All kinds of golfing intrigue enlivened the ancient sporting grounds of Europe last week as promoters went one-on-one and a bunch of Americans, vacationing from their own PGA Tour, headed for the bank with expensive wine labels pasted on their foreheads.
The golf shots that happened to be struck were more or less incidental to the dark mysteries surrounding St. Nom la Breteche and Walton Heath, in tournaments called, respectively, the 9ème Trophèe Lanc‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me and the European Open. In short, professional golf went to Paris and London, and personalities like Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Severiano Ballesteros and Bobby Wadkins—as well as men with names like Gaetan Mourgue d'Algue, Sven Tumba and Mark McCormack—had varying reasons to be smiling on the banks of the Seine and the Thames.
It is a complicated story, and one might as well begin with this man Gaetan Mourgue d'Algue, who is not a character in a Sabatini romance but a golf nut. A French golf nut. He has more or less devoted his life to hanging around the sport, mostly as an amateur competitor in a country where golf has been about as popular as California wine. Mourgue d'Algue was once France's best amateur player, which isn't all that difficult in a country where even today there are only 40,000 golfers. The hard-core European trivia expert might recall that he once represented France in World Cup competition.
Mourgue d'Algue had always wanted to improve the level of golf in France and the rest of Europe, so it was only natural that one day several years ago he would make the acquaintance of Mark McCormack. At the time, McCormack was a player's agent with an office in Cleveland and only Arnold Palmer and a few other golfers in his stable. Today, of course, he has golfers, tennis players, fashion models, broadcasters and who knows what else, plus offices in Cleveland, New York, Los Angeles, London, Tokyo, Paris, Christchurch, Rio, Toronto and Brussels.
Mourgue d'Algue knew everybody in Europe. McCormack had the players and the muscle and the salesmanship to make things happen for golf in Europe. The first result of their friendship was the annual Lanc‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me event, which was staged for the ninth time last week just outside Paris, but the collaboration involves much more.
Thanks in most part to McCormack, Mourgue d'Algue has practically taken over European golf. Does this mean that McCormack, an American, runs golf in Europe? Certainly it does. But in a sense he was running it anyway, and not necessarily for the worse, considering that not much was going on before he got there. Last week's Lanc‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me does not represent much more than one dimple on a Dunlop 65 compared to the things McCormack and Mourgue d'Algue are up to at present. Essentially, the two are partners in a company that now runs the Swiss Open, the Italian Open, the German Open, the Belgian Open and the Portuguese Open, along with some lesser events.
"Most European tournaments are run by a bunch of dentists from Düsseldorf," McCormack was saying last week. "They want to come in and put on their blazers and have their pictures taken with Gary Player. Somebody has to raise the purse and put the sticks in the ground."
Mourgue d'Algue has learned how to string the gallery ropes, and McCormack already knew how to find a sponsor like Lanc‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me. You dangle an Arnold Palmer in the air, and another Lanc‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me appears. Next year the European circuit will feature such tournaments as the Paco-Rabanne French Open, the Braun German Open, the Laurent-Perrier Belgian Open and the Tourist Board Portuguese Open, with a number of events dedicated to the likes of Hennessy or Mo‚Äö√†√∂¬¨¬•t et Chandon on the side. This is nice for the players, of course, but why was it so good for Mark McCormack and Gaetan Mourgue d'Algue?
McCormack explained. "These tournaments are all part of the British or European tour, which is like our tour. The British PGA [which has more clout than any other organization in European golf] wants the German Open to guarantee a purse of, let's say, $50,000. So we say, O.K., we'll guarantee the purse. Then we go out and sell sponsors. Whatever we sell over $50,000, we keep."
With all sorts of golfing stars beholden to him for exhibitions and outings and guarantees of their appearances in the tournaments, it is not difficult for McCormack to raise the purse money—and more. Which leads to the next question: Why wouldn't the people who run the British PGA ask McCormack to raise larger purses for the players, thereby leaving less for himself and Mourgue d'Algue?
"Oh, they will," McCormack said. "Next time around."
Meanwhile, however, he has them nailed with long-term contracts, right?
