The Tournament Players Championship at this place called Sawgrass, an event that for the past three years had featured wind-tunnel golf, produced enough glamour last week to make its Sunday scoreboard a gift item in a Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog. This year's TPC also happened to produce the kind of game on the final day that takes an old head-to-head fighter like Lee Trevino to win.
Among the golfing oddities that history may eventually have to record is that every time Trevino and Jack Nicklaus go up against each other in the same pairing in a championship of any magnitude, the winner is Super Mex. Back in 1971 he defeated Nicklaus at Merion in a playoff for the U.S. Open title. Trevino delivered a second blow to Nicklaus in 1974 in the last round of the PGA at Tanglewood. And then came last Sunday at Sawgrass, which is near Jacksonville, when the two of them, plus none other than Gary Player, went out together in the final group of the day—surely the most glittering three-some of the past few seasons and the first time they had ever played together—and again it was Trevino who not only shot the low round in the group, but also hung in there to outlast an assortment of other challengers whose names read like those on the pages of an autograph book. Trevino fired a final-round two-under-par 70 for a ten-under-par total of 278, which broke the tournament record by five strokes and made him a one-stroke winner over Ben Crenshaw, who closed with a blazing 66. But the main thing Trevino did was whip the 73s scored by both Nicklaus and Player and fend off such luminaries as Tom Watson, Hubert Green and Severiano Ballesteros.
Trevino began the day as the leader by one stroke after rounds of 68, 72 and 68. But when you looked at who was following him, you had to suspect that with the Sawgrass course tamed by glorious weather, almost anything might happen. Green, who had a 66 on Saturday, was a stroke back. He had two strokes on Player, who was coming off five victories in his last seven tournaments in South Africa and Ivory Coast. He held a three-stroke edge over Nicklaus, who had lost a sudden-death playoff to Raymond Floyd at Doral a week earlier, and also over Ballesteros, who is merely the British Open champion. Looking further back in the field, you had to note that Trevino was only four shots ahead of Watson, the tour's leading money-winner the past three years, and Hale Irwin, merely the U.S. Open champion, who had been the co-leader of the TPC through the first and second rounds. Finally, Crenshaw was within striking distance, five strokes back, which is no distance at all when his putter is, as they say, "cooking."
Earlier, Trevino had said, "I told everybody not to wake Jack up at Doral. 'Let him sleep,' I said. But now they done woke him up, and I've got him again."
March 31, 1980
Come on, Lee. That's exactly what you like. While Trevino may have been thinking primarily about Nicklaus—and Player—because he had to keep looking at them from up close, he couldn't ever dismiss the other 8 x 10 glossies playing up there ahead of him on the course. Trevino never was out of the tournament lead on Sunday, but he did have to share it at different times over the front nine holes with Green, Player and Ballesteros, mostly because he bogeyed the second hole while Player birdied two of the first three and Ballesteros birdied two of the first four and Green birdied one of the first four.
But the most amazing interlude of the day came at a point in the early stages of the back nine when Trevino held the lead over six players who were all tied for second. They were Nicklaus, Player, Watson, Green, Crenshaw and Ballesteros. If the leader board at that moment wasn't suitable for framing, then tournament golf has no hope.
The shoot-out among Trevino, Nicklaus and Player remained close through 13 holes. At that juncture, Trevino and Nicklaus were both two under par for the day and Player was one under. On the 14th, Player fell away by driving out of bounds and winding up with a double bogey. Half an hour later Nicklaus began a string of three finishing bogeys. Trevino just kept playing beautiful golf. When he ran home a birdie putt at the 15th hole to put himself three under for the day—and go two strokes ahead of his nearest pursuer, who by now was Crenshaw—his caddie, Herman Mitchell, said that memorable thing all caddies say in such circumstances: "Let's take it on home, babe."
Crenshaw made a marvelous run with his flawless 66. But having made a few putts earlier to get where he was, he missed golden birdie chances at both the 16th and 18th holes. Afterward he said, "This must be a major championship, because I finished second again." In the end what he did was force Trevino to make a cozy par five on the last hole to ensure his victory. This Super Mex did with a joyous certainty that comes only from experience and a firm command of a very sound golf game.
Trevino became overcautious only once, at the 17th hole when he was clinging to a two-stroke lead over Crenshaw, who had already reached the scorer's tent. Trying to make sure that he didn't drive into the water on the left, he hit his tee shot so far to the right that he couldn't reach the green, and the result was a bogey.
Of his tee shot on the final hole, Trevino said, "I bailed out on my driver. I wasn't sure it was ready to forgive me right away, so I went with a one-iron off the 18th tee."
Trevino said he had apologized to the driver, because this was the club mainly responsible for putting him on 41 out of 56 fairways during the four rounds at Sawgrass. Where accurate driving is concerned, there has hardly ever been a player with the control of Trevino—not since Ben Hogan.
"You don't bail out on your honey," Lee explained, "but it was time to win a golf tournament."
