A rough time at La Costa

Tom Watson strayed from the straight and narrow at the Tournament of Champions, but came out of the sand, water and weeds so dexterously he won by six strokes
April 29, 1979

The upper crust of the pro golf tour returned to the land of milk, honey and the jet-powered Jacuzzi last week for the MONY Tournament of Champions, an event strictly for the elite. Members of the elite will remind you that tour golf was never meant to be fun, but at the La Costa Country Club it is about as far removed from torture as it ever gets.

The T of C is a chance for the game's top players, defined here as those who have won at least one tournament in the preceding 12 months, to gather with their wives and children at a fancy resort outside of San Diego, steam all the Masters' tradition and history out of their pores, play a little, party a little and laugh a lot. La Costa's walkways are lined with flowers, its buffets are dazzling showcases and the grounds could have been groomed by a team of hair stylists. In this tranquil setting the golfers are soothed by free rooms, meals and beverages. They also have privileges at the resort's pushbutton spa, where they can be kneaded, pummeled, greased, pampered and worked over by a team of specialists in starched white uniforms and tennis shoes. After being pounded by a muscled masseur in sunglasses, golfer Bruce Lietzke sighed, more or less happily, "I feel like The Iron Claw just got done with me."

With so many distractions, this event leads the tour in "missing wives." Instead of watching their husbands play, the women are out horseback riding, whacking away at tennis balls or trying out a new eye shadow in the beauty salon. Taking one thing with another, however, the very best thing about the tournament is its first name. The MONY is $300,000, and that kind of bread slices pretty thickly among a 28-man field. Tom Watson won $54,000 for his six-stroke victory over Lietzke and Jerry Pate, who won $29,500 apiece. Gary Player was fourth for $18,000. Even last place was worth $3,500; Jerry Heard won it and still looked happy. Jack Nicklaus, who spent the week trying to kick-start his game, never got the motor going and finished tied for 15th for a check of $6,250. That meant, however, that in 16 T of Cs he has won $204,002, which is an entire career total for some people.

All in all, it was a good week for champions, and one of them, a female, used the tournament as a setting for her wedding. Carol Mann, the 1965 U.S. Women's Open champion and a television announcer for NBC at La Costa, married Jim Hardy, a former tour golfer, in the clubhouse on Saturday afternoon after the third round of play.

And if this is not evidence enough that the T of C enjoys a special niche on the pro circuit, consider that many of the competitors brought along their children, which is almost guaranteed to be the equivalent of a two-stroke penalty. Lee Trevino, for example, had four kids with him. The oldest is 13. "They're running me ragged," he reported at one point. "Sea World, the zoo, and they never miss a concession stand. They're just about breaking me. I was going to take off next week and spend the time with my family. After a few days of this, I'm thinking about entering New Orleans instead." Trevino finally figured out how to keep his brood occupied. He had them pick up practice chip shots for him. Trevino chipped every afternoon, until it was almost dark.

At first glance, the La Costa course appears tame because it is only 6,911 yards long, a distance hinting that its par of 72 might be quite soft. But the constricted fairways meander through foliage thick enough to choke a tractor. La Costa has some of the longest and most wiry roughs on the tour, which means that the straight shooters like Nicklaus, Trevino and Gary Player inevitably perform well. Player, the defending champion, is second to Nicklaus in T of C earnings with $149,351, and he sounds like Johnny Apple-seed, always suggesting that golf courses should plant more trees. Trevino subscribes to any philosophy that penalizes unbridled enthusiasm. "That's why I love it here," he was saying last week. "Heck, I wish they'd make the gallery ropes out of bounds. We're the only sport that plays in the audience."

The tournament enjoyed the best of weather: clear skies, warm temperatures and light breezes. Still, only half a dozen players broke par in Thursday's first round; the greens were hard, and iron shots weren't holding. One of those struggling was Fuzzy Zoeller, the four-day-old Masters champion. Zoeller shot a 77, well off the pace of Watson's leading 69, and was obviously distracted, a bit let down from his big victory but also worrying about his wife, Dianne, who was back in New Albany, Ind. awaiting the birth of the couple's first child. Zoeller kept in touch, telling everyone he would withdraw if the baby arrived early. But Dianne lasted out the week, and so did her husband, who wound up in a tie for 20th place.

