George Burns III survived the chaos at the Crosby Pro-Am that ensued when Jack Nicklaus self-destructed
February 11, 1980

The Bing Crosby National Pro-Am golf tournament, which is contested on the tweed coat Riviera, otherwise known as the Monterey Peninsula, is something on the order of a Winter Masters. This was especially true last week, what with nearly Augustan weather and Jack Nicklaus getting into more fixes than Nancy Drew and the Hardy Boys.

In addition, this year's Crosby had more things going for it than usual—not that there's ever a lack of glamour and splendor when people are hanging around such ghettos as Pebble Beach and Cypress Point within sight of crashing waves and hung-over celebrities. Mostly, it had a gang of established stars, notably Nicklaus, thrashing around among a bunch of unknown and winless pros with names like David Edwards.

What the tournament finally developed into on Sunday, the fourth consecutive day of glorious weather and low scoring, was a Crosby that for much of the day looked as though it might produce the first 15-way tie in the history of double knits. Virtually the entire Official PGA Tour Media Guide seemed to be in contention after Nicklaus shot the first six holes of the day at Pebble Beach in 20 strokes and the next six in 27. It went thusly: par-birdie-birdie-birdie-par-eagle. Then: bogey-double bogey-bogey-par-par-bogey.

The situation this created with less than nine holes remaining resembled a traffic jam on the 17-Mile Drive. No fewer than 15 players were only three strokes apart, and guys like Edwards, Keith Fergus and Dan Pohl found themselves sharing the lead with Gil Morgan and George Burns III. In the final hour, however, a slow-rolling, 60-foot birdie came out of the shade on the edge of the 16th green and disappeared into the cup, while just about everybody else either had already gone tumbling into Carmel Bay or was about to. Thanks to this putt, Burns was the winner, with steady rounds of 71, 69, 71 and 69, which added up to a check for $54,000. The only man on the tour with a Roman numeral in his name, Burns had overtaken the emperor of golf, Nicklaus.

Burns actually wound up defeating Pohl, a pro with whom he had something in common, mainly that neither of them had ever won an individual victory on the tour. The only thing Burns had ever done there, aside from develop a reputation as a choker, was team up with his friend Ben Crenshaw to win the National Team title last October. And the only thing Pohl had done was get himself known as one of the longest hitters since King Kong.

Nicklaus' collapse on Sunday after taking a two-stroke lead through six holes made it possible for a stranger to win the Crosby. Pohl looked as if he might be that man after searing Pebble Beach's back nine in 30, a mere six-under, for a closing round of 67, which got him off the premises with a total of 281.

When that became the number to beat, most of the players except Burns began rattling off bogeys. He had already chipped in for a birdie at the 13th, always a good omen, and when the whopper fell at the 16th, he had the lead that Nicklaus and the others had frittered away. Now he only needed to par the last two holes. There was the chance, of course, that this would not be easy for Burns. His nerves had blown a number of opportunities in the past, and his swing features a flying right elbow. But he played 17 and 18 steadily, without a hint of coughing, and he was able to say, "Chalk one up for the funny swingers."

Burns also said, "You have to pay your dues out here." In his case, this may have meant that he spent his first four years on the tour trying to get a silver spoon out of his mouth. The Roman numeral in his name allowed him to learn about golf in a prep school instead of a caddie pen, and the course he called home was the National Golf Links in Southampton, N.Y. But Burns is a big, likable guy, and he could take the kidding when people like Crenshaw asked him if he had leather patches on his driver and what fraternity his eight-iron had pledged.

In victory, Burns gave credit to Crenshaw for helping him with his attitude, teaching him about patience and telling him not to worry about where the right elbow is going or how it might look peculiar to anyone other than Miller Barber.

Burns might also have taken the opportunity to thank Nicklaus for opening the gate. A poor wedge shot made it almost impossible for Nicklaus to do anything but three-putt the par-3 7th for a bogey. Then a terrible four-iron at the eighth put him into such bad rough that he had to take two stabs at the ball to get it out. That was the double bogey. The rest of the damage came on the greens.

Well, it was the sort of thing Nicklaus had promised earlier. There was this bad swing he was trying to cure, he'd said, and it was going to haunt him from time to time. And that it did.

The Crosby was Nicklaus' debut in his 40s—in the 80s. He came with two different swings and used them both, one intentionally, the other out of habit. A bad habit. He explained that his swing had grown too upright over the years, that it had become all arms and no body. And now, he said, he was in the process of working it back to where it used to be when he was a better player. Pre-1978 is what he meant. Of his 17 major championships, the '78 British Open at St. Andrews was the only biggie he won with the bad swing. After that it caught up with him like a nine-car freeway collision, and last year was his worst ever.

For the first time since he became a pro in 1962, Nicklaus went through a season without winning a tournament of any kind, much less a major. And though money has never mattered as much to him as his ambition for golfing immortality, 1979 was a depressing year in terms of prize money, too. Nicklaus had never finished lower than fourth on the money list, but in 1979 he was 71st.

"I tried to get by on talent without working at it," he was saying at Pebble Beach. "Playing crummy bothered me more than I admitted because I've never done anything halfheartedly."

From Aug. 6, the day after the last round of the PGA championship at Oakland Hills, until Jan. 2, Nicklaus played only three rounds of golf and never practiced at all. He thought a lot. He tended to various business matters. He played husband and daddy. He went skiing, enjoyed tennis and took up jogging like the rest of the world.