McCormack laughed and said, "Actually, I'd rather not use the word 'nailed.' "
Mourgue d'Algue might have originated a real tournament instead of the present eight-man format had it not been for the philosophy McCormack formulated a few years ago on how to sell golf to Europe. He clings a bit to the same idea today: pay the big stars a bundle—that's whom the fans really want to see. The first Lanc‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me in 1970 featured Palmer, Player and Tony Jacklin. It has always been a competition with prize money based on the order of finish, and it has been a 72-hole event for the past seven years, but it has never had more than eight players, most of them McCormack clients. And over the years the amount of money the big names have received for appearing in the Lanc‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me could purchase a wing of Versailles.
It would seem Lanc‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me has gotten its money's worth. This was the first time Palmer did not play. He won in 1971, attracting some attention to the perfume, and other stars have since captured the trophy: Billy Casper, Johnny Miller, Player, Severiano Ballesteros. Ben Crenshaw, Ray Floyd, Hale Irwin and Sam Snead have competed in the tournament. Still, Mourgue d'Algue's inspiration in 1976 to have Palmer drive some golf balls off the Eiffel Tower may have done more for the sponsor than anything else.
"I thought the idea up myself," Mourgue d'Algue says proudly. "We build a platform and Palmer hits toward a park, you see?" In 1976 and '77, Palmer hit several balls off the tower. One drive not only went toward a park, the Champ de Mars, it went through it and struck a city bus.
Before last week's golf began, Mourgue d'Algue took the eight players and their wives and friends to dinner at the Tour d'Argent. Most of the first-timers to the Lanc‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me—Lee Trevino, Tom Watson, Andy North—did not know what the Tour d'Argent might be other than a neighborhood bistro overlooking the cathedral of Notre Dame. Slowly, however, they found out how many stars a restaurant could have. Trevino decided he could leave the Tabasco in his pocket. Watson noticed that you might need a brush to get the dust off the wine bottles. The ducks were registered. And everyone's dessert stayed on fire for two or three minutes. None of this kept the U.S. Open champion, North, and his wife Sue from ordering milk. Un milk, s'il vous pla‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√út.
While Linda Watson lit a cigar and spoke of buying out the Louvre for the new house in Kansas City, her husband was asked why he had chosen to play in the Lanc‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me rather than the European Open, a new tournament with ambitions of becoming a world classic.
"They made me an offer I couldn't refuse," said Watson. Then he added, "Besides, I like barbecued duck."
The fact is, both Watson and Trevino were paid handsomely to take part in the Lanc‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me instead of the European Open. By most everyone associated with golf in Europe, this year's Lanc‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me was seen as an attempt by McCormack to harm the European Open because neither McCormack nor Mourgue d'Algue were running it. There were no hard figures available, but it is safe to assume that Watson and Trevino each received more than $25,000—maybe as much as $50,000—to spend a week in Paris rather than play at Walton Heath in the brand new event originated by Sven Tumba, the Swede with the Olympic ice hockey medal and backed, at least verbally, by Jack Nicklaus.
The European Open was being run by Executive Sports, a company jointly owned by John Montgomery and Eastern Airlines. It just so happens that Nicklaus was once also a partner. But Montgomery, who runs 11 PGA tournaments on the U.S. tour, does not guarantee a purse as McCormack does. You pay him a fee and he tells you how to put on a tournament, and he does it quite well. It was Tumba who raised the money for the European Open, as he does for his Scandinavian Open.
Ken Schofield, who might best be described as the Deane Beman of the British PGA, was asked if McCormack had intentionally tried to hurt the European Open by "pressuring" sponsors not to put up any money and by getting Lanc‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me to lure Watson, Trevino, Player, Graham Marsh and Isao Aoki away from it.
"All I can say is that Mark knew the European Open dates almost a year ago," said Schofield. "The Lanc‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me could have been held another week."
Tumba said, "I had much hard time getting sponsors. I think I know why."
McCormack said, "Most Europeans don't understand the nature of the American pro. The American players don't care if some foreign country is holding a $200,000 event after their own tour is over. They don't want to know what the first prize is. They want to know what the last prize is. They want to be able to go somewhere with their wives or friends or children and have fun and play golf at the same time. They're worn out emotionally from their own season. If you can find something for them to do, whether it's in Europe or Australia or Japan, and guarantee them some money and a good time, you can get them."
