The first important golf tournament of the year produced a bizarre combination of glamour and comedy last week as Ben Crenshaw finally did what he was supposed to have been doing all along, which is be blond and talented and a winner, and Jack Nicklaus did what he never does, be blond and immortal but suddenly out to lunch. When the last sparkling ray of sunshine had glanced off the last heavenly chunk of real estate known as Carmel Bay, Crenshaw had won the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am that everyone expected Nicklaus to win, and Nicklaus, or someone posing as Nicklaus, had shot, in order, a 45 on the back nine at Pebble Beach, an 82 for the final round and, possibly, himself.
There were two stories on this Crosby Sunday. One was Crenshaw, who had come into professional golf a little more than two years ago as the greatest thing since push-button windows and had won his very first tournament—and then had not won anything since. It was Crenshaw who went out on the demon Pebble in the last round trailing Nicklaus, the 54-hole leader, and a couple of other guys by as many as three strokes, and fired a superb three-under 69 for a total of 281 and a two-stroke victory over an unknown named Mike Morley.
It was Crenshaw who overcame a poor opening round of 75 with a blazing 67 on Cypress Point the second day and a splendid 70 on the hated Spyglass Hill the third day. Then, with his relentless closing round on Sunday, he just kept on doing the thing that seems to have restored his game: hitting the ball hard, trying not to guide it and striving to forget his catastrophe at Medinah in the 1975 U.S. Open.
When Crenshaw reached the 17th tee at Pebble Beach on Sunday with a two-stroke lead, he thought about the shot he had hit into the water at Medinah in the U.S. Open last summer when it looked as if that was to be his comeback.
February 2, 1976
"Yeah, they're both par 3s," he said. "I thought about that. I took a five-iron. I figured I couldn't hit a five-iron far enough to reach the ocean."
He did reach a bunker, and he had an ugly lie, but he dug it out beautifully and then made a tough four-foot putt to save his par.
"It sure feels good to win, especially on one of the greatest courses in the world," Crenshaw said afterward. "I guess I'm the only 24-year-old around who's had to make a comeback."
If Crenshaw's game has been improving steadily, Nicklaus' game disintegrated suddenly Sunday and in various silly ways. It got so absurd that finally even Jack started laughing. He was only one shot out of the lead when he stood up to an approach shot at the 400-yard 13th. What Nicklaus would do, of course, was make a birdie or two from there in and win as usual. Wrong. He hit some kind of wild iron off down a hill left of the green, tried to run it up the hill and saw it roll back down, rolled it up again, and then three-putted for a triple bogey. A few other things happened to him between there and the 18th but they don't compare to his grand finale.
ABC-TV spent the weekend going off the air when fascinating things were occurring in the Crosby, so the world did not get to see Jack's finishing birdie at Pebble on Saturday, the one that gave him the tournament lead, and it did not get to see all of his triple-bogey eight on the same hole Sunday.
Here is how you make an eight on the same hole where you can make a four. You try to reach the green in two, but hook the ball into the bay instead. You drop a ball and, now shooting four, you hit it into a bunker up by the green. You hit a poor bunker shot and then you three-putt again, giggling over the last one from about one foot. There it is, from first place to 18th in a few hours.
The Crosby can be subdivided into several tournaments in addition to the one the pros themselves are playing and the one the pros and amateurs are playing together. With such a strange assortment of amateurs invited to what for years has been called Bing's Clambake, there is always a chance to select winners in a variety of categories. And although the longtime image of the Crosby is that of a tournament in which the pros are teamed only with movie stars, the stars are beginning to be outnumbered by athletes, business types and friends of friends of friends.
For example, last week there was something you could call the quarterback category, with John Brodie, George Blanda, Charley Johnson, Jacky Lee, Ralph Guglielmi and even Nicklaus' old pal and ex-Buckeye Pandel Savic taking part. Brodie had to be rated low quarterback, no matter what his team did, because he is a scratch golfer, forced to play with no handicap.
And there were other contests. Low show-biz star had to be thrashed out by the likes of Glen Campbell, who had a beard and the same wild golf swing, Clint Eastwood, Pat Boone, Mac Davis, Vic Damone, George C. Scott and Efrem Zimbalist Jr. Low baseball player was contested among Johnny Bench, Jeff Burroughs, Rollie Fingers and Tommy John. Low rich guy was difficult, but it was probably Mickey Van Gerbig of Palm Beach, who had only a one-stroke handicap and yet played so well that he and Crenshaw were contenders for the Pro-Am prize right up to the finish. This isn't easy with so many amateur thieves roaming the premises.
Other honors that could be claimed among the amateur field—or "friends of Bing," as they are called—were: low race driver, Roger Penske; low cartoonist, Hank Ketcham; low father-in-law, Nick Popa, whose daughter is married to pro Ed Sneed; low Crosby son, Lindsay, edging out 14-year-old Nathanial; low astronaut, Captain Gene Cernan; and low sport coat, Robert Roos Jr., the haberdasher.
