Among the soothing pines of Georgia, a select group of (he nations finest golfers played a tournament last week before a gallery of hardly anybody. The contestants were club professionals, that breed of men who are at once tutors, confessors and sweater salesmen.
In a glamorous sport, the club pros exist, in effect, on the other side of midnight. They are the 8,200 Class A members of the Professional Golfers Association. They clean up the driving ranges, punch their cash registers and explain the intricacies of the 9-Hole Blind Bogey. If they are lucky they have an autographed picture of Jack Nicklaus on the wall.
But once each year they dust off their clubs and play the game the way they once dreamed it would be. Last week at Callaway Gardens, a charming resort near the community of Pine Mountain, 353 players entered the PGA National Club Pro Championship, a 72-hole event worth $120,000 in prize money and an incalculable amount in self-esteem.
Few of the club pros ever thought it would be quite this way. Where once they had envisioned studying a three-footer for the U.S. Open title, their opposition turned out to be the hardware store selling cut-rate clubs. Somewhere along the way, golf became a job. Hampton Auld, a 57-year-old professional from Charleston, W. Va., summed it up on his entry blank. For college attended, he wrote, "Hard Knocks U."
But more than just a smattering of the players in the club pro tournament were once on the tour, and the entry list was dotted with those who at one stage of their lives had found themselves talking to their drivers on the back nine at Pebble' Beach or Doral. In fact, in the 11 years of the event, only one man has won the title who has not had at least a nodding acquaintance with courtesy cars and marshals. Roger Watson also is the only fellow to win the tournament twice.
"I never had any idea what I was doing when I was winning the tournament in 1974 and '75," said Watson. He did, however, have a good idea of what the pro circuit would be like and decided while in college to skip it. "Besides, the top live club pros in the country make between $150,000 and $200,000," says the 36-year-old Cary, N.C. club pro. Which is a lot of alpaca.
If golf is cruel, then the pro circuit is infinitely perverse. Consider:
•Jim Ferriell, who was a forgotten straggler at the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol. Playing last during one round, he and his partner found themselves so far behind Nicklaus, Palmer and the rest of the action, and so far out of things, that occasionally a wandering fan would ask, "Are you guys members?" Last week, on the eve of the club pro event, Ferriell said, "You're either a has-been or a never-was here. I'm a never-was."
•Herb Hooper. Ten years ago, after a round of the Memphis Open, Hooper pulled his car onto the driving range an hour after sunset, and his wife Holly ran out into the field with a shag bag. Back in the darkness, Herb would hit a shot, Holly would cock an ear, listen for the ball, then run over and pick it up. A passerby, observing this odd scene, asked the panting woman her husband's name. She replied in one breathless run-on sentence: "Herb Hooper he finished-third at Maracaibo!" (And 10 years later he missed the cut at Callaway.)
Still, the tour is hard to give up. When Ferriell finally quit in 1975 after seven years, he couldn't bear to watch golf on television. Now he is 36 years old and enjoys his job at the Crooked Stick Club in Indianapolis. In 1976 he tied for second in the club pro event, earning a berth on the nine-man PGA Cup Match team that plays an annual series with Great Britain-Ireland. Another bonus in the tournament is that the low 25 finishers qualify for the PGA Championship. This year, however, Ferriell was a has-been. He also missed the cut.
To be eligible for the club pro, a player must be a PGA member and not have played in more than 12 tour events in the previous year. Thus there were such diverse entries as Dow Finsterwald, who was once a name on the circuit and now is at the Broadmoor in Colorado Springs and a candidate for treasurer of the PGA. Also on hand was Jim King, who is best remembered for the trouble he had several years ago with a double bogey and a PGA official on the same hole; he took an interlocking grip on the neck of the official after the official told him he was playing too slowly. King was suspended from the tour and got a club job in Orlando, Fla., where, he says, "I try to play not more than once a day." And at his own pace. At Callaway Gardens, both golfers made the 54-hole cut, although neither challenged for the lead.