Watson was also awaiting the birth of a first child, though Linda Watson is not due until September. The pressure seems to be good for him. In his last three tournaments before La Costa, he finished second, first and, at Augusta, second. "It's depressing for me to play with him," said Lon Hinkle after the opening round. "I just feel like I'm hacking it around."

The pros are impressed with Watson's dedication; sometimes he hits so many practice balls that he loses feeling in his forearms, an extraordinary effort for a man who has been the leading money winner as well as Player of the Year the last two seasons while winning the Vardon Trophy for low scoring average. Watson's diligence is matched by the un-obtrusiveness of his dress. He owns only one pair of white golf shoes, the tour's badge of high style, and at the end of the day his plain, dark slacks are usually dusty from a siege at the practice tee. "He works like a rookie," says Lietzke.

Watson claims to see signs that his game still is improving, although he isn't ready to accept the designation as Nicklaus' heir. "The difference now is that I can play badly and have a chance to win, and years ago I couldn't," he says. "At times I hit the ball as well as anyone, but there are times that I'm well behind the pack."

A little of both was true last week. A 66 on Friday following Thursday's 69 gave him a three-stroke lead at 135, nine under par. Lietzke was second, Player and Trevino were tied for third at 140. Watson's score looked exemplary, but actually his driver had wheezing spells. He missed six fairways in Friday's round and only some great iron shots to the now watered and softened greens saved him, irons so good that he hit every green. "He's a tremendous competitor," said Player about Watson's escapes from the vegetation.

One of Watson's pursuers, Lietzke, is an anomaly on the tour, and not only because he putts cross-handed. Of last year's top 30 money winners, he is the only one who has never married. In golf, wives seem to be the equivalent of filing cabinets; "They keep you organized," the players say. Lietzke, however, is a loner, which may explain why he continues to live in Jay, Okla., a rural community of 3,000 people.

Should he ever decide to follow Carol Mann's example, however, Lietzke is prepared. A few years ago on television he mentioned that he was "25, single and available." Within a week 300 letters from available women arrived, some with resumès and references. "I've stored them away in case I need them," Lietzke said Saturday after a 70 that included a double bogey on the sixth hole where he had "the worst lie of my life."

Watson, meanwhile, was walking off the course shaking his head after a round that he called "ugly." He shot a 70 to maintain a three-stroke lead over Lietzke and Pate, who charged into contention with a reborn putting stroke and a 65. But Watson was all over the course and almost had to call out for directions as he banged off trees and into bunkers. At the 13th, for instance, he drove into the woods, went backward when his second shot caromed off a tree and finally sank a 20-foot putt to save par. At the 18th, he was in two bunkers and still made a par.

"You just got to try to hit the driver 70 miles an hour instead of 110," Trevino advised him at the practice tee. "You got to put a speed limit on that driver." Watson nodded, then went to work while a small gallery settled down to watch. Their murmured comments were audible: "Horrible," "Oh, no," and the favorite, "I can do that," as Watson's practice shots sailed off grotesquely.

Watson appeared not to hear, working his way stubbornly through two bags of balls. "I'm losing half of them over the fence," he muttered at one point. As a youngster, Watson never hit practice balls because he was afraid of losing them, a disaster, he recalls, "that was grounds for crying." But slowly he became comfortable on the practice tee and his last dozen drives were solid.

The next day he began the last round at La Costa ready to do battle with Lietzke and Pate. His driver, however, appeared to have reacquired its nervous twitch overnight. After a poor tee shot, he birdied the par-5 second hole with an eight-foot putt. That neatly summarized his erratic, wandering week. In each round he drove wildly at No. 2, and all four times he birdied the hole.

Thus, on his way to a 70, Watson visited five bunkers, took a double bogey when he went into the water at the sixth hole and for much of his round drove with a cautious three-wood. But after Lietzke pulled to within two shots of him at the turn, Watson became aggressive once again and ran off birdies on 11 through 13. Suddenly he had a cushion he could sleep on. The rest of the day Pate and Lietzke, who both shot 73s, fought to a draw for second place.

Watson now has won $229,966 this year, almost two-thirds of his record 1978 winnings, and the tour is only a third over. At that rate, golf may not be a whole lot of fun, but it will pay the babysitter next winter.

TWO PHOTOSA nice enough week for two expectant fathers: Masters champion Zoeller (left) signed autographs, while Watson led from start to finish.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)