In the wind that turned Sawgrass into the usual garden of horrors last week, most of the touring golf pros sentenced to the Tournament Players Championship wished they had filed the same flight plans as the mallards who frequently refused to leave the fairways. Most of the pros—but not Lanny Wadkins. Wadkins seized the occasion to post a number that will stand long after Sawgrass has blown away.
At times, nothing seems to make much sense on the PGA Tour this year, not on the surface, at least. And Wadkins' astonishing 72-hole score of 283, five under par, on the wind-lashed, reptile-guarded, over-marshed, bumpy premises of Sawgrass was one more unlikely outcome to dazzle the mind of anyone familiar with the place.
The course was as confining and tortuous as it had been in the two previous TPCs held on this particular brink of the Atlantic Ocean near Jacksonville, Fla. And the wind was every bit as severe and unpredictable as it had been in the past, when no one, not even Jack Nicklaus last year, could shoot lower than one-over-par 289.
But here came Wadkins in one of those moods of his, the Wadkins who can hit his irons into the flags like nobody else, who is unafraid of challenges when he's keeping the drives in play, the Wadkins who loves a gamble, and even gets a little cocky when he's going good. It is interesting how Wadkins often picks the toughest courses to do a number on. He now becomes the first double winner of 1979, having captured the Los Angeles Open at Riviera. Sawgrass and Riviera. Not bad. But as you study his career, you find him doing it in other difficult places: Firestone in the World Series of Golf, Pebble Beach for the PGA Championship, Waverley Country Club in the U.S. Amateur—monsters all.
April 2, 1979
Wadkins' rounds at Sawgrass were a 67 on Thursday, the calm day, then a 68 on Friday when it began to swirl and gust, a 76 on Saturday when the average score of the field was 77, and his closing 72 on Sunday when the course was even tougher. Of his Friday 68 and his Sunday 72, Lanny said, "They were two of the best rounds of golf I've ever played in my life."
There have been 72-hole totals that have startled both golfers and golf observers, some because they were so incredibly low, others because they were low under the conditions. Wadkins' 283 at Sawgrass will fall into the latter category, to be remembered with Ben Hogan's 276 on "old" Riviera in the 1948 U.S. Open, and with Tommy Bolt's 283 in the 1958 Open at Southern Hills.
"I've been playing a lot of golf and playing well," Wadkins said. "When you've got the driver under control, when your tempo is good, and when you get the putter going with confidence, you can shoot good scores. There wasn't anything I didn't think I could do, even when the wind blew."
Mainly what Wadkins did was avoid the double and triple bogeys that were crippling nearly everyone else. Even his bogeys were rare as he holed a seemingly endless string of three- and four-foot putts for pars, and then would drill a three-iron into the pin for the birdie that knocked down his pursuers and staggered Sawgrass itself.
The record is clear. Wadkins is not only the first to win two titles in 1979, he is one of a precious few who have yet to miss a cut. His winnings now total $134,948 for the year, and he's going to keep on playing almost every week. Lanny Wadkins believes you have to truck while the wheels are rolling.
The tournament began with everyone waiting for the real Sawgrass to stand up. Thursday was a lovely calm day, and the small, oddly shaped greens had been watered. The wind was still out to sea. The players pounced on the course and got all they could from it while the getting was good. Kermit Zarley led with a record-tying 66. Behind him were Nicklaus, Wadkins and Andy North with 67s, and they were followed by 49 others with rounds below par.
Wadkins kept it up on Friday with his 68, which gave him a three-stroke lead over George Burns. The wind was starting to growl but not as it would on Saturday and Sunday, when the players would begin to discuss goofy golf, whacky golf, and ask where the dinosaurs were. Wadkins went those 18 holes without a bogey, and Burns made eight birdies while he was firing his own 66, but others were beginning to depart. Zarley found a 79, for example. Nicklaus' 73 was more in character with what he had been doing in other events. One who maintained the pace was Lee Trevino, who added a 69 to his opening 70 and had to be taken seriously.
Then came the two days of doom. On Saturday young Jack Renner shot a 71, low for the day. He must have passed four thousand people. In actuality, he went from a tie for 18th into a tie for second, where he was joined by Trevino, Burns and Bill Kratzert, all of them still three shots behind Wadkins. Tom Watson might have been among them had he not played the last three holes in four over par, although he claimed he hit only one bad shot. The wind did the rest.
On Sunday morning it was perfectly obvious that the wind was going to blow at 25 miles per hour, with gusts up to 45 or 50. Anyone in the same neighborhood as Wadkins had a right to be hopeful about his chances; Sawgrass could grab anyone anywhere.
The whole tournament could have been in the last threesome, where Wadkins was grouped with Trevino and Burns. But the first nine quickly ended such a notion by erasing Burns and Trevino. Poor George went out in 46 blows, while Trevino posted a 41. They were on their unmerry ways to rounds of 83 and 79. At the same time, Wadkins was shooting a one-under 35 and taking a five-stroke lead on the field into the last nine holes. Kratzert had made an early move on him with birdies at the 2nd and 4th holes, but just as suddenly he was a goner. He tripled-bogeyed the 7th after the wind carried his drive into the trees.
