Last week the pro tour took off its head covers, broke out the road maps, called ahead for reservations, mused about the vagaries of putting surfaces, ordered up a fleet of courtesy cars, passed out marshals' outfits, complained about bad bounces and dashed off on a 1977 itinerary that includes 43 tournaments in 19 states and Canada, and offers more than $9 million in prize money.
The first stop was Phoenix, where it rained and was 30° on Sunday morning. And the laundry came back late and the baby-sitter did not show up. But none of this fazed Jerry Pate, last year's Rookie of the Year, who beat Dave Stockton, his partner in last month's World Cup, on the first hole of sudden death after the two had tied at 277.
While the final round was essentially a Pate-Stockton battle, all sorts of people hovered nearby waiting for the two of them to falter. As late as the 17th tee Bruce Lietzke, who had started the day six strokes off the pace, was in a tie for the lead, only to bogey the last two holes. Larry Nelson barely missed a birdie at the 18th and finished one stroke back, while Lietzke and George Burns were two strokes behind.
The playoff was abrupt. Pate and Stockton hit the green with their drives at the 15th, a 204-yard par-3. Pate's approach putt stopped 1½ feet away, but Stockton left himself a four-footer. Putting is what has made Stockton a two-time PGA champion, but this time he faltered, the ball breaking just to the left of the cup. When Pate dropped his putt, he was the winner. The victory was worth $40,000 to him, meaning he won't have to worry about the price of coffee for a while. It also made him the leading money-winner of the year, which he might just be until Jack Nicklaus comes out of hibernation.
January 17, 1977
Pate's win notwithstanding, the big news of the 1977 opener was that for the first time in a few seasons the PGA did not announce a new point system, or unveil plans for a designated tournament involving the free-drop leaders, and that Johnny Miller did not win. Figuring in the Tucson Open, Miller had won five of the previous six Arizona tournaments, a couple of them by lapping the field. But at Phoenix last week his putting stroke had a case of bronchitis, he opened with a 74 and wound up at 287 in a tie for 34th. Said Johnny, this time come lately, "These young guys putt like I used to."
In a game where the perfect shot is so elusive, Miller's comment was more chilling than flip. The pro tour seems like an easy way to get a suntan, hobnob with Hollywood, make a bunch of money and see the world. Actually, it can be Insecurity City. For instance, one player at Phoenix said that people are always walking up to him and asking, "Didn't you used to be Lanny Wadkins?"
You remember Lanny Wadkins, who exploded onto the tour predicting he would be sensational, the prodigy with a strobe-light backswing. He won $116,000 as a rookie in 1972 and $200,000 the next year and looked like the greatest thing since they put British accents in the television towers. His money earnings as a rookie were a record until Pate broke it with $153,000 last season. But now nearly four years have gone by since Wadkins won a tournament. He has lost his exempt status, and at the tender age of 27 he is struggling to make a comeback. "People ask me, 'How's the hand, how's the back?' " says Wadkins. "They know something is wrong but they don't know what."
Wadkins' misfortunes stem from a gallbladder operation in December 1974. It took him almost six months to recuperate and when he returned to the tour he discovered that his driver did not know him. "For the first two years I drove the ball better than anyone out here," Wadkins recalls. "For the last two, probably no one has driven it worse." In 1975 he won $23,582. Last year he made a shade under $43,000, despite a lackluster final half. As a non-exempt player (one who fails to make the list of top 60 money-winners), Wadkins could find himself struggling through the Monday-morning qualifiers just trying to make the field. However, he has enough high finishes in his portfolio and his reputation with tournament officials is such that so far he has been getting by on sponsors' exemptions.
"I intend to work hard this year and get something done," he says. "I'd like to get back to those old days. They were fun. You know, I went to see the movie A Star Is Born last night, where the guy is on top and then starts down. I could relate to that." And Lanny may be on the way back. On Saturday he shot a 68, finished with a 72 and wound up in a tie for 19th place, worth $2,140.
Every year the 442 tournament players of the PGA start out at $00,000 with the knowledge that the mountain is high and the valley is low. "There's more pressure each year," says Tom Watson. "You think, 'How many times can I make that 15-footer?' " Watson did not win a tournament on the American circuit in 1976, although he did win one made in Japan. And he dropped five places on the money list, from seventh to 12th. After poor putting gave him a 74 in the opening round at Phoenix, Watson went to the putting green, where long after darkness he was still practicing the elusive 15-footer.
Watson was working to keep away "the ghost," as the pros call the gremlin that haunts their games. "I've played with guys you can see are struggling, trying too hard," says Stockton. "They can't get it done because of the pressure. It's a funny game. No one really cares about you when you're a nobody. Then you win and you're a star, and now that you can afford to buy something, everybody wants to give it to you."
Pate's 67s in the first and second rounds at Phoenix were remarkable, considering that the tournament was played with an additional hazard: the embedded ball. Recent rains left the Phoenix course a bit sloshed, which made iron shots hard to control. "A lot of times it's hard to make the ball come down," said Pate.
Even though his halfway score left him with a two-stroke lead over Nelson and Burns, and he was at least four up on everyone else, Pate's margin was far from secure, because the Phoenix course has a reputation for being a tour pigeon that can yield an occasional 61. The trouble is that it is located downtown, and about the only way to stretch it out and toughen it up would be to move the 1st tee over behind the Adams Hotel.
The rains resumed on Saturday and, while Stockton charged out of the pack with a 64, the chill and dampness kept the field guessing on approach shots. "This type of weather is the most difficult to play in because you can't get loose," said Stockton, adding that he could feel his back tightening up even as he spoke.
Stockton is one of the many players who admire Pate for everything from his slow, smooth swing to his candor and confidence. After reading Miller's quote about putting, Pate quipped, "He's gone from being a young guy to an old guy in just a year."
The similarity between the early careers of Pate and Wadkins is striking. Both are former U.S. Amateur champions who came out of Southern colleges, Pate from Alabama, Wadkins from Wake Forest. In his first season Wadkins won the Sahara and was named Rookie of the Year. In his first season, Pate won the Canadian Open and a tournament in Japan to go with his triumph in the U.S. Open at Atlanta, the best rookie showing since Nicklaus debuted in 1962. No wonder he is confident. "You got to be," he said after a birdie on 18 on Saturday. "You think Jimmy Carter could do his job if he wasn't?"
Pate's birdie gave him a third-round score of 70, a one-stroke lead over Stockton and two strokes on Nelson and Gary McCord. And a chance to pick up right where he left off. "Some guys win, and even they think it is a fluke," said Stockton. "But Pate knows he is going to win again."
Dave, you were so right.