calif. and the Kaiser International. After that he will play the Australian Open, fish the Great Barrier Reef, travel to Spain on business, and maybe Japan, too, watch his Buckeyes play football in Columbus and his two sons play football in Florida. That is how the best golfer in the world rewards himself for the best year he's ever had.
Have fun, Jack. You've earned it.