At a special sort of golf tournament in Ohio last week, most people spent a good deal of time wishing Hubert Green would do something to make it interesting, and what he wound up doing was to turn the event into the World Series of Optometry. This was not what Hubert Green had in mind and it probably wasn't what Gil Morgan expected when he arrived in Akron. But the climax of the World Series of Golf belonged almost solely to Hubert, who capped a relatively dull few days by holing a 10-foot birdie putt on the last regulation green for $55,000, the difference between first and second money, and then missing a three-foot putt for the same amount of money in the first extra hole of sudden death to allow Morgan, a non-practicing optometrist, to win a championship that either is or isn't the World Series of anything.
There is supposed to be a lot of suspense and drama in this tournament. The format brings together the best of the best—a select group of golfers who have won either enough tournaments or the most prestigious ones—and they must then cope with the Firestone Country Club's demanding South Course, with the year's biggest purse, $300,000, as a reward. You would think that the $100,000 awaiting the victor would lead to a good deal of knee-buckling excitement.
For a variety of reasons, it was missing this year. Even in Sunday's last round, when Tom Watson began making a move and Morgan was hanging in there by dropping all of his putts for par and Green was gradually accumulating the bogeys that would erode his lead, there was a so-what aura about it all.
This mood was sustained at the end when Green let his three-footer for a par on the 14th green—the first sudden-death hole—slide outside the right edge of the cup and then routinely pointed his finger in the air, the gesture of a golfer who has routinely holed out. This was followed by Morgan calmly rolling in a one-footer for a winning par 4 and routinely pointing his finger upward. He didn't even take off his white visor. Two men had just played one hole of golf for almost as much money as a United States senator makes, and they looked like a couple of guys going another hole to see who buys the drinks.
October 8, 1978
Morgan got to the title the slow, hard way. After two rounds, he was six strokes behind Green, who was leading by two after shooting a 70 and a 67. There were some other people between them, and Morgan wasn't taken very seriously by Green or anyone else. On Saturday, Morgan shot a 67 of his own while Green was turning in a one-over 71, but while it drew him to within two strokes of Green, even Morgan realized that he was up against one of the game's toughest front-runners.
Sunday's 18 began with Green making three straight birdies and Morgan eagling the 2nd hole. Still, after seven holes Green had a four-stroke lead, and most of the drama centered around Watson and whether he would finish strong enough to break Johnny Miller's 1974 earnings record of $353,021. For a while, with Green starting his bogey habit, it looked as if Watson might finish strong enough to win the tournament itself. But Watson quickly turned a 65 into a 67 with consecutive iron shots into bunkers, and he had to settle for third place. Nevertheless, it gave him $19,000 and upped his earnings for the year to $362,000, or $8,979 more than Miller banked during his one golden year. Watson also nailed down the Vardon Trophy for the tour's lowest stroke average with his five tour victories and an assortment of other good finishes.
With that settled, what remained of Sunday afternoon was left to Morgan and Green. Morgan parred the last six holes for his closing 68 and his total of 278. Green found a different way to match the number. Hubert bogeyed the 16th to make it look as if he would hand the tournament to Morgan without a playoff. But he closed with the good birdie putt on 18 to tie and prolong things.
Neither drove exquisitely from the 14th tee, one going left and the other right. And neither hit very prettily onto the green, one being far away from the pin and safe and the other—Green—over and slightly onto the fringe.
The difference was that Green did not get his first putt close enough to force another extra hole. It was just as well. The tournament itself missed by more than three feet.
Other topics had dominated conversation in Akron during the week: the Benjamin High School football team, for instance, and its traditional Friday night game against Glades Day down in Belle Glade, Fla. This was the contest that at one point was going to prevent Jack Nicklaus from competing in the World Series of Golf. His oldest son, Jackie, is a tight end and defensive end for Benjamin, and his second oldest, Steve, is a split end. Jack decided to play in the tournament only when it dawned on him that his private jet could get him from Akron to Belle Glade in time for the opening kickoff, after the second round of play on Friday, and return him to Firestone in time for Saturday's tee-off.
For a day or so leading up to the game, there was as much talk in the Firestone grillroom about Benjamin High as there was about Seve Ballesteros leading the first day with a 69, or Green taking command of the tournament after his second-round 67. It was treated pretty much as a joke until Saturday morning when page one of the Akron Beacon Journal carried an account of the Benjamin-Glade game, and readers had to probe deep into the paper to find out what was happening at Firestone. Nicklaus had shot a 76 on Friday in his haste to get to the football game, and, of course, he was then no longer a contender in the World Series. The big news, obviously, was that Jackie Nicklaus recovered a fumble in the end zone for what turned out to be the winning touchdown in Benjamin's 14-12 victory. For those keeping stats, Steve Nicklaus had caught three passes.
What all of this did was slightly anger the World Series sponsors and frustrate Commissioner Deane Beman of the PGA Tour, for it pointed out to everyone that there is something wrong with the event—something difficult to describe.
It is certainly a good idea to have such a tournament, an ultra-exclusive festival offering a bundle to the winner, an event almost as hard to get into as the bathroom just off the Oval Office. It is supposed to be a "world championship," an event that would, as Beman put it, "transcend the Big Four," meaning the U.S. and British Opens, the Masters and the national PGA, which are the major championships of the sport—the ones that annually manage to bring all of the players' games and emotions to a peak. But as yet, there is no intensity to the World Series. There has not been any excitement around Firestone in the three Series that have been held there since the format was changed in 1976. Whether it was during the week that Nicklaus won the first one, or last year when Lanny Wadkins won, or even last Sunday when things finally started popping in the final round, the World Series has had approximately the impact of an NBA All-Star game.
One of the problems, of course, is timing. The last week in September—what with pennant races, plus pro and college football—may be just too late for anyone to be concerned about golf, especially the players themselves.
As Nicklaus said last week, "Most of us are just going through the motions here. A lot of us have been away from golf, and we've lost an edge. I think it would help if somehow the tournament could be played two or three weeks after the PGA, like the last week of August, when at least you're still thinking golf."
One also must wonder if the exclusivity of the tournament doesn't actually work against it. There were only 24 competitors last week as opposed to the 150 in a normal tour event. Most of the way, it resembled an elaborate exhibition or an executive outing. The crowds at Firestone were decent but hardly immense, and the days of golf were short, because there was no one for the best players in the world to beat but themselves. Moreover, Nicklaus was willing to bet that if the World Series held to the present dates, it would not be too many years before the tournament would be played in sleet or even snow. "I know Ohio," he said.
In fact, there was football weather much of last week, even when the sun was out. Not cold, mind you. Crisp. At times chilly. The kind of feeling in the air when it would seem more appropriate to be watching a team doing calisthenics under a goal post than trudging after a bunch of people trying to knock a little ball into a little hole.