Golfers are a peevish lot. They get annoyed at dry ball washers and par 5s they can't reach in two. But nothing disconcerts them as much as a blustery wind, the kind that sends iron shots into the weeds and turns the greens to linoleum. Good wind players usually are short bailers, guys who make a score out of bounce, bounce, one-putt.
At the NCAA Golf Championship in Albuquerque last week, a fierce wind raked the Rio Grande valley, making most of the players wonder if hang gliding might be an easier game. Everyone was trying to figure out a way to stop Wake Forest, which basically had the same team that won the 1974 and 1975 titles, a squad anchored by junior Curtis Strange and senior Jay Haas.
The pair rivals such college tandems of the past as Kermit Zarley and Homero Blancas at Houston; Jacky Cupit and Phil Rodgers, also at Houston, and Tom Kite and Ben Crenshaw, who played together at Texas. Strange won the NCAA individual title in 1974 and Haas took it last year when Wake Forest made the rest of the field look like a bunch of cross-handed caddies, winning by 33 strokes.
But even though Wake Forest Coach Jesse Haddock's team had won 11 straight tournaments by an average margin of 24 strokes, he was taking no chances His 1969 and 1971 teams looked strong enough to play in the Ryder Cup and they wound up as NCAA losers.
June 20, 1976
"He's smoking eight packs of cigarettes a day," said Haas. "This tournament golf is going to kill him."
Not everyone was willing to give the team trophy to Wake Forest. Brigham Young also came to Albuquerque undefeated; moreover, Cougars had finished one-two individually in every tournament. And Oklahoma State, though without a senior, was a threat, especially because the Cowboys were acquainted with the whims of the wind. Said State's David Edwards, "All the talk just puts more pressure on Wake Forest."
After the first two rounds of play, several things were apparent: the tournament site, the University of New Mexico's South Course, was playing on a par with Augusta National; the golfers needed stabilizers on their shirts to keep from blowing into Arizona; Wake Forest had swallowed the proverbial golf ball; and today's college golfers have trouble reading, at least on the greens.
Oklahoma State led after 36 holes, mostly because Britt Harrison was not playing like the freshman he is. His rounds of 71-69, four under par, led the individual race and contributed to his team's nine-stroke margin over Brigham Young. Wake Forest was tied with surprising New Mexico for third, another stroke back and the Deacons' anchormen were dragging. Haas had 74-76, and Strange, after an opening 68 Wednesday in which he eagled his first and last holes, shot a 75 on Thursday and said he saw a rattlesnake on the 17th hole. He saw a double-bogey on the 18th.
Last year Wake Forest started out slowly also, and Oklahoma State faded at the end. But Mike Holder, the Cowboy coach, thought he had a team that could hang in this time. It included lettermen Lindy Miller, who was over par in only one 1976 tournament; Tom Jones, an All-America as a freshman; and Jaime Gonzalez, a Brazilian with a 26-inch waist 26-inch waist and a heavyweight's golf game. Joining them were Edwards, the brother of touring pro Danny Edwards, and the big, rawboned Harrison, rated by Holder as the best high school player in the country last year. Harrison is a definite threat to clean out a buffet table, and a man who, if the Dallas Cowboy computer ever gets his dimensions, could go high in the pro draft as a middle linebacker.
Strange has won three collegiate tournaments with eagles on the last hole, and his team's spirits were lifted on Friday when he chipped in for an eagle on the 18th. "We've got the momentum now," he said, even though Wake Forest still trailed Oklahoma State by nine shots and was in fourth place, behind Brigham Young and New Mexico as well.
The individual competition was a lot closer. Harrison has a reputation as a fast gainer. He once picked up six pounds during one meal. On the back nine Friday he picked up bogeys as if they were French fries, shot a 42 for a 78 and dropped out of contention. Strange's eagle left him with a 70, tied for second place with Rice's Barton Goodwin at 213, three under par. The leader was Jeff Sanders at 212. Hardly anyone was aware of Southern Cal's Scott Simpson, four strokes back at 216.
Because his Oregon team was pretty much out of it, Sanders had played during the morning, when the wind was light, and shot a 68. "It was almost like giving him a handicap," said Strange.
"Whenever they tell me to tee off, that's when I tee off," answered the short, blond Sanders, whose tournament record was relatively undistinguished. He had failed to qualify for three U.S. Amateurs but, as he pointed out, did play in two U.S. juniors events.
Sanders went out early Saturday also, turned in a 73 and settled back to putting practice and scoreboard watching for the next six hours as he waited to see if anyone could match his three-under-par 285.
Meanwhile, Oklahoma State was busy wrapping up the team title. During the late '50s and early '60s, Houston dominated college golf. Coached by Dave Williams, the Cougars won 12 NCAA tournaments in 15 years. One of the losses occurred in 1963 when Oklahoma State took its only championship. All told, the Cowboys had been second six times.
But State was not playing for second this time. Its four leaders toured the front nine in a combined one over par, blunted a threat by Brigham Young, buried any hopes of a Wake Forest rally and went on to win by seven strokes with a total of 1,166. Brigham Young was second, with Houston edging Wake Forest by a stroke for third.
Now only the individual championship remained, and what a battle it was. Although Strange never has finished worse than ninth in a collegiate event, he had not won a college tournament this year, and his chances for the NCAA title were scuttled when he bogeyed the 16th hole, driving onto a sandy mesa. He went on to shoot a 75 for a 288 and seventh place, two strokes behind his twin Allan, who plays for East Tennessee State and finished fourth. It was the first time Allan had beaten Curtis in their college careers and when the twins played together Friday they attracted the largest gallery of the day.
"I was pretty nervous coming into this," Allan said after the round. "He's fierce to play with."
That apparently left only Goodwin of Rice with a chance to catch Sanders. Goodwin, who needed an invitation to the tournament because his team did not qualify, was in the lead even though he was playing erratically. With Sanders in the clubhouse at three under, Goodwin seemed a shoo-in when he eagled the 10th hole to go six under. Then he missed six of the last seven greens and found himself standing in a sand trap on the 18th, needing a par to win the title by a stroke.
The 20-year-old sophomore blasted out and then, putting left-handed, his natural style on the greens, sank a seven-footer for par and walked off to applause and congratulations. "I'm glad he won it that way," said Sanders. "To get it up and down out of a bunker on the last hole, that's impressive."
But wait! Communication at the NCAA tournament rivals an Angolan army's, and word trickled back that Southern Cal's Simpson was out on the front nine also four under for the tournament. Simpson had started his round on the 10th tee in the last threesome of the day and had been all but forgotten because USC was well back in the team standings. But after driving into the rough, playing a safe iron shot and waiting for 10 minutes while the group ahead looked for a lost ball, he was standing in front of the par-five 9th hole—his last—with a chance to beat Goodwin.
With most of the crowd up at the scoreboard thinking Goodwin had won, and the sun setting, the junior from San Diego wedged up to 18 feet behind the hole. His birdie putt was in, if only it reached the hole. As onlookers yelled "Go, go", the ball rolled to the edge of the hole and Simpson jumped into the air. When he landed, he was the NCAA champion, having finished with a final round of 67. The wind had stopped blowing, but Simpson was probably too excited to notice.