Arnold Palmer has a new toy to go with his Cessna Citation II, his five harness horses and the 4,000 golf clubs he keeps in barrels in the basement of his rambling house in Latrobe, Pa. Now he has a golf tournament, and happily for the PGA Tour, which has long wanted another attractive stop in its Florida lineup. Palmer's Bay Hill Citrus Classic in Orlando, an old event under new management played on a much better golf course, could turn out to be one of the brightest pre-Masters fixtures.
The inaugural at Bay Hill, the club that Palmer owns with harness racing's Del Miller and three others, had a field that looked like that of one of PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman's compulsory "designated" tournaments. Almost everybody showed up. Palmer merely threw out his net and the fish swam in, including the biggest fish of all, Jack Nicklaus, who had played only the Bob Hope Desert Classic this year. It was like a politician calling in his favors, and there isn't a golfer alive, even Nicklaus, who doesn't owe Palmer one. Jack obliged by committing himself a couple of months early so that his name could be used in promoting the tournament.
In return, every day for six months Palmer devoted himself to providing a golf tournament the players would enjoy. Winnie Palmer took care of the social calendar, and an army of Mark McCormack's International Management Group minions looked after the sponsors. But the golf course was Arnold's special concern, and by the time his guests arrived, it was in such fantastic shape the players agreed to a man (something they rarely do about anything) that it was the best-conditioned layout they had seen this year. Jerry Pate even compared it to Augusta National, golfs Eden before the fall. As they played their practice rounds and looked over Bay Hill's 7,100 splendidly groomed yards, some said it was too long, some that its par-3s should be shortened and some that with the wrong wind it would be unfair. But they all applauded the fairways, the rough and the greens, which they said were perfect.
An alarm should go off when the pros say greens are perfect. What they mean is they are perfect for shooting 64s, which is what Andy Bean did the first day. "Bean destroys Bay Hill" screamed a headline in the Orlando Sentinel-Star. Jim Colbert shot 65; Ed Sneed and Ray Floyd had 66s; and altogether, 52 of the field of 144 shot even par 71 or better.
March 12, 1979
A lot of theorizing followed about why a course that was supposed to be rife with peril had rolled over and played dead. "These guys are the best golfers in the world," explained Colbert, lamely, but Palmer said it was because the PGA Tour field staff was mucking about with his golf course. By moving the tee markers forward from the championship tees to the members' tees, the PGA staff had shortened the 8th and 9th holes by 20 and 30 yards, respectively, and Palmer was hopping mad. "I think if you shoot par you should be able to know you've shot a good round," he growled. Nicklaus shot a 68 and said he had not played or putted particularly well. Leonard Thompson, who had one of four 67s, said, "I could tell Arnold didn't have anything to do with setting the course up today. But I don't second-guess the field staff. I've long since learned you have to cut your sock out of your mouth when you do that."
The real reason for the low scoring, as Sneed pointed out after his second-day 69, was that the greens were soft and hospitable to all kinds of approach shots. "When the greens hold a shot easily, it's not so important if your drive isn't in the fairway," said Sneed. "It's different when the greens are hard." The greens were also slow. Instead of quaking over their 10- and 12-foot putts, the pros were stroking them confidently with reasonable expectation of their going in.
A bit of a breeze came up Friday and there were no more 64s, but in spite of that, 48 players shot par or better. Bean, at nine under, still led, even with two bogeys on the back nine. Behind him were Sneed at seven under and, at six under, Pate, Bill Rogers, John Schroeder and newcomer Joe Hager, whose 66 tied for low round of the day.
The most notable disaster of the round befell the tour's current leading money-winner, Lon Hinkle, who followed a 71 with an 83 and missed the cut. Hinkle, playing with Nicklaus and starting on the back nine, was struggling to keep the ball in play all day. When he got to the 6th hole, a long, tempting dogleg curving to the left around the edge of a lake, he hooked two drives into the water, the first a full 30 yards off shore, and wound up with an 11. Lee Trevino hit three balls into the same lake the next day, finished with a 78 and withdrew, saying he could make more money selling soda pop on Sunday than playing golf.
Finally, on Saturday the wind began to blow, and as the weather changed so did the face of the Bay Hill Citrus Classic. "I finished without falling in the water. That's about all I can say," said Schroeder of his 72, which included a double-bogey on 17 and a bogey on 18. "I was in the water all day," said Bean, who shot a 76 with two double-bogeys and dropped from first to fifth place. "When I mess up I do it good." "When you're not sure what club to use," said Sneed after a 73, "you often hit a bad shot because it's hard to believe in what you're doing."
