The Bumper Pool Crosby

Two sensational 18th-hole bank shots at the Bing Crosby Pro-Am lifted Hale Irwin into a playoff, which he won on the second hole
February 13, 1984

Four days of designer weather on the Monterey Peninsula last week produced one of the weirdest tournaments in the lusty 44-year history of the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am before it wound up in the sensible clutches of Hale Irwin. For a while there on Sunday it seemed to belong to a little guy who plays righthanded, putts lefthanded and looks like a New Wave guitarist. But Jim Nelford simply wasn't destined to win. How can you beat somebody at Pebble Beach who's going to bounce a golf ball off an oceanside rock, then carom one off a flagstick to get himself a tie, and then overcome a skied tee shot on the second sudden-death playoff hole with a career two-iron shot out of a fairway bunker? Except for that 213-yard blast, which got him in there for his birdie putt, Irwin looked as if he were winning—or losing—the Bing Crosby National Bumper Pool Championship.

Nelford, a 28-year-old Canadian who grew up playing more ice hockey than golf, performed grandly in Sunday's final round in an effort to gain his first victory in seven years on the PGA Tour. He rapped in six birdies as he fired a four-under 68 and reached the scorer's tent two holes ahead of Irwin with a total of 278, 10 under par. Meanwhile, Irwin, 38, who had begun the day with a two-stroke lead on the field, spent a good deal of time wondering if he'd forgotten how to play the game. For a two-time U.S. Open champion and a man with a reputation for showing off his best golf on the toughest courses, he seemed always to "pull out the wrong club," as he said later.

Irwin was struggling to get to the house with an even-par 72, which would tie Nelford, and only the tenacious competitor that he is could have rescued this round. Even so, it looked lost when Hale bogeyed the 15th hole. He needed a birdie somewhere, but he wasn't hitting many greens in regulation. On the scenic and infamous par-five 18th, he had one last chance, but from the way he struck his tee shot it appeared as if he were trying to hit the ocean in regulation.

"It was low and it was hooking," Irwin said. It had fifth place written all over it, but...."

But it hit a rock along the steep drop-off to Carmel Bay and popped right back onto the fairway. From there he was able to put a three-wood second shot into position for an 81-yard wedge to the pin. Hale hit a splendid shot—as it turned out, even better than it looked. The ball one-hopped square into the flagstick and stopped five feet from the cup. He rapped it in for a birdie that gave him a 72—and a deadlock with Nelford, who stood watching and was too much of a gentleman to throw up in front of so large a gallery.

They halved the first playoff hole, the 15th, with par 4s, and then Irwin stunned himself by hitting "the worst tee ball of my life." Driving with his usually reliable three-wood, he hit the turf behind the ball, and high handicappers everywhere must have taken heart. In the heat of the moment, Irwin had hit the ball exactly as they would have. It came down from another universe to rest in a long fairway bunker, less than 200 yards from the tee.

Nelford was safely in the fairway with only a seven-iron to the green, and once again it seemed he held the upper hand. Irwin couldn't possibly reach the green, could he?

"I thought I might as well fry," he said. "In a situation like that—one of those 'Well, what have we here?' things—you have to make yourself forget everything but the mechanics. Stay down on it, swing slowly, make contact with the ball first. That's all I thought about."

The shot was an absolute beauty, 213 yards of perfection, over the dangerous cross-bunker guarding the green, onto the putting surface, the ball rolling toward the pin, then coming to a stop about nine feet behind the hole. Irwin wasn't about to miss the putt after having made a shot like that—and he didn't.

Irwin thus had gone from a ricochet romance to instruction-book stuff in the space of half an hour, from the rocks to the winner's circle, proving once again what a marvelous golfer he is on the most testing terrain. Irwin, who with his $72,000 Crosby check now ranks fourth on the alltime money list with $2.45 million, has won championships on such storied layouts as Harbour Town, Winged Foot, Butler National, Riviera, Pinehurst No. 2, Inverness, Muirfield Village—and now Pebble Beach.

