The Walt Disney World Golf Classic National Team Championship is not like any other tournament on the PGA tour. It has the longest name, the largest field and the last date on the schedule. It is the only one with a best-ball format, the only one in which a mouse hands out the trophies and the only one that the pros insist is pure fun.
In fact, the affair at Disney World near Orlando, Fla. is the closest thing the PGA has to a company picnic. Everybody is invited—wives, children, sponsors and friends—and the huge Disney corporation and its smiling hordes of youthful, uniformed employees mobilize to take care of them. There are 50% discounts on rooms and meals and endless free rides in whirling teacups for everyone. And if Daddy can manage to win $20,000 for four days' play, so much the better. If not, no one really minds all that much, because the monorail runs through the lobby and the Magic Kingdom is at the end of the line.
The winners last week—Jim Colbert, who has played the tour with fair success since 1966, and Dean Refram, who left it in 1971 to build his own golf resort, Saddlebrook near Tampa—have been friends since they roomed together in their struggling years on the tour. "He needed someone to help him get dressed," said Refram. "I'd put together red pants and a maroon shirt and think I looked fine," said Colbert. The two, who now have six children between them, began the week of the team championship sharing one room at Disney World's Polynesian Village. By the weekend, they had expanded to seven rooms to accommodate an influx of enthusiastic relatives and friends. "We had to win just to break even," said Refram. They also had to play four extraordinary rounds of golf to win—63-63-62-64-252.
"The secret," said Dan Sikes, who with Mason Rudolph tied for fifth at 258, "is to keep two chances at birdies going all the time. That means two balls in every fairway and two on every green." Colbert and Refram, between them, made a total of 36 birdies, not a single bogey and nevertheless won by only three strokes over the teams of Curtis Sifford-Victor Regalado and John Schlee-Bobby Cole.
Colbert's best year was 1974 when he won the American Golf Classic at Firestone and finished fourth in the Masters and fifth in the U.S. Open. Refram has played only a couple of tournaments a year since 1971 and none since a diesel pump blew up on him a year ago and burned 70% of his body. The record will not show which of the two contributed more to the win because Colbert and Refram refused to say. "We're a team," said Colbert, "and we make birdies."
Colbert and Refram started the last round alone in first place, three strokes ahead of Rudolph and Sikes, who had jumped into contention with a 61 on Saturday, and everybody's favorite underdogs, Jim Wittenberg and Bryan Abbott, the co-leaders for the first two days. Wittenberg, 26, finished this, his first year on the tour, with $887 in total earnings and had his Approved Tournament Player card lifted by Commissioner Deane Beman. Abbott, 29, might well have suffered the same fate except that he quit the tour in disgust in the middle of June.
Colbert and Refram made four straight birdies Sunday morning before they got bogged down in a run of five pars that gave another have-not combination, Regalado and Sifford, a chance to draw close. But Colbert and Refram got untracked at the 11th and made four more birdies on the last eight holes to pull away and win.
The best-ball format (purists insist it is better-ball), more than the fact that the tournament is played in never-never land, was what made the team championship attractive enough to draw four of the top 10 money winners and 16 of the year's 27 tournament winners at the tail end of a long schedule. Each man plays his own ball and the better of the two scores on each hole is the one marked on the scorecard. The pressure is shared and so is the blame.
"It's the only time we get to play with friends rather than against them," said British Open Winner Tom Watson, whose partner was his pal, John Mahaffey. As Nos. 7 and 8 on the money list this year, the two rising stars were the showiest pairing of the field at the outset. They had become a team because Mahaffey's former partner, Ben Crenshaw, had decided to play with Eddie Pearce and because, as Mahaffey said before the tournament began, "Tom hits it long and I hit it straight and we should be able to brother-in-law it pretty well." They made the cut but the brother-in-lawing was only good for a tie for 21st place and $1,146.
There were 112 teams in the tournament and almost that many reasons for pairing off. There was an Ohio State entry of Jerry McGee and Ed Sneed, and a Wake Forest partnership of Arnold Palmer and Leonard Thompson. There were old friends such as Gay Brewer and Bobby Nichols and newer old friends such as Johnny Miller and Grier Jones. Partners Steve Melnyk and Dave Eichelberger play practice rounds together because they like to gamble, and Jerry Heard and Homero Blancos were paired, according to Heard, because "We don't give a damn." And there were seven teams of brothers—Dave and Mike Hill, Lanny and Bobby Wadkins, Chi Chi Rodriguez and his brother Jesus from San Juan, Jay and Lionel Hebert, Don and Rik Massengale, Dave and Bill McIntosh from South Carolina and Severian and Manuel Ballesteros from Spain. As for uncles and nephews, the Sneads played together, the Siffords did not.
The PGA has held a team championship at various sites off and on since 1965, and there has been a Walt Disney World Golf Classic every year since 1971. Last year the latter became the former and it was won by two pros from Birmingham, Hubert Green and Mac McLendon. Palmer and Jack Nicklaus won three times in the championship's earlier years, but with the dissolution of their partnership Nicklaus began playing with Tom Weiskopf and Palmer has teamed with former Wake Forest golfers, first Jack Lewis Jr., then Lanny Wadkins and, this year, Thompson.
Now, anyone but a Wake Forest golfer might have seen in Leonard Thompson's situation last week a minor ethical and moral problem. Until Palmer approached him in August, Thompson had been committed to playing with Jerry McGee, his partner for three years. But being asked to play golf by Arnold Palmer is like being invited to tea by the Queen of England—at least for a Wake Forest man. As Thompson said before a TV camera after the first day's play, his arm around Arnold's shoulder, "It's not every day you get to play golf with your childhood idol."
Playing with one's idol can put strains on one's other friendships, however. "He asked me first if it was all right," said McGee last week. "We're friends, and I'm not going to let this hurt anything. But there has been some discussion about it. I think there are some guys who would have said no."
Gibby Gilbert was one. Gilbert said no to a Palmer invitation earlier this year because he planned to play for the second time with Bobby Mitchell. It should be noted, however, that Gilbert did not go to Wake Forest.
McGee eventually found himself a new teammate in fellow Buckeye Ed Sneed, who was available because his usual partner, Bert Yancey, has been off the tour because of illness. And Palmer stuck to his commitment to Thompson even though, it is rumored, he briefly considered dropping him for Weiskopf when Nicklaus decided not to play.
If there were any morals to be drawn from this locker-room version of a French farce, they are not entirely clear. Palmer and Thompson missed the cut, Gilbert and Mitchell were fourth and the second team from Ohio State, McGee and Sneed, made $1,477 each and finished in a tie for 18th.
Meanwhile Jim Colbert, beaming, and Dean Refram, with tears in his eyes, each went on and on about what a great golfer the other was and then they were off to the clubhouse to buy champagne for the stragglers.