It seemed strange to begin the 1979 professional golf tour in the nation's capital of white shoes, face-lifts and funny carts, but John Mahaffey managed to give it something of the same old look by the time the Bob Hope Desert Classic was over Sunday in Palm Springs. He won again. John Mahaffey has been winning tournaments ever since he took the PGA Championship in August. So now it must be noted that Mahaffey has not only escaped the oblivion he endured before he started his comeback last year but is fast on the way to becoming a "name," a fixture, one of those Tom Watson people. Mahaffey has won four of the last 10 tournaments he has played in, and if he doesn't watch out, he may get so rich he will have to move to Palm Springs and name a street after himself.
The Hope is not only the longest tournament of the year, stretching 90 holes from Wednesday through Sunday, but it is also contested over the most courses, four, and it has the most golfers wandering around, what with the 384 amateurs who for four of the five days join 128 pros who have to help them look for their putts. This year the Hope was the only tournament the PGA could persuade to accept the honor of starting off the season, the opener falling a week later than usual for a number of reasons having to do with the pro football playoffs and new TV arrangements. So, all in all, it was a peculiar feeling for the golf pros to be in Palm Springs, California in mid-January instead of in Arizona, where the winter tour had started off the past few years, or in Los Angeles, where it used to begin.
But it didn't seem to bother Mahaffey, who just kept on playing well, as if 1978 had never ended. You have to remember that Mahaffey not only won the PGA, after almost two years of looking as if he had forgotten the game and it had forgotten him, but also won at Pleasant Valley the following week. Seven starts later he took the World Cup individual championship in Hawaii. And now he has the Hope.
"I didn't come out here expecting this," he said. "I hadn't played any golf. But I guess nobody's played any golf."
Mahaffey led the Hope from the second round on. He had opened with a 66 on Wednesday but trailed Bob Murphy and Charles Coody, who had 65s. His second 66 on Thursday put him up front, and two consecutive 71s kept him there. Various challengers came and went, but it was Lee Trevino who emerged as his biggest worry.
Trevino was one of the few players who admitted he had been working at golf since the first of the year. He said he had learned to hit a draw and that he was putting like a fellow named Jack Nicklaus. And, indeed, it was Trevino who went out in the final round and. playing one hole in front of Mahaffey, made four big putts on the last nine at Indian Wells to reach the TV microphones first with a closing 69 and a 90-hole total of 344, or 16 under par. He had concluded with a 12-foot birdie putt that would force either a birdie out of Mahaffey or a playoff.
"I never won a tournament by backing off," Mahaffey said he reminded himself on the 18th tee. And so, in the shadows of the Santa Rosa Mountains, he went at the par-5 hole with a driver instead of playing it safe. This left him with a minor problem. He had to hit his second shot from a stance in a bunker. Which he did nicely enough, but he was still short of the green, with a pond in between. His pitch shot was designed first to clear the water, and after that to get as close as possible.
What Mahaffey left himself with was just about the same 12-foot birdie putt that Trevino had dropped. Mahaffey wasted no time. He looked very much like a man who knew it was destined to fall. Confidence does that. Winning does that.
"Outside of the playoff hole in the PGA, it was as good a putt as I ever hit," he said.
At Palm Springs there were those who felt it was easier for Mahaffey and Trevino to sink putts once the event had become a golf tournament instead of an amateur circus. The Hope amateurs are an amazing lot. Each year they combine to establish new records for white shoes and golf carts cleverly embellished with Rolls-Royce-style "radiators." They come from every part of the land and pay handsomely for the privilege of hanging around with the pros and show-biz types while fetching their Titleists out of palm trees and water hazards that have fountains in them.
It is mostly the luck of the draw that puts them together in three-man teams, and there is also luck involved in which four pros they draw for their four rounds. On that score, a New York real-estate tycoon named Lew Rudin had a right to be the happiest entrant in the field last week. One of his amateur partners was Telly Savalas—and not many of the amateurs can boast of drawing a celebrity, most often getting car dealers like themselves. Next, Rudin drew a pro rotation made up of Trevino, Nicklaus, Dave Stockton and Arnold Palmer. At the daily jam session at Indian Wells after the close of play, it was said that Lew Rudin must have had a lot of bodies hidden in various closets to be so lucky.
By contrast, there are amateurs who play in the Hope for years; if they see Nicklaus or Lawrence Welk across a crowded dance floor, or bunker, they consider it worth the $2,750 entry fee they pay for a goody bag of gifts and the chance to win some crystal.
The amateur involvement in the Hope makes it a weird event indeed. In any group you are watching only one pro, and while the amateurs are lining up their putts in a blaze of pastel ensembles, or fiddling with their fur head covers, the wait to see a golf shot can be agonizing for the spectator. Few in the gallery seem to care, however. As a woman said one day, "How many times do they go around? Actually, I'm only here to see Andy Williams."
What this does is make the Hope the least loved tournament on the PGA circuit among the pros. As Trevino said of the problem in playing four different courses—Indian Wells, La Quinta, Bermuda Dunes and Tamarisk—"It's hell finding your way home from a different place every night." The courses are scattered in all directions around the desert, as a matter of fact, and Tamarisk is the only one near Palm Springs itself. Still, the Hope remains the only tournament where in order to go anywhere you find yourself crossing and recrossing Bob Hope Drive or Frank Sinatra Drive. The committee's one oversight was to forget to paint green and red Gucci stripes around the leader board.
On the other hand, it may be appropriate that in 1979 the Hope began the tour, which is richer by $3 million than ever before, thanks to some new TV packages. The alpaca gang is only going to compete for $13 million this year, so it was nice that the pros got to look at all those nifty golf carts equipped with stereos, coolers and musical horns. Most of the fairways of the four courses meander by mansions that sport miniature garage doors for the carts. There was a question of whether most Palm Springs residents have adopted the King Tut theory of life, entombing themselves with every earthly treasure while they are still alive, or whether they have simply sentenced themselves to golf without parole.
As for the golf, there wasn't that much excitement during the four amateur rounds, despite Mahaffey's 66 on Thursday at La Quinta, where he had seven straight birdies. Hardly anyone was at La Quinta that day, because Nicklaus and Gerald Ford and Trevino and Savalas and everybody else was at Tamarisk. Nicklaus was actually seen to be yawning during his rounds.
He explained it by saying, "I have trouble getting up on a week-to-week basis. I guess I feel like I don't have much to prove this week."
Nicklaus did manage to wake up momentarily on Sunday at the 6th hole at Indian Wells. He hit an eight-iron exactly 146 yards into the cup for a hole in one. The roar out on the course was so loud you would have thought that Johnny Bench had got up again to dance in the Indian Wells clubhouse.
For Nicklaus hole-in-one collectors, it was his ninth lifetime and his third in tour competition. The others on the tour came at Jacksonville and Memphis in years he can't even remember. Nicklaus' ace helped him to a last-round 69 and pulled him into a tie for 11th place.
What thrills there were in the end came on the greens of Indian Wells, where Trevino, using his newly adopted Nicklaus putting style, made the putts he needed to keep Mahaffey worried about a sudden-death playoff and where Mahaffey made the big one he needed on 18 to avoid it. The winning putt made a perfect ending for the opener—a new time and a new place, but nothing shocking so far as the tour is concerned. John Mahaffey is a winner now.