To stay up there at Callaway Gardens, a player has to be consistent because the tournament is played over three courses, none of which have much in common except for their last name. The Mountain View and Gardens View layouts play to a par of 72, while the shorter and infinitely more constricted Lake View has a par of 70 and is considered a lollipop. The idea is to make your score on the Lake, pick up what you can at the Gardens and hold on at the treacherous Mountain, where the qualifiers gather for the final round Sunday.
Because the tournament is played during the resort's off-season and gets what might gently be termed minimal publicity, there is no need for gallery ropes. The biggest audience each day occurs when the pros gather around the scoreboard to determine their positions.
For a time on Saturday, Larry Ringer was enjoying the view. He was leading the tournament, which was rather remarkable because he has a bad back and in a round will occasionally grab on to a tree limb and hang from it. Still, he had shot 69-67-70—206, eight under par. Ringer is the club pro at the Naval Academy in Annapolis, Md. He quit the tour in 1975 after two years of "no fun." No fun is never finishing higher than 16th.
Ringer's advantage was fashioned by virtue of his remarkable mastery of the Mountain course on Friday when he made seven birdies, usually a week's work for him. Asked if he felt any pressure in going for the $17,000 first prize, Ringer said, "If I win here tomorrow, it will double my salary. I felt the pressure all day." I feel it right now."
But by day's end, Ringer had dropped back to third as Jim Ferree and Jay Overton both came in with sub-par rounds. Ferree is a transplanted North Carolinian now living in Pittsburgh who speaks in the cadences normally associated with a Southern plantation owner. He had a 68 on Lake View for 204, while Overton, a former small-college champion, came out of nowhere with a 67 on the Mountain course for 205.
Ferree's performance made a prophet out of Roger Watson, who a day earlier had figured out that "Lord Jim" was actually leading the tournament because he already had played the Mountain course while those ahead of him had not. In fact, of the top 11 after Friday's round, seven had not played the Mountain course. On Saturday none of them shot better than 72, and one, Bob Leaver, who led after two rounds, fell to a 77.
Although Ferree won four tour events during his vagabond years, his explosive putting stroke made his traveling companion, a spaniel named Blue, howl with anguish. During the first two rounds at Callaway Gardens, Ferree was predictably perfect from tee to green, creasing the hard fairways with what he called "my line drives. They roll a lot." He made only two bogeys, both when his putter misfired, and spent most of his time explaining, in his gentle Southern tones, why he was playing so well.
Saturday, on the Lake View course, Ferree meandered through the first nine holes, looking over his shoulder at the scoreboard, and made the turn in even par, then bagged three birdies before running into another three-putt green on the last hole.
Of course, few of the players at Callaway Gardens are miracle workers on the greens; otherwise, as Ferree noted, "We wouldn't be here. I don't see anybody named Jack Nicklaus."
A classic example was Dean Refram, who began Sunday's final round tied for fourth place at 208. Refram was one of the first tour players to putt croquet style. He was a fine striker of the ball, and for the one year (1967) he putted between his legs, he seemed to have solved his travails on the greens. The next year croquet putting was outlawed on the grounds of dignity—and Refram was on his way to the pro shop.
On Sunday Ferree went out to win a tournament he had dedicated to Blue, who was back sleeping in the car. Ferree, however, kept the muzzle on his putter, making only one putt over four feet. By the 13th hole, he and his playing companion, John Gentile, were deadlocked. Gentile is a 31-year-old pro out of Bridgeport, Conn., who had started the day four strokes back at 208 but was now sinking putt after putt without cracking a smile. Gentile's aim is to maintain a calm demeanor—what he calls "coping with reality"—and when he sank a 50-footer for an eagle on the 11th hole, his breath would not have fogged a mirror. The two finished the 72 holes tied at 276, 10 under.
In the sudden-death playoff, beneath a rising moon, Gentile first almost holed a 40-yard wedge shot, skirting a bunker and stopping the ball 18 inches from the cup. Finsterwald later told him that it might have been the greatest shot he'd ever seen.
Then on the next hole, a par-5, Ferree was contemplating a birdie, having chipped to within 30 inches, when Gentile exploded from a bunker and made a six-foot birdie putt. That was too much reality for Ferree, who missed his short putt and instantly recalled why he left the tour those many years ago. Golf on the other side of midnight may be cruel, but at least you don't have to play again next week.