Most of the time professional athletes are paid to jab, spike, ace, sack, crush and in general demoralize other professional athletes. So when a group of them gets together for a few days in Florida and they begin aiding and abetting, not to mention hugging and kissing each other, the occasion is worth notice. Even without the hugging and kissing, last week's mixed team championship at the Bardmoor Country Club near St. Petersburg would have been fairly memorable, though not as much fun. It produced two holes-in-one, a gaggle of eagles and two 63s. It also produced smiles on faces that had seldom been known to smile before.
The two people with the most to smile, about Sunday evening were Pat Bradley and Lon Hinkle, though their grins had come the hard way. They had teed off that morning at 20 under par, two strokes up on Mike Hill and Vivian Brownlee, their closest pursuers, and six ahead of the next team. But after nine holes they had dropped a stroke; Hill and Brownlee had picked up one; they were tied for the lead and looking shaky. At the last hole Hinkle missed a 15-foot birdie putt that would have won. So they headed back out to the par-4 15th for sudden death.
Sudden it was. Neither Hill nor Brownlee had been in a playoff before, and their inexperience showed in their tee shots—his left of the fairway, hers right, both difficult. By contrast Bradley and Hinkle were back sailing again. She drove down the middle of the fairway, and he put his shot within 135 yards of the green. Now she hit an eight-iron eight feet above the hole, and he sank the putt for the winning birdie. Bradley hurled her visor into the air and herself into Hinkle's arms. Hinkle beamed as he had beamed all week.
In the tournament format, both players on a team hit tee shots, then both hit second shots, each off the other's ball. Then the team decided which ball to use for the third shot. From there they alternated shots on that ball till they had it in the hole. On the par 3s they chose a ball before the second shot. Occasionally a spark or two would fly over who was to hit the approach and who the first putt, golfers being rather rugged individualists. When Jim Colbert claimed that his partner, Silvia Bertolaccini, made all their decisions, Silvia's eyebrows flew up in surprise. "At the very start I said to her," Jim explained, " 'You can just assume I'm going to want to hit every shot, so if you want to hit one just shout, I'm up.' " The system must have worked relatively well, because they finished sixth.
Gibby Gilbert and Sharon Miller led the tournament after a first-round 65, but then Hinkle and Bradley took over. Defending champions Hollis Stacy and Jerry Pate were on the fringe of the fight for a while, but the almost flawless 63 Hill and Brownlee put together on Saturday produced most of the rest of the excitement, setting the stage as it did for the Sunday horse race.
Bradley, a strong, blue-eyed Massachusetts girl who grew up among a gang of skiing brothers, is a natural athlete who hits the ball as far as anyone on the LPGA tour. She also skied, but when it came time to choose a livelihood she picked golf and a Florida college. This year was her fifth and best on the tour. It would have been considered outstanding, on the basis of her three wins, had it not occurred on the same planet where Nancy Lopez was performing miracles.
Hinkle is tall, moon-faced and good-natured, a long hitter from California who played college golf at San Diego State and who has moved from 138th on the PGA Tour earnings list in 1976 to 60th in 1977 to 16th this year. In April he won his first tournament, the New Orleans Open, after seven years of trying.
Most of the pairs had something in common. Either they were glamorous (Jan Stephenson and Tom Weiskopf) or they were managed by Mark McCormack (Laura Baugh and Peter Jacobsen) or they were under contract to Wilson (Stacy and Pate) or they shared a connection with someplace like Texas (Sandra Palmer and Miller Barber). Bradley and Hinkle got together because of a good deed Hinkle did five years ago. "We were playing together in the pro-am at the Kathryn Crosby tournament with three amateurs," says Bradley. "I had just turned pro and had enough problems hitting my own ball without having to look for my amateurs' balls all over the lot and keep, track of their scores. Lon told me not to worry, he'd take care of everything, and I've never forgotten that. Last year he wasn't eligible for this tournament, but this year, when he was, I jumped on him early, before he got away."