He is a collector of great golf courses. That he caught Pebble in a tame mood will be forgotten, but not the miraculous way he beat it. The only thing the glorious weather did was keep the puzzling names—like Nelford's—on the scoreboards throughout the tournament. Pebble Beach, Cypress Point and Spyglass Hill—the three courses the field took turns playing until the survivors moved to Pebble for the final round—have trouble defending themselves without any real wind whipping in off the ocean. They lack a certain bite, become disarmed. This makes everyone in the field a little more equal.

Equality began on Thursday when a rather odd threesome shared the first-round lead at five-under 67: Thomas Gray, who would write his elegy soon enough; Bob Murphy, an unemployed TV announcer; and Nelford. Murphy and Nelford had seized on a tame Spyglass for their 67s. Irwin played Cypress Point that day and shot a 69.

Gray's score at Pebble was the most surprising. He had been heard from only once before. That was in 1982, when he finished second in the LaJet Classic in Abilene, Texas at the end of a near-penniless season and vaulted onto the exempt list. A criminal justice major at Arizona State, Gray was about ready to seek a new line of work. His follow-up 76s in the Crosby were either criminal—or justice. He missed the cut.

Murphy's timing was perfect. Tom Weiskopf had just been hired as a commentator for CBS to work 12 tournaments this year, and Murphy had just been shoved into reserve. Murphy still will be used occasionally, but he wasn't last week. He faded from contention after the opening-round 67, while Weiskopf wound up in a three-way tie with Pat Summerall and Ken Venturi on CBS' 18th-hole tower.

Nelford drifted back to a 73 at Pebble on Friday, the day two more strangers moved to the top, Willie Wood and John Adams. Wood wasn't that unfamiliar to golfing enthusiasts. A cute little guy built like a one-iron (he weighs 135, stands 5'7"), Wood, 23, was the medalist at the PGA Tour Qualifying Tournament back in November, after having been a two-time All-America at Oklahoma State. Adams wasn't the second President of the U.S., but he was second in the Hall of Fame Tournament at Pinehurst in 1982, his main claim to leaderboardom.

Wood added a 69 at Cypress to his opening 68 at Pebble for his 137 total. Adams fired a 67 at Cypress to go along with his 70 at Pebble. They were one stroke ahead of Irwin, who had now shot back-to-back 69s, and Craig Stadler, who had a near-perfect 66 at Pebble, a round which could have been much lower. "I'm about ready to win any minute," Stadler said, speaking too soon. He would fall back to a 74 on Saturday and end up tied for sixth.

Meanwhile, Adams said he knew what to expect from the headlines: "UNKNOWN TIES FOR CROSBY LEAD—I can see it now." Maybe he couldn't have foreseen the 76 he had coming up at Spyglass, but most people could.

Wood wasn't going to win the Crosby, but he did charm it with his personality, and he finished tied for 17th. He is going to be a player to reckon with. He has accuracy off the tee and the ability to hit what he calls "talent shots" all through the bag. Stamina will be his only problem.

At the Crosby, Wood spoke of looking forward to being paired with "Mr. Nicklaus and Mr. Watson." He spoke of often being mistaken for a caddie because of his boyish looks. He spoke of all the cameras on the golf courses. Everybody brought a camera to take snapshots of Clint Eastwood.

"They sound like popcorn," Wood said.

He also spoke of his impending marriage, this week in Hawaii, to a girl named Holly. How will she pronounce her married name? he was asked. "Very slowly," he said. "Holly...Wood."

Saturday was the day Irwin took the lead he would be asked to protect against the strangers who stayed near him. Irwin "managed" a round of 68 at Pebble Beach, admitting it couldn't compare with the flawless 69 he had shot at Spyglass. "When you're a grizzled vet," he said, smiling, "you learn how to save strokes around the greens. I saved a few."

Irwin's total of 206 through 54 holes gave him a two-stroke lead over the field. His nearest pursuer was David Edwards, another one of those Oklahomans, who had quietly put together rounds of 69, 70 and 69. Four strokes behind Irwin were Nelford, Mark O'Meara, Fred Couples and Hal Sutton—one household name, at least.

