Tree man makes another splash

Lon Hinkle's route to victory in the World Series of Golf included a shot that hit both the pond and the green
October 07, 1979

For the year in professional tournament golf, Lon Hinkle has to be the leading environmentalist in the clubhouse. Only Hinkle can make a tree, as he did at the U.S. Open last June. And only Hinkle can skip a ball across a pond, as he did last week at the Firestone Country Club in the World Series of Golf. The tree the USGA planted at Inverness to keep him from taking a shortcut on a par-5 hole resulted in Hinkle winning more fame than a victory in an average tour event would have brought him. But fame does not spend like $100,000, and that was the amount he took away from Akron, Ohio after embedding Hinkle's Pond into the lore of the game alongside Hinkle's Tree.

Skipping the ball intentionally over the water on the 16th hole in Saturday's second round did not by itself win the World Series for Hinkle, but it kept him in contention and very much alive, so that he was able to make all of the good golf he played during Sunday's 36 holes pay off in a victory over the likes of Tom Watson, Larry Nelson and Lee Trevino. The 36-hole marathon final day had been made necessary when Friday's round was rained out.

The outcome of a tournament is usually determined by a combination of good and bad things that happen to the principals over the last few holes. So it was at Firestone. The shot Hinkle pulled off on Saturday by hooding a six-iron and hitting a two-rippler across the water and up on the green to save a par—a dazzling, mysterious sight to the high handicapper, no doubt—should have been a good omen to him and a bad one for his rivals.

Hinkle was close all the way. His opening 67 kept him within shouting distance of first-round leader Andy Bean, whose 64 indicated that Firestone's south course, with its perfectly textured greens, soft conditions and the lack of any strong wind, was there to be had. Hinkle's second-round 67 left him only one stroke behind Watson, who flashed ahead with rounds of 68 and 65, and his third-round 71 on Sunday morning put him just two strokes behind Nelson, the 54-hole leader. But at this point Hinkle was in a crowd of contenders and as the long day wore on, Nelson, Bill Rogers, Watson and Hinkle juggled the lead around as Trevino lurked a shot or two away.

First it was Rogers' tournament to lose. He went to the 17th hole needing a par-par finish for what proved to be Hinkle's winning total of eight-under 272. But he located a bunker at the 17th, blasted out none too close to the flag, and missed the putt for a bogey.

The next catastrophe befell Nelson. With what amounted to a two-stroke lead at the same 17th hole, he bunkered his second shot, hit a terrible sand shot, putted too boldly for his par and then missed the one coming back. Double bogey—and because Hinkle had just birdied there, a three-stroke swing.

On the last hole, Hinkle had a makable eight-foot birdie putt that would have eliminated the need to watch the efforts of the final threesome—Watson, Nelson and Trevino. But the putt curled away and Hinkle had to sweat it out in the gallery.

When he saw Watson drive badly into the trees and then Nelson drive badly into a bunker, Hinkle knew all he had to worry about was Trevino. He was used to it. Hinkle and Trevino play on Tuesdays before tournaments. Not for $100,000. "Just for enough to keep an edge," Hinkle says, not without a grin.

Trevino had missed birdie putts on the 16th and 17th. He had another chance on the 18th, but it too stayed out and so Hinkle gained the distinction of becoming a double winner on the tour (he took the Crosby in February) and the advantage of being able to talk about something besides his tree in Toledo. Now he can tell people all about his pond.

"Well, sometimes you just have to invent a shot," he said. "You don't go out and practice skipping the ball over the water, but when you've got a bare lie and you can get to the ball, and when your other choice is to play backwards, it seems worth the gamble. Maybe it was dumb. I know the tree thing was."

Not really. For one thing, we now know who Hinkle is. That is more than the sports world can say about most of this year's new PGA winners—which is what Hinkle was in 1978.

The '79 tour produced 10 first-time victors, a respectable number, though not a record. But no one will know how good the crop is until the winners have been around for a while. Undoubtedly, some will join the million-dollar club and some will fade into obscurity.