To the people in the agent-manager-sponsor area of European golf, last week's situation was a juicy one, and there was much talk about it on both sides of the Channel, about who was right, who was wrong, who was honorable, who was not. Everyone cared but the American pros, who giggled a lot and went away with various amounts of cash.
At St. Nom la Breteche, where the golf course sits below an ancient and charming clubhouse that once belonged to Louis the XIV's horses, the illustrious entrants put on quite a show for the 3,000 or so French spectators, shooting for the $17,000 first-place money—which came on top of the up-front money and all the first-class plane tickets and free hotels. Watson seized an early lead, and in the third round he, Trevino and Player made a bushel of birdies.
Trevino led by one stroke over Watson and Player going into the final round, and on Sunday he reeled off a 66 to win by five over the other two. But, in fact, they were all winners before they even went through French customs.
It was different on the outskirts of London, but only in degree. Tumba, the founder, and Montgomery, the organizer, were paying out some money, too. Each of the 24 Americans in the field of 100 was guaranteed $5,000, out of which had to come his expenses. Tumba thus was in hock for $120,000 in appearance money himself.
So the ultimate question was: Do you want 24 Americans with names ranging from Tom Weiskopf to Bobby Wadkins for $120,000, or do you want Watson, Trevino and Player for roughly the same amount?
Tumba's argument was that the European Open at least looked like a golf tournament, with ropes and fences and scorers and grandstands and tented villages and big crowds instead of an afternoon in the French countryside. In any case, Montgomery had picked a jolly good golf course for the inaugural European Open. Walton Heath, which is only a short way past Wimbledon on the Surrey route from London, is considered one of the two or three best "inland" courses in all of Britain. It played to a par of 73 and had multiple pot bunkers and multiple heather. And fittingly, it also had an upper-crust membership. One of the members was heard to remark that the Open was the most fascinating thing to happen at Walton Heath since Henry Cotton "went round with Denny Shute."
Tumba thought it was wonderful that Nicklaus showed up at Walton Heath for a day, shook some hands and granted a press conference, at which he commented on the rival Lanc‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me by saying, "What tournament? Oh, you mean that exhibition in Paris?"
The British press took a mildly acerbic view of Nicklaus' social appearance, if not his role on the "advisory board" of the Walton Heath tournament. "He thinks it's a great tournament," said one reporter, "but evidently not great enough for him to play in."
With Jack only spectating, or advising, the two biggest names in the field were Weiskopf and Ballesteros. One had a beard, and the other lost his clubs, and neither was a factor when the event came to an end in the fading light of England last Sunday evening. Weiskopf, who had grown his beard on a hunting trip, started out pretty well, then injured his wrist in the heather and shot an 81. He spent a lot of time trying to get a glass of ice water in the dining room of the Copthorne Hotel, where most of the players were headquartered.
Ballesteros' agent, Ed Barner, had asked for $8 billion in appearance money but had been refused. Sevvy came anyway. He then misplaced his clubs and had to borrow a set for the first round. When he found his own clubs in the locker of a Walton Heath member, he did worse. After two rounds, he was out of it, having missed the cut.
One had to wonder whether Ballesteros would have misplaced his golf clubs had he been at the Lanc‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me, to which he had been invited. But British PGA rules no longer permit anyone to play an event if it is up against one of its own. This has been called the "anti-McCormack rule" by some. At the Lanc‚Äö√†√∂¬¨•me, the only cut you can miss is the one that comes when you discover that the Lafite-Rothschild has run out.
At the finish, the European Open was captured by one of the more lightly regarded of the Americans, Bobby Wadkins. Not Lanny. His brother Bobby. He had to fire a last-round 68 to tie Gil Morgan and Bernard Gallacher, making an eagle and two birdies in the last five holes to do it, and then he had to birdie the first sudden-death hole in the playoff. Thus the first European Open turned out to be a real sports event with a fairly dramatic conclusion.
But as to whether the future winner of European golf will be a Gaetan Mourgue d'Algue or a Sven Tumba, no conclusion was reached last week. Maybe we'll know more next year. European golf wasn't built in a day, you know.