"I'm not a serious runner," he said. "I only run a mile and a half or so maybe three nights a week because, frankly, it bores the hell out of me. But it makes me feel better, and my legs are in better shape for it."

Nicklaus rang in the New Year by going to work on his swing with his old teacher, Jack Grout. For three weeks they tried to get the swing flatter, to get the body to turn the way it used to.

"It's not there yet," Nicklaus said before play began. "It's great one day and lousy the next."

Then he proved it. After shooting a three-under 69 in the opening round at Cypress Point, he negotiated Spyglass Hill in a very untidy 76 on Friday. Even that day he threw a flood of birdies on the scoreboard, but the bad swing, with the consequent bogeys, crept in just often enough to hurt him. It hurt him doubly because he had a dazzling six-under-par 66 at Pebble on Saturday that left him three strokes off the lead; had he played more consistently on Friday he almost certainly would have been leading. Still his score at Pebble, he felt, was answer enough for all of the people who keep asking him questions about "retirement."

"I've always done other things besides play golf," he said. "To do nothing but play golf all the time would absolutely drive me insane. I think I'm going to issue a statement saying I won't answer any more questions about it."

After the Sunday roller coaster, he wound up with a 73, good for a share of 11th place.

There were other interesting figures to observe. One was Tom Watson, who had won his first time out, the week before at San Diego, thereby giving the PGA tour a look of familiarity it did not have at Palm Springs, where Craig Stadler won, or at Phoenix, where Jeff Mitchell prevailed.

Watson arrived on the tour looking ready, eager and polished. He gave the credit to the weatherman in Kansas City who had provided him with a mild "golfing" fall. The comparatively easy playing conditions of this year's Crosby—no wind, no cold—caught him a little off guard and put more players in the hunt. He found this disappointing, which may have had something to do with his so-so performance. The leading money-winner of last year (and '78 and '77) wound up five shots behind the winner in 13th place.

Then there was Lon Hinkle, the Crosby's defending champion and the man who contributed so much to the lore of the game by inventing the Hinkle Tree at last year's U.S. Open. He was worth a look for a variety of reasons. The first was because he had to break into his rental car to get his clubs on opening day. He had lost the keys. He borrowed a tire iron from a taxi driver, took an overlapping grip and started smashing in a window while 50 people in a restaurant galleried him.

"How do you file an accident report on a rent car?" Hinkle asked.

Later the same day he thrilled the crowds by hitting into the ocean on the famed postcard 16th at Cypress Point and then hitting to the back of the green with the same club. If it was not enough club to begin with, how could it have been too much club the second time? "The second ball was a mad swing," Hinkle said. "You get more distance on those." Hinkle's Car, Hinkle's Ocean. Then came Hinkle's Pond. He hit two balls into a pond on the 11th hole at Spyglass on Friday and made a 10. Hinkle's Ten.

Also present was Tom Weiskopf, another of the game's big stars who is struggling out of a slump. Weiskopf frequently has to file accident reports on himself. He showed up on the Monterey Peninsula too late for a practice round. "I've seen these courses before," he said. After he fired a two-under 70 at Spyglass on Thursday, hitting every fairway for the first time in his memory, people might have suspected that not practicing was a quaint new approach to golf. But then came Friday and he began missing putts. At the 10th hole he decided enough was enough, so he "helicoptered" his putter toward the golf bag. He picked up the two pieces, stuck them in the bag and used a one-iron to putt the rest of the way before escaping to the bar of The Lodge at Pebble Beach with a 77.

The sort of things that were happening to Weiskopf and Hinkle helped keep the Crosby alive during those rounds when everybody was running around trying to find out who David Edwards was. Edwards turned out to be a spunky little guy who's about as old—23—as Nicklaus' putter, and who is starting his second year on the tour. He had qualified on Monday to get into the Crosby after having missed the cut at both Phoenix and San Diego. He became a factor on Thursday when his 67 left him only one stroke behind Jerry Pate and Tom Kite, the co-leaders. He became a larger factor on Friday when he shot a 69 to tie Kite for the lead. His height (5'8") and his weight (144) became known to the world after the press got through with him on Saturday, when his even-par 72 gave him a total of 208 and a two-stroke lead on everybody. People also learned that he was from Edmond, Okla. and that his idea of high times was playing a pin-ball machine. "I've never even met Jack Nicklaus," he said.

Aficionados would remember that he was the NCAA champion in 1978, when he was competing for Oklahoma State, and that he was the younger brother of Danny Edwards, who has been on leader boards.

"I think I would have played better last year if I hadn't kept going home to see my girl," Edwards confessed. "We're married now, so that problem's out of the way."

The big question on Sunday was whether Edwards would politely get out of the way of Nicklaus and the rest of the biggies. It was certain that he was going to hear footsteps, but no one guessed there would be so many it would make his head ring like a pinball machine.

Or that a Roman numeral guy would come charging out of Dun & Bradstreet to beat both of them.

PHOTOAn aspect of the Crosby's special setting: a gnarled cypress frames viewers at Pebble Beach. PHOTOCool while others were coming apart, Burns got his first solo victory on an incredible 60-foot putt. THREE PHOTOSPate, a leader when he played Spyglass (top), eventually sank, as did Nicklaus, and then Edwards, who shared the lead for most of the week.

Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)