Irwin deserved special credit, for his rounds had been forged through "Dirty Harry's galleries," as he put it. Irwin and his partner in the pro-am segment of the tournament, local oil man Darius Keaton, had been paired with Eastwood and Ray Floyd for those first three rounds. These had taken an average of six hours to complete, mostly because of the mobs that wanted Clint to "make their day." Irwin said, "You have to keep reminding yourself that you're in a golf tournament."

Two chaps who were never in the tournament, as it happened, were Jack Nicklaus and Tom Watson. Nicklaus, who was making his first start of the season, played routinely, with rounds of 72, 73, 71 and 70, finishing in a tie with Wood and eight others. Watson opened with a shocking 77 at Cypress Point, including a shot into the water on the par-3 16th, and gradually vanished, missing his second cut in a row, having done the same thing at San Diego. What a strange start for Watson in '84. He began by winning $100,000 for two days of golf in the Tucson Match Play, and he has now missed two consecutive cuts in his only other appearances while remaining No. 1 on the money list.

Nicklaus had an excuse, had he chosen to fall back on it. Jack's amateur partner was Gerald Ford, who did his usual trick of shanking a shot and hitting a spectator. Over the years, Ford has become the leader in the clubhouse for hitting spectators with golf balls. There were even two ladies in his gallery last week who wore hard hats identifying them as JERRY'S CHEERING SECTION.

But Ford was outdone in sprayed shots. Ken Howard, the White Shadow of TV fame, struck the same spectator twice, on different holes. The man wasn't injured, but he supposedly said to a friend after the second plunking, "That's it, I'm getting out of here."

The pro-am business loses some importance when an amateur brings an under-arrest handicap into the event. It's a colorful part of the proceedings, of course, when Jack Lemmon is thrashing around in the ice-plant, or when Johnny Mathis is making a hole in one, as he did at the short 15th at Cypress on Thursday. Normally, however, the pro-am cries out for police sirens.

Leading after the first round with a 61 was the team of pro Mike Donald and Cris Collinsworth, the Cincinnati Bengal wide receiver, playing in his first Crosby. Collinsworth was getting 18 strokes, and a fellow amateur said to him, "Is there a history of kleptomania in your family?"

The pro-am winners turned out to be O'Meara and his partner, J.P. Diesel, a Tenneco executive from Houston, who ran in a 30-foot birdie putt on the final green to get them to 31 under. Diesel leaped around in ecstasy, but O'Meara missed his own birdie putt, which would have put him in the playoff with Irwin and Nelford for the big prize, then blew a tap-in and had to settle for a third-place tie with Couples.

Thus the stage was set for Irwin's astounding finish, which he may have had coming. He had lost the 1976 Memorial when Roger Maltbie hit a wayward shot that glanced off a gallery stake and onto the green to save par on the third hole of a playoff. Pebble made it up to Irwin, but now poor Nelford was left with something to gnaw on.

"Five years ago," he said, "I came to the 18th at Pebble one shot behind the leaders. I was thinking about a birdie, and I hooked my drive like Hale did. Mine went 50 yards into the ocean. I'll have to do something to appease the gods."

Maybe the gods don't approve of righthanded hitters putting lefty, but they surely were smiling on Hale Irwin.

FOUR PHOTOSAfter having been saved by a rock and a flagstick on 18 and the sand shot of his life in the playoff, Irwin's winning nine-foot putt was a cinch—and worth a clinch from his caddie, Matt Bloom. PHOTOIrwin's ultimate weapon: a two-iron from the sand. TWO PHOTOSWhen the switch-hitting Nelford had Irwin behind the eight ball, Hale took his cue and let fly. PHOTOWee Willie was a surprise to those who knew little about Woodcraft. TWO PHOTOSGray wrote his elegy after round one; Adams was not cut of presidential cloth. PHOTOStadler thought he'd be moving up, but in the end the Walrus bowed down and out.
PHOTOChances are Mathis won't make another ace and somebody will make Dirty Harry's day. TWO PHOTOSNever one to let down his fans, Ford made another big hit with the gallery.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)