Each year, professional tournament golf continues around the world, offering flavorful events with rich prizes, long after the American tour has done its best to cure insomnia. Last week, in an elegant patch on the fringe of Windsor Forest near London, the pros played a classy tournament called the World Match Play Championship, a competition far more thrilling than any of those Southern Opens and generally regarded as such by golfing fans elsewhere on the globe.
This time a young colonial named Bill (Buck) Rogers outlasted the amazing Isao Aoki of Japan, who earlier in the week had swung a club on the 2nd hole of the Wentworth course and fired a shot heard around the world. Well, maybe that noted sportswriter, Ralph Waldo Emerson, could have said it better. The point is that with a birdie on the last green of the 36-hole final on Sunday afternoon, Rogers, who was not even supposed to be there among the elite, had won himself a very big championship. And there was little wringing of hands over Aoki's loss, because by virtue of a hole-in-one on that second hole and by making it into the last round, he assured himself of winning more money in one week than any golfer in history.
First things first. Rogers, 27, slender, stylish, Texan, gloveless, winner only of the 1978 Bob Hope Desert Classic on the U.S. tour, got invited to the World Match Play because Tom Watson turned it down. The sponsor always reserves the right to include in the match play field someone out of the ordinary who has not automatically qualified by having conquered some part of the world earlier in the year. Rogers was the odd-man-in this year. To prove he deserved to be in the same company with the major championship and Order of Merit winners, Rogers did the following in four days of grueling 36-hole matches: he beat Sandy Lyle, tops in the European Order of Merit; Hale Irwin, the U.S. Open champion; Fuzzy Zoeller, the Masters winner; and Aoki, the defending World Match Play champ. In so doing, Roger was never out of the 60s as he literally butchered the famed old Wentworth course. He was five-under against Lyle, also five-under against Irwin, 10-under against Zoeller and eight-under against Aoki, which, as it turned out, was barely good enough. Those who did not know that Rogers was ready to win had only to look back and see that he had been second his last two times out, in the Texas Open and the World Series of Golf.
"I've never had more fun in my life," said Rogers after his victory. "I came here playing good, driving straight. Wentworth is like a tough, tight American course. And I had the underdog incentive. I love match play. This is a great tournament."
October 21, 1979
Monetarily, it was even greater for Aoki, a charming and talented player who is not only a straight hitter off the tee but is, quite possibly, an alltime master of the pitch, chip and putt. That his 12-foot birdie putt on the final green against Rogers only greased the cup and did not fall thoroughly astonished him, because most of Aoki's putts do disappear. They normally drop with the swiftness that his 155-yard hole-in-one did on Friday, in his match against David Graham. Aoki struck a seven-iron. The ball hit one foot to the right of the flag and hopped in. That gave him $125,000 to go along with the $40,000 he would earn as the tournament runner-up. It was not $125,000 in cash, but the price of a two-bedroom condominium at Gleneagles in Scotland, a prize offered by a real-estate company that had not bothered to send any executives to Wentworth because of the unlikelihood of anyone actually making an ace. After the hole-in-one, however, a man was flown to London to present Aoki with a key to the front door. Thus, Aoki left Britain with the equivalent of $165,000. Rogers, the victor, had to be content with a paltry $65,000 from the tournament's new sponsor, Suntory, the Japanese distiller.
The World Match Play Championship has been a huge success since its inception in 1964. For a long time there had been a need for a big tournament in the London vicinity, inasmuch as the British Open is alternately played in Scotland and on the Lancashire coast. The Piccadilly World Match Play, which later became the Colgate World Match Play and is now the Suntory World Match Play Championship, has, in a sense, become a sort of "London Open," taking its place in sporting and social circles alongside Wimbledon, the Henley Regatta and Royal Ascot. Enormous crowds always turn out, as they did in the glorious weather of last week, and press coverage is second only to the British Open among European tournaments.
It was Mark McCormack who first recognized that both London and golf could use a premier match-play event. McCormack, who began his career by managing Arnold Palmer and now handles countless people and interests on six—or have you expanded to Antarctica, Mark?—continents, came to this conclusion after the U.S. PGA Championship allowed itself to be changed from match to medal play for the benefit of television. The PGA had been the grandest match-play tournament of them all. It took a while, but McCormack finally got the World Match Play going. Now, after 15 years, it is firmly established as one of the finest tournaments played outside the U.S.A.