The event, formerly the Pepsi-Cola Mixed Team Championship but now the JCPenney Classic, is only three years old, and its novel appeal is undiminished. It is still the only tournament all year where Fuzzy Zoeller is going to step up to his ball on the 1st tee and say to his partner, "Let's get a par here today, you little morsel, you," while Debbie Austin, the morsel, grins from ear to ear and the crowd around the tee chortles delightedly. When Austin and Zoeller stood together last week, facing into the Florida wind, they looked like two frisky poodles. Such affinity did not ensure making the cut, however, and they missed. So did the promising new pairings of Carner and Lou Graham and Donna Caponi Young and Lee Trevino.
The format did not permit very many bogeys. At least one of the partners had to be putting well every day for a team to remain in contention, and it helped, too, if the woman was long off the tee, accurate, or both, as Bradley was. "She's in play on every single hole," said Hinkle, "which is more than I can say for me." Hinkle described with amusement how disorienting the team experience could be. "You can hit a terrible drive and find yourself with an 80-yard wedge to the green; then you hit a perfect drive and you're back there with a two-iron."
Basically, however, the atmosphere at Bardmoor was downright civilized, and therein lay the novelty. In a sport in which egocentricity is basic to survival, small kindnesses—a smile, a pat on the back, a heartfelt "Hoo-eee!"—go a long way. Nothing but money was at stake, to be sure, no exemptions, no invitations to the Masters, no year-end honors, but there was plenty of loot. The Penney purse was $300,000, up $100,000 over last year. Broken down, that meant $30,000 for each of the winners and $19,500 for each of the runners-up. For the women, their $150,000 share was exceeded only by the Colgate-Dinah Shore tournament purse, and not even Lopez, with a record-breaking $189,813 in earnings for the year, was prepared to skip it. Only the top 44 women were eligible to play, and almost every one of them did. For someone like Bradley, with $118,057 already in hand, the event was a challenge and the win a great way to wind up the year. But the 31-year-old Brownlee had earned only $20,804, only slightly over the break-even point for the women, and for her, success at the Bardmoor was the difference between treading water and making financial headway.
The men, on the other hand, are quite accustomed to playing for considerably larger purses. To the top 10 on the 1978 money list, six of whom were playing at Bardmoor, $30,000 would do little more than create additional tax problems. But Mike Hill, Brownlee's partner, had won only $17,648 on a tour in which the average player's expenses are between $25,000 and $30,000, and finishing second was for him, too, the difference between red and black ink.
In other words, behind its amiable facade the mixed team championship had a lot of drama going for it. Take the pairing of Lopez and Curtis Strange. Last year, when the tournament was won by Stacy and Pate, the only challenge on the last day came from Lopez and Strange, who were then the two most promising newcomers in the game. At that point both had been playing the tours for about five months and neither had yet won, but both had already been signed by McCormack, both had extraordinary records as amateur and college players and great things were expected of them.
That was 12 months age. In the intervening year Lopez has so far exceeded even the most optimistic forecasts that she already has achieved lasting celebrity. Strange, on the other hand, has had a rough go, at least by the standards he had set for himself. He closed the year 88th on the money list, with $29,346. The stress of the tour reached him, and last week at the Bardmoor friends said that he was once again working himself into a state. Early in the week he admitted that he had been having trouble sleeping again. And who could blame him? If lovely-Lopez-who-never-loses were to lose at Bardmoor, people might well point accusing fingers at her non-winner partner.
In the end, though, Lopez and Strange finished a respectable fourth and split $16,000. Fortunately for Strange's state of mind, it was clear from the beginning that Lopez also was not at her best. Only a week earlier she had returned from Kuala Lumpur, where she had won her ninth tournament of the year. She said she was tired, that she felt five years older than she had a year ago and she appeared to be going through the motions much of the time. She and Strange joked with the press (Q. Nancy, what happens if you and Curtis disagree? A: I punch him out), but except for a string of four birdies on the back nine on Friday, they never got anything really going.
Somebody once said that compatibility is when one party has ability and the other is patable. Hinkle defined it even better. After he had "feathered a nine-iron" 117 yards into the hole at the 7th for an eagle on Saturday, and Bradley, in her delight, had nearly flattened him right there on the green, he said, "When doing something like that means just as much to someone else as it does to you, it's twice as good and gives you twice the pleasure."
On Thursday Hinkle said he was nervous. On Friday he said he was "getting the feel of this thing." By Sunday he obviously had it down pat-able.