A checklist of the new faces of '79:

•Fuzzy Zoeller. Until this year he was simply a guy with a first name of a guitar player and a last name of a U-boat commander. Now Fuzzy is a Masters champion. He also won at San Diego in January. Zoeller is one of the long hitters and fun-loving talkers on the tour. He may continue to win, but if he doesn't, he'll be the answer to a trivia question: Who won the Masters that Ed Sneed lost?

•Nelson. At 32, he's surely one of the most mature first-time winners. But then he started playing golf late, not taking up the sport until he was 21. Nelson taught himself the game by reading instruction books. After five years on the tour, he broke through at the Gleason and won again by edging Ben Crenshaw in a playoff at the Western. He has quietly established himself as one of the more respected players around the locker rooms, and none of the pros was surprised when he became a Ryder Cup hero by winning all five of his matches.

•John Fought. Rhymes with boat. When he won the Buick and Napa tournaments in succession to qualify for the World Series, he became the first rookie to take back-to-back events since Roger Maltbie in 1975. Where's Maltbie now? Fought is a former U.S. Amateur champion (1977) who figures to hang around.

•Jack Renner. A thin, young player in a white Hogan cap, he won the rich Westchester Classic. He is a bachelor. His sister Jane competes on the LPGA tour. More than anything, Renner may be remembered for having said, "My goal is to play 72 holes someday without changing expression."

•Calvin Peete. Certainly the first golfer in history to win on the tour with diamonds in his front teeth. His victory at Milwaukee made him the second black player to qualify for the Masters. He is 36 and one of 19 children. When Peete won at Milwaukee, it enabled Trevino to set a curious golfing record. Trevino became the first person ever to lose the same tournament two years in a row to two different black players, Lee Elder having beaten him the year before.

•Wayne Levi. Although his name rhymes with heavy, he nevertheless has a contract to wear Levi's and carries a denim golf bag. In 1978 he won the Disney team title with Bob Mann, but his first individual championship came this year at Houston.

•Mark McCumber. His win at Doral in March was the most surprising of the year, because he had failed to get his players' card until his sixth try. Despite his victory, he has dropped from among '79's top 60 money winners.

•Bob Byman. When he failed twice to get his card, he skipped the country, going abroad to win the Dutch, Scandanavian and New Zealand Opens. With his confidence bolstered, Byman came home to win Arnold Palmer's tournament at Bay Hill. He is young, tough and good-looking. He is also not overly popular with other players, which means he must be talented.

•Howard Twitty. Here's a big fellow who looks less like his name than anyone since Ky Laffoon. Nobody ever looked like a Ky Laffoon. Twitty has been in the top 60 for four years. He was just waiting to win. It finally happened at the B.C. Open.

•D. A. Weibring. Donald Albert Weibring was tall, handsome and blond, so why not become a touring pro? It was only after he won the Quad Cities tournament that anyone knew exactly which one of the pros he was. Now there are people who have come to recognize him as an articulate chap and not a bad swinger of the club.

There are three more tournaments this year—the Texas, Southern and Pensacola Opens—so there are three more chances for first-time winners. The World Series of Golf is not really the end of the season as far as money and exemptions go. What it is, in fact, is the beginning of qualifying for next year's World Series, which will be moved to the last week of August in the hope of stimulating more interest.

The enlarging of the field from 26 to 36 players this year—by picking up entries from those high on the money list who do not otherwise qualify under the World Series' complex system—was a concession to TV and Firestone, but the golfers who got in that way didn't feel they had earned the right to be in a tournament that had the ring of a Tournament of Champions without the plush trappings of La Costa.

The answer to the problem of selling the World Series as a tournament may be to keep increasing the field each year until it gets up to 144 players. At that point they can call it the American Golf Classic, which is what Firestone used to host.

At least, that would probably make Jack Nicklaus eligible. He didn't qualify for last week's World Series. Which prompted a lady in the gallery to ask, "How can they call this the World Series of Golf if they don't invite Jack Nicklaus?"

Wonder what she thought as Hinkle's ball skipped across the water?

PHOTOTONY TOMSICHinkle demonstrated a deft touch on land, too. PHOTOTONY TOMSICA double bogey scuttled Nelson's final round. PHOTOTONY TOMSICTwitty was plumb-perfect 67 on Saturday.
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)