You can never tell about a player like Fuzzy Zoeller. He had been among the missing since winning the 1979 Masters and there was nothing in his resume for 1981 to indicate he was ready to win the Colonial National Invitation, one of the oldest and best tournaments in PGA-dom. A particularly strong field showed up last week on the Fort Worth course where Ben Hogan learned how to fix up his game for U.S. Opens. In 13 starts this year, Zoeller, though still smiling and cracking jokes, had banked only $14,123. But right there on "Hogan's Alley," Zoeller one-ironed the famed old Colonial Country Club into submission and closed out the Texas Tour with a four-stroke victory over Hale Irwin. On holes where Hogan once used a driver and a seven-iron, Zoeller wielded a one-iron and a wedge. And so, all of a sudden there he was again, as unpredictable as the weather.
On the Texas Tour, which consists of the Houston Open, the Byron Nelson Classic in Dallas and the Colonial, all in a row, the weather can be wicked; the three events are scheduled at the height of the ever-unpopular tornado season. This time the Houston event was shortened to 54 holes after rain turned the Woodlands course into a gulf of the Gulf of Mexico, and Ron Streck won the tournament on the telephone. He was called at 7:20 a.m. on Monday, after a Sunday washout, and told that he, as the 54-hole leader, was the winner because the course was unplayable. In Dallas no round of play was lost, but there was one two-hour delay because of rain, and on Friday morning tragedy struck when a heavy limb snapped off a tree and fell into a group of spectators, killing one man.
On the second day of the Colonial, thunder, lightning and rain interrupted play. The round was completed on Saturday, and at the end of the day Zoeller had a one-under 69 to go with the 67 he had shot on Thursday, which put him in the lead, one stroke ahead of Irwin.
The Friday cancellation meant 36 holes on Sunday to fill the TV commitment. To get both rounds in, the field was sent off at 7 a.m. Zoeller got to the course at a quarter after six. "I know I'll need to shave again before the day's over," he said.
May 24, 1981
Zoeller fired a 68 for the morning 18 to increase his lead to three strokes. By this time it was clear that he was in a straight-driving mood and that his putter was saving pars for him on the four-footers and six-footers. On four of Colonial's par-4 holes, which leap ponds and dogleg around pecans and oaks, Zoeller teed off with his trusty one-iron, a club with which he can usually outdrive Irwin. As Irwin said, "When I catch my driver and Fuzzy catches his one-iron, I can get within 30 yards of him."
In the final round Sunday afternoon, the man who got closest to Zoeller was Raymond Floyd, who birdied four of the first seven holes and was suddenly tied for the lead because Zoeller had made a couple of bogeys. Then Floyd went bogey, double bogey. Irwin, Curtis Strange and Scott Simpson were all within one shot of Zoeller going to the 12th, but this was where Fuzzy put an eight-iron within 10 inches of the cup for a birdie. After another birdie at 14, he was home free. His final round was an even-par 70 and his 72-hole total was a six-under 274.
When the touring pros weren't discussing tornado alerts and Zoeller's tee shots, they were pondering the future of the tour itself. They were talking about ways to make it better, which to most of them translates to mean shorter, richer and more exclusive.
To some of them, however, change threatens trouble, even ruin. They don't see what's wrong with the tour as it is and has been for all these profitable years.
"What we don't seem to be able to do," said Dave Eichelberger, pounding on a bar counter, "is leave the damn thing alone!"
A majority of the pros quietly agree with Eichelberger; at least most of those among the top 100 or so do. The tour is a good deal for them financially. They can make themselves a nice living by playing in as many of the 44 tournaments as they wish each year. And so what if only a couple of them ever become a Jack Nicklaus or Tom Watson? There's always a chance to be among the top 60 money winners, and thus exempt from qualifying for a year. And the others can still make the payments on the condos and the cars one way or another. If a golfer isn't talented enough to make it, he might consider trying his luck at plumbing or electrical contracting. So goes the popular theory.
PGA Tour Commissioner Deane Beman feels he must take a broader view of things. In order to increase the prize money at tournaments, Beman needs television revenue, and he can't sell tournaments in the fall to TV because of football. Thus, he thinks a shorter season, ending in early September, makes sense.
The commissioner also worries a great deal about TV ratings, which were off but have improved this year. This bothers him more than it does the players, who refuse to believe their sport is losing any popularity because they see huge crowds at stops like the Colonial and get attention everywhere they travel.
In one form or another, a proposal for two tours has been sitting around on the commissioner's desk for several years. One idea was to have a major and a minor tour with the top players competing in about 15 upper-tier events plus the major championships, and everyone else—the "blue collar group"—competing in all those Pensacolas and Tucsons. Nobody liked this notion. The players didn't want to make any tournament sponsor feel second-rate, even though they may not have wanted to be in his tournament.
The latest idea to be vetoed by the pros was the commissioner's scheme for a split tour, in which there would be two separate but equal divisions of stars—an American Division and a National Division, perhaps. Beman saw it as far from a perfect solution to overcrowded fields, schedule-making problems, burdensome qualifying procedures, etc., but he wanted to know how players felt about it. At Houston they told him. Not good.
In the two divisions there would have been 18 tournaments each, not counting the four majors (the Masters, U.S. Open, British Open and PGA) plus the TPC, Tournament of Champions and World Series of Golf. Those seven special events would be open to whoever qualified for them.
If a Floyd or an Irwin or a Hubert Green, say, were assigned to the American Division, he might find himself playing in the Bob Hope but not the Crosby, in San Diego but not L.A., at Doral but not Inverrary, at Dallas but not Fort Worth, at Westchester but not Philadelphia and so on. The thinking was that no player would compete in the same division more than three years in a row. There was also some talk about letting the few players with lifetime exemptions—Jack Nicklaus, for instance—who have the right to play anywhere they choose, to hop from division to division.
The plan was hooted down for one basic reason—the millionaires didn't want to be told where they could go after having spent so long going where they pleased. If Tom Weiskopf didn't want to be told he couldn't play at Hilton Head and Colonial every year, no one could blame him for it.
For now, the two-tour plan is shelved, if not dead. But the Gary McCord Plan is very much alive. McCord is a tour player of somewhat less stature, despite his charm, than Watson. But McCord fervently believes that golf should change its staid image and become more entertaining. He also believes in an all-exempt tour, and most of the players, young and old, rich or not, tend to agree with him. An all-exempt tour would eliminate Monday qualifying from the lives of all the "rabbits" trying to make it week to week, save money for the tour and the players, and it certainly would make the tour more exclusive.
The McCord Plan would provide a year's exempt status for, say, the best 170 players in terms of money won. After one year the bottom 30 would be dropped, and another 30 added from a qualifying school after a 144-hole competition among the discarded 30 and a host of other aspirants.
"We may have legal problems with this," said Sneed last week, "but I think the exempt tour is coming."
Like Sneed, Irwin is a member of the PGA Tour's policy board. Said Irwin, "The exempt tour will be a fact by 1983, I think. Everybody seems to be in favor of it, just like everyone is not in favor of a split tour. I believe one thing: No matter how many rules you change, nothing is going to keep the really talented golfer off the tour. He'll play his way on."
Fuzzy Zoeller had been one of those they couldn't keep off the tour, and now he's back on it again, but good.