In the old days the Crosby amateurs were almost exclusively friends of Bing, whether they were in motion pictures or not. As the event grew larger, all kinds of guys began showing up, some by begging and pleading for invitations, some by being closely associated with a top pro, as is the case with Bob Hoag of Columbus, Ohio, who always teams with Nicklaus. Hoag is not a bad player in warm weather, but the Crosby comes at an inopportune time for someone who resides in the cold Midwest and hasn't touched a club in a while. Jack described Hoag's game at this Crosby as, "He's 1 for 14 from the foul line."
Three relative newcomers to the Crosby Pro-Am division attracted their share of attention last week. They were Johnny Bench, who was contending for low catcher; George C. Scott, who had low general wrapped up; and Oleg Cassini, who was certainly the low designer.
Bench said he got an invitation because he asked "the right people," and he added that it helped to be "some sort of a celebrity." Like Scott, he was unlucky enough to be teeing off very close to and playing the same course rotation—Cypress Point the first day, Spyglass Hill the second, Pebble Beach the third—as Nicklaus. That meant they had galleries they really didn't want, being out of their natural elements.
"Some of Jack's crowd would drop back and check up on my trick shots," Bench said. Bench dressed the part. He wore a monogrammed pink sweater one day and color-matched greens and checks another. And although he has a 7 handicap and a home run tee shot that has a temptation to wander, he made three natural birdies at Spyglass, and hardly anyone ever does that.
"I'm a competitor," Johnny said, closing the downstairs bar in the Del Monte Lodge one night. "I probably get less nervous and bothered by the galleries than other guys here."
Bench paused happily between shots every time he was asked to sign an autograph or pose for a picture with folks in his gallery. He said he had never had a golf lesson, hadn't been playing all that long and never even picked up a club until he joined the Cincinnati Reds and started playing in the off-season. Celebs get a lot of help in the Crosby. In Bench's case the people would holler "foul ball" if he hooked one or "home run" if his drive was straight. And there was this wonderful moment at Spyglass on Friday when he thought his tee shot was lost in the woods only to have a couple of fans in different parts of the trees each throw a ball out in the fairway, hollering, "Here it is, Johnny." Like the honest competitor he is, Bench laughed and picked up on the hole.
George C. Scott did not look like a golfer; in fact, he did not even look like George C. Scott, wearing a floppy white tennis hat most of the time. This was only his second Crosby. Off and on, he has played the game for about 10 years, but never regularly. He works too often. He had just come from filming a movie in Hawaii, Islands in the Stream, and resting at his home in Connecticut. He remained pleasant enough as his shots soared into Carmel Bay, but there were occasions when he seemed to be tired of hearing one of the conservatives in the crowd shouting, "Tell it to go in, General," as if Patton were the only film he ever made.
Scott gave his golf game a review. "I like my fairway woods and my chipping," he said. "Overall, I'm a 13-handicapper. I would have to say that my performance off the tee is uneven."
Oleg Cassini was perhaps the most recognizable amateur in the field. His erratic drives proved that tennis, as he confessed, is really his game. He has taken lessons from time to time, but he rarely plays, and he only enjoys the Crosby because he has so many good friends competing in it, such as Van Gerbig and Denny Phipps. He took the precaution of coordinating his costumes daily with his fiancée, Marianne Nestor, who won low fiancée by several lengths. They sometimes wore matching, sinister black. "I like to look wicked when I pound the ball into the ice plant," Cassini said.
None of the three, Bench, Scott or Cassini, had a hot enough pro partner—George Johnson, Eddie Merrins and Joe Porter, respectively—or good enough games of their own to make the 54-hole cut that would have qualified them for Sunday's final round. The amateurs who survive are either those with huge handicaps, which enabled them to carry their pros along, or simply good players who have teamed well with their partners.
What essentially decided the pro-am was local knowledge plus a bagload of handicap strokes. The winners were Hale Irwin and a gentleman named Darius Keaton, a Cypress Point member who has two private jets, a home on 17 Mile Drive and 10 gorgeous strokes. Irwin was two over for the Crosby but Keaton, with his strokes, led the team to a glittering 25 under. So much for the handicapping committee.
Among other things, the Crosby has come to signal the real start of the golfing year, after some fooling around in Tucson and Phoenix, which is Johnny Miller country. The Crosby is where Nicklaus comes out for the first time, and the three courses used provide tests of golf that are considerably different from the pitch-and-putt stuff in Arizona.
The Crosby found most of the leading golfers working very hard to get then-games in shape a little sooner than normal, for 1976 promises to be an exciting and slightly different type of year on the PGA tour. The money is up above $9 million, but of course the money always seems to be up. More important, the Tournament Players Championship, a biggie, has been shifted to late February in Florida, and as Nicklaus said, "This alone makes you start working seriously earlier than usual."
Also, this will be the year that Nicklaus' own tournament, the Memorial, will make its debut, as will the new World Series at Firestone, with its expanded field of 20 to 25 men instead of four going 72 holes instead of 36 for $100,000 to the winner in a real September climax. As if he was reading from a publicity release, Commissioner Deane Beman said, "The new World Series has a chance in time to transcend the importance of the Big Four."
The chances are that nothing that happens during 1976 will be quite as memorable in an oddball way as the total collapse of Jack Nicklaus at the Crosby, easing the way to the long-awaited return of Ben Crenshaw.