When the ripples on the water at 17 and 18 had subsided on Saturday evening, the new leader, at six under par, was 23-year-old Bob Byman, an Arnold Palmer-scholarship golfer from Wake Forest who is the best-looking blond to earn his way onto the tour since Ben Crenshaw showed up six years ago. By-man kept his wits when all about him were losing theirs and blaming it on the wind, and shot a 70. He even birdied the treacherous 17th, a 223-yard par-3 that is almost entirely over water, and in Nicklaus' opinion the best hole on the Bay Hill course. One stroke behind By-man at five under were Schroeder, Sneed and Rex Caldwell. Bean, having lost five strokes, was now tied for fifth with Dave Edwards, Danny's younger brother, at four under. At three under were Nicklaus, Rogers, Fuzzy Zoeller and Rik Massengale. A fearsome fivesome was at two under—Tom Watson, Hale Irwin, Leonard Thompson, Grier Jones and J. C. Snead—all well within reach.
Sunday might have been a free-for-all like Saturday had the wind blown as hard, had Nicklaus, Sneed and Zoeller not chosen to shoot their worst scores of the week, had Rogers not bogeyed 18 or had Irwin hit his last putt just a little harder. Instead it ended in a cliff-hanger between Schroeder and Byman.
Schroeder is 33 and the winner of one tournament. He has been on the tour for 10 years, improving markedly in the last two. He is the son of Ted Schroeder, who won Wimbledon in 1949 and played on 10 U.S. Davis Cup teams. He grew up in La Jolla, Calif., in somewhat privileged circumstances, and because of that and his custom-tailored golf clothes, his nickname on the tour is Star.
Until Sunday, Byman, 23, had been a star in Europe and the Far East but a rabbit in the U.S. He has won two Dutch, one Scandinavian and a New Zealand Open, three of them before he qualified for the U.S. tour. He failed twice at the tour qualifying schools, but said Sunday, "Looking back on it, I think it toughened me." Nevertheless, rather than try a third time, he went to Europe, gained confidence in his self-taught swing with his triumphs there and acquired Mark McCormack as his agent and Dunlop as his corporate patron. He finally got through Q school last spring.
Byman started his last round with three birdies in the first five holes. At the turn he was leading Schroeder by one and Bean by two. When Schroeder double-bogeyed the 12th and was suddenly three strokes behind, it looked as if the only excitement was going to rise out of either a Byman collapse, a reasonable bet, or a challenge from Bean, Rogers or Irwin. But on the closing holes, Schroeder came to life again. He holed a 30-foot putt for a birdie on 16 and a 15-footer for another birdie on the difficult 17th. With that, Byman's lead was down to one stroke, which dissolved to no edge at all when he missed a four-foot putt for par on 17 a few minutes later.
The 18th is a hole that Palmer had redesigned especially for the tournament, lowering the green 12 feet to create an amphitheater effect and changing it from a routine par-5 to a very tough par-4—too tough, some players said. As a closing hole, it was every bit as dramatic as it was intended to be, especially on the last day.
Schroeder hit into the right rough and then into a bunker at the back of the green. As he walked toward the green, Byman was bogeying 17, so they were tied at seven under. Schroeder's third shot out of the bunker rolled down a slope toward the pin and past it and on and on—15 feet or so. Miraculously, considering the situation, he almost holed the putt coming back for par. Now, at six under, he had to watch as Byman played the hole. Byman also hit into the rough and then over the back edge. His pitch from the left rear of the green was hit well, but it too rolled down past the pin—10 feet in his case. Byman putted boldly coming back, but missed, and off they went to the 15th tee for sudden death, with the sky growing dark and thunder rumbling in the distance.
On the first playoff green, Byman's birdie putt hung on the lip and Schroeder's, for par, rolled in the side door, but at the 16th, it was Schroeder's that hung and the first Citrus Classic at Bay Hill was over. Palmer, watching a young man win his first tournament on a monitor from the TV tower at 18, sounded genuinely wistful when he said, "It takes me back about 25 years. He has a great future in front of him."
Palmer's new baby would seem to have formidable long-range prospects, too, at least partly because of his and Winnie's devotion to the tournament. The Palmers live in a large airy condominium at Bay Hill overlooking Lake Tibet Butler, the marshy home of herons and egrets and an alligator that surfaces when Palmer whistles, and is rewarded with marsh-mallows. During the tournament, the daily parties at the Palmers' were informal and hospitable, and that was the style of the event as well. All week long Arnold and Winnie darted around in golf carts, stopping here and there to offer aid and comfort. "Anything you want? Anything you need?" Palmer must have asked a thousand times. His 59th-place finish, 16 strokes behind the winner, was hardly surprising considering such interruptions as the arrival at 8:30 a.m. Thursday of two highway patrolmen to fingerprint him because one of the harness horses he owns in partnership with Miller, a trotter named Deke Palmer (after Arnold's father), was scheduled to race that night at Pompano Park. With Miller at the reins, Deke Palmer won and paid $8.
According to Alastair Johnston, a young Scot from Glasgow who is Palmer's man inside McCormack's IMG, the Bay Hill Citrus Classic, done as Arnold wanted it done, cost $1.1 million. That's a lot of toy for the kid who grew up beside the 5th fairway at Latrobe and used to offer to hit the women members' drives over the creek in front of the tee for a nickel.