Through the years, the event has produced high drama and winners of top quality—Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Hale Irwin. That type. Player probably did more for the event than anyone. He not only won it five times, but he seemed forever to be getting embroiled in thrilling head-to-head battles. One year, Player found himself seven holes down to Tony Lema with only 17 to play. He won with a barrage of birdies. Afterward, Lema was heard to remark, with a certain amount of mysticism, "What Gary did had nothing to do with golf."
Although he was not to win this time, it was Player who again supplied some of the more dramatic moments. In the first round on Thursday, he found himself four down to Japan's Tohru Nakamura with only 11 holes left. Predictably he fought back to win. Then on Friday against Fuzzy Zoeller, he birdied the 35th hole to draw square and enacted a typical Player drama on the last hole. While Zoeller played safely onto the green in three strokes and had an eight-foot birdie putt, Player had struck a wild second shot into the forest, so deeply into the trees, in fact, it seemed that only Robin Hood would be able to find the ball. But the next thing anyone knew. Player had it in hand and was asking an official for a free drop to another part of the forest. A Japanese TV tower was in his line of sight, Player claimed, and he intended to play out to the fairway backward. The official unwittingly granted him the drop, whereupon Gary played forward toward the green. Ha! An old trick. Golfers often try to bend the rules, and sometimes they get away with it.
Playing forward, however, was no bargain. Player had an opening about the size of a Titleist. He slashed at the ball, and it mowed down six branches and 200 leaves before bounding out of the woods and onto the green, about 20 feet from the flag. In that one slash, Player went from a treehouse to a birdie putt. But there, alas, the miracle ended. He missed the putt, and Zoeller made his to win. Had it gone the other way, Windsor Forest would have been decorated with a man hanging by his thumbs from the branch of a horse chestnut—the official who granted Player the free drop.
So it goes in match play, a form of golf the British understand and appreciate better than Americans, which is why the Piccadilly-Colgate-Suntory-McCormack Championship is so popular in England. The tournament has changed slightly over the years, though lately the format seems to have settled down to what went on last week. Twelve golfers of lofty reputation had been invited, and four were given byes in the first round. All matches were 36 holes over Went-worth's West Course, also known as the Burma Road because of its length and dangers. The four seeded players were Aoki, Irwin, Zoeller and Severiano Ballesteros, the dashing British Open champion. David Graham, the U.S. PGA champion, was unseeded, though he is a former World Match Play winner as well. It was McCormack's way of saying where our PGA tournament rates.
The first round passed with Graham beating Mark James of Great Britain; Lanny Wadkins, who qualified by winning the Tournament Players' Championship, defeating Argentina's Vincente Fernandez; Rogers, the mystery guest, whipping Britain's Lyle; and Player doing that thing to Nakamura. It was in the second round that Zoeller edged Player; that Rogers upset Irwin; that Aoki outbirdied Graham; and that the normally meandering Ballesteros shot six-under-par against Lanny Wadkins, never missing a fairway with his driver.
This narrowed the field down to four semifinalists, who met in what proved to be two incredible matches on Saturday. A couple of ex-teammates from the University of Houston, Rogers and Zoeller, were paired in one. Aoki and Ballesteros collided in the other, Japan against Spain, a world conflict of the highest order. The morning 18 found Rogers and Zoeller mixing laughter with birdies. They each fired a 67, had a best ball of 61, went around in two hours and a half, and could easily have played through Aoki and Sevvy on numerous occasions. The Americans continued scorching the place in the afternoon before Rogers finally closed the match out two up, with two late, long putts that gave him another 67. But Aoki and Ballesteros played almost into darkness. Surrounded by thousands of spectators and dozens of Japanese journalists, they went 40 holes before Aoki's three-foot birdie putt captured the day. Ballesteros had blown short winning putts on both the 36th and 37th holes, and he had three-putted from a mere 20 feet at the 38th to keep himself from winning. But that, of course, was Aoki's lucky hole, where he had made the hole-in-one to win the condominium.
In a way, Aoki's accomplishments overshadowed those of Rogers last week, or maybe it only seemed that way because of all the Japanese who were there, bowing and exchanging business cards. When the tournament was over, a lot of people were still wondering what Isao Aoki would do with a home on a grouse moor. One suggestion was that he could rent it to Rogers, who could now afford a vacation. Another was that he earn further income by turning it into a restaurant—Benihana of Scotland.