Wadkins was running out of challengers. Somewhere during the last nine, Tom Watson got to two under par on his round and one under for the championship, at a point when Wadkins was one over for the day and four under. In other words, Watson was only three strokes back with five or six holes to play, and the wind was still trying to de-roof everything in its path.
But nothing was going to change. Wadkins was having another one of those weeks. When the wind was easier to deal with in the first two rounds, he was freezing the ball to the flags. When the wind came up, he played the game like billiards, running the table clear of opponents and putting like a man in a trance.
The result was that improbable score and another of the finishes that have made the 1979 tour so difficult to assess. Consider the surprising victories of Mark McCumber at Doral, Bob Byman at Bay Hill, Larry Nelson at Inverrary and Fuzzy Zoeller at San Diego—all of them previous non-winners. McCumber was a particular hallucination, for his win followed six consecutive weeks of missing cuts and failing even to qualify on Mondays.
That McCumber and the others could manage to win must have been a reflection on something. What was it? The stars were lazy? Not trying? Waiting for the TPC or the Masters? Too rich? The answer is that all of these things are partly true; they always are. And the rest of the explanation is that it hasn't been all that strange a year when one considers that other tournaments have been captured by Wadkins, Hubert Green (Hawaii), Ben Crenshaw (Phoenix), John Mahaffey (the Hope), Bruce Lietzke (Tucson), and Lon Hinkle (the Crosby). Names that made sense, including Hinkle's.
And there were other non-winning stars who had hardly been invisible. Watson had finished second twice, and Trevino had been a serious contender twice. So had Hale Irwin, who fired a 62 at Inverrary. Actually, aside from Nicklaus, the only missing person was Tom Weiskopf, who had been known to disappear before, even when he wasn't hunting elk or sheep.
For several years now, the game's leading talents have been using the winter tour as a preparation ground for the Masters and the big-money events of the summer. They always like to win, of course, but they admit they don't want to play too well too soon. Nicklaus may have overdone that particular philosophy this year. Coming into Sawgrass he had played in four tournaments and his best finish had been a tie for 11th in the Hope. But Watson figured that he, at least, was right on schedule.
"I can't wait for Augusta," said Tom, who may have been speaking for a whole elite group of crowd-pleasers.
In his own summation of the season, Weiskopf used up a good joke—a very good one for him. Sitting in the sun in front of the Sawgrass clubhouse one afternoon, Tom laughed and said, "McCumber could be suspended for giving false hope to a hundred guys who can't play."
There is usually a lot of joking at Sawgrass. After the players have tired of griping about the swamp and the elements, they begin laughing at themselves and the shots they are forced to try to bring off. Their horrid scores become decorations of honor, like dueling scars. They all become Allen Miller trudging up the 18th fairway on the last day of the torment with a white towel tied to a club, waving it in surrender.
In the locker room on Saturday afternoon, the early finishers whooped and howled at the TV screen as it presented Nicklaus and the others chin-deep in the weeds, with the wind making their hair look as if it were going to be torn from their scalps any second. As Jack worked on his 82, Dave Hill and Fred Marti ripped out the title page of a magazine story—How I Learned to Play Smart Golf, by Andy Bean—and taped it to the front of Nicklaus' locker. Before Nicklaus came in, Hill fell guilty about the cruelty of the joke and took it down. He simply handed it to Jack instead. Whereupon Nicklaus taped it to the locker himself. And proudly announced that he had taken only 26 putts for his 82.
Somebody did some math. Wadkins was shooting 76 on Saturday and not losing a single shot to the field. No one could remember if such a thing had happened before, not since Harry Vardon.
"What's unusual about it?" Green said, grinning. "Isn't 76 one under here?"
Wind or not, this area of north Florida is going to be the permanent home of the Tournament Players Championship. Commissioner Deane Beman spent part of his time last week taking people on a trip through some woods. The land was only across the highway from Sawgrass, but the contrast was startling; with its towering pines, palms and oaks rising out of a marsh, it could have been two thousand miles away. This is where the Tournament Players Club will be, and this is where the tournament itself will be played beginning in 1981.
Beman found the land and sold the players on the idea of having their own course, a home for their championship and a headquarters for the office of the PGA Tour. Work has already begun on a par-72 layout designed by Pete Dye, the architect who has created some of the more brilliant new courses of the past few years. There are several good golf designers, Jack Nicklaus among them, but none is better than Pete Dye, and few are as creative. On paper, it appears that Dye has sketched a masterpiece of variety and scenery encircling the clubhouse, jutting occasionally into the open marsh and wind and then crawling back into the tunnels of gnarled forest where the ocean breeze will be temporarily bruised before it lashes into the cashmeres.
Sawgrass and the wind have served their purposes. They attracted attention to the TPC. In a year and a half it will be up to the new course to continue the story. No doubt it will. There is a rare combination of age, charm and uniqueness about the area. What can be wrong with the players having their home and their own tournament somewhere between the Fountain of Youth in St. Augustine and Donald Ross' Ponte Vedra? It is a place where both the country and the tour had some beginnings. One thing is sure: the players will be deliriously happy just to get off Sawgrass.