On Sunday the TPC was a tournament that had everyone's double knits unraveling. Even the press tent got excited, and CBS was giddily envisioning the possibilities of a sudden-death playoff among Nicklaus, Trevino, Player and A. C. Nielsen.
The excitement said a lot about the state of the game itself. In no other sport is it so important for names to make news, or so believe the majority of TV producers and newspaper and magazine editors the world over. And they probably reflect the attitude of the fans. Only the competitors themselves are not so given to hero worship. Only they understand that there are 150 very good golfers in every tournament on the tour, and that the man who has a hot putter that week is most likely to be the winner. The problem arises when the winner turns out not to be a certified immortal. A series of unfamiliar names on the leader board is taken as an indication that something is wrong, and the blame falls everywhere.
The tour is blamed for turning out robots—tall blond clones—newspapers and magazines are blamed by the tour for not "developing personalities," television is blamed by all for putting a dreary sameness on the screen, and PGA Commissioner Deane Beman is blamed for everything from the price of gasoline to unruly winds. And everyone is blamed wrongly.
The fact is, professional golf has never been very much different. Golfers go about trying to win money every week the best way they know how, and some of them can't help it if they are blond and tall. A tall, blond competitor will become a star by winning consistently. It has never been the obligation of the press to manufacture personalities. Ben Hogan would have been a very poor host of a talk show, but with a golf club in his hands at a major championship, he was both a star and a personality. Arnold Palmer's charisma away from the golf course—apart from the fame he earned by sweating and trying to keep his shirttail in—could best be equated with that of a plain omelet.
There have always been many so-called characters on the tour, and there may be more now than ever. But they will not be glamourized, or even made known to the public, until they have proved themselves as winning golfers to a world that prefers to recognize only winners—a Nicklaus, a Trevino, a Player. Or a Johnny Miller. Because of this, television is catching most of the heat. Golf ratings are down and nobody knows what to do about it. Sponsors are getting testy and demanding that they pay less for their commercial minutes. Some players are alarmed about this and wonder whom to blame. Many fault the press, though not the "national" press. They choose to blame the "local" press, the poor wretches who see the pros only once a year in their hometowns and frequently express bitterness in print over the absence from a particular tournament of a Nicklaus or Trevino, rather than going to the trouble to find out what an engaging fellow Joe Inman is.
The players are partly right in their criticism, but they shouldn't confine their complaints to the writers. Often it is the editors who are disenchanted. Writers like to exchange tales of editors holding them personally responsible for the fact that Nicklaus failed to win the such-and-such tournament.
Television can be blamed for practically every ill in the world. Directors, producers and announcers constantly find themselves in no-win situations. If an event is dull, then the telecast will almost certainly be dull. And if the telecast attempts to pump life into a dull event, it is being dishonest. All three networks covering the sport go about it a little differently. CBS tends to follow the action, for better or worse. ABC tries to "featurize" the news while it is taking place. And NBC, which is very good on other sports, can't decide which golf approach it wants to do worst.
No matter what novel TV techniques are brought to bear, it is impossible for any of the three networks to make a golf tournament exciting if an unknown is going to win it in unexciting fashion. And it is even less possible for announcers to sound interesting if all they ever get to say is, "Let's go to 14."
So as the Sunday leader board at Sawgrass took on the look of golf's Hall of Fame, everybody's burden seemed to lighten. Trevino, Player, Nicklaus, Green, Watson, Irwin and Ballesteros hold a total of 38 major championships among them. The Magnificent Seven were infiltrated only by a Curtis Strange, a Peter Jacobsen, a Don Pooley, a Jay Haas and a Brad Bryant.
But even Strange and Haas have won tournaments. And Jacobsen is one of the true underground characters on the professional tour, capable of mimicking the swing, voice and gestures of anybody in the tournament—a future personality and a fine player. The only unseemly lurkers were Pooley and Bryant. Don Pooley sounds as if he might be a stock car driver, and Brad Bryant surely has to be a running back from Dartmouth.
When you stopped to think about it, the marvelous grouping on the leader board shouldn't have been all that unusual. Only accomplished players have won at Sawgrass in the four years the TPC has been held there—Nicklaus, Mark Hayes, Lanny Wadkins and now Trevino—despite all of the howling about the golf course and the ferocious winds that have made breaking par a noteworthy achievement. Next year, the TPC moves across A1A to a permanent home at the Tournament Players Club, a new course conceived by Beman and designed by Pete Dye. The wind won't stop, but Dye's design is likely to stop cameras from all over the world. One can already see that it is a magnificent layout, a par 72 that won't play any longer than 6,800 yards. A mounded-up amphitheater at the 18th hole will accommodate a truly mind-boggling 40,000 spectators. It appears to combine everything that is wonderful about Pine Valley and Cypress Point. Dye is in a class by himself as far as golf course architects go, and the Tournament Players Club at Sawgrass is almost certain to be his masterpiece.
Given the fact that the TPC already has the toughest field in golf, this combination—best field, best course—might very well result in making the championship the fifth major. Once that happens, it will no longer matter who wins. A major can withstand an unknown from time to time. And even the press has been able to tolerate an unknown for a day or so.