The end came abruptly, and the moment was, well, rich. Too rich for 9:24 on a Monday morning. Too rich, that is, unless you were Curtis Strange, who merely dropped a 188-yard four-iron 18 inches from the flagstick on Pebble Beach's par-3 17th hole—the second hole of sudden death. It was the very hole that in the fading light of Sunday afternoon had cost him his lead in the tournament, but now he tapped in for a birdie to win his darkness-delayed playoff over Tom Kite, and with it the Nabisco Championships. How rich? The victory was worth $535,000 to Strange—a $360,000 first prize and a $175,000 bonus for finishing the season as the PGA Tour's top money winner, the third time in four years he has done so. That payday made Strange, whose four tournament wins this year include the U.S. Open, the first player to earn more than $1 million—$1,147,644 to be exact—in a year on the Tour.
The Nabisco started out more like a treasure hunt than a tournament, with most of the attention focused on the 13 players who had a chance, by winning, to become the first $1 million purse snatchers ever on the PGA Tour. Even the course seemed to get caught up in the dollar signs as, for the first three days, Pebble Beach played gracious hostess to the party of prospective plutocrats. In breezeless weather Pebble yielded eight-under-par 64s on Thursday, Friday and Saturday to Strange, Mark Wiebe and Payne Stewart—after allowing only three tournament rounds of 64 or better in her storied 69-year history. The course was playing, said Paul Azinger, "like a pussycat."
On Sunday, after letting the par-bashers have their way for the first 54 holes. Pebble finally showed her claws, and in so doing transformed what had been a hollow celebration of materialism into Pebble Beach's show. The wind, howling off white-capped Carmel Bay, tore at the flagsticks and blew approach shots to humbling locations. The greens, which all week had been holding iron shots like puddles hold mud, now barely held the golfers themselves. One contender after another missed short putts when gusts of wind rocked them off balance. It was as if a Scottish gale had traveled clear around the world to the Monterey Peninsula, making the afternoon better suited for the sea otters frolicking in the surf than for the 30 pros vying for the biggest purse in golf. And as scores went up, up and away, as players succumbed to the weather or pressure or both, as veterans Strange and Kite, in fading light, came to Pebble's fabulous finishing holes, it became increasingly clear in the gloaming that this was the golf course's shining day, the game as it was meant to be played.
To wit: for $3 million.
November 21, 1988
Just kidding. Still, the prize money was never far from anyone's lips. A million bucks may not buy what it once did, but it was only in 1968 that Arnold Palmer became the first player to earn $1 million in prize money for a career. Now, 20 years later, the 30 players in the Nabisco tournament were playing for a $2 million purse and another $1 million in year-end bonuses. Losers? How could there be losers in a tournament in which there was no cut and the last-place finisher—who turned out to be Greg Norman (and who, with Mark O'Meara, set an unofficial Tour speed record by playing the final 18 holes in one hour and 24 minutes)—took home a tidy $32,000, plus a $21,000 bonus?
Norman's $53,000 haul, just to put things in perspective, was only $7,000 less than Tom Watson earned for winning the U.S. Open on this beloved course in 1982.
Not to suggest that the money on the PGA Tour has gotten out of hand, but there were signs that some of the golfers may have developed a rather distorted sense of reality. Asked on the eve of the tournament about the $360,000 first prize, Chip Beck, the Tour's leading money winner going into the Nabisco, said, "When you think of it, a lot of people have to work two or three years for the winner's share here."
Two or three years? Beck, who upped his 1988 earnings to $916,818, must have been referring to the income expectations of his caddie.
Touted by the media as the Super Bowl of golf, the Nabisco, which is in its second year, came across more as the Yuppie Celebrational. Only the top 30 money winners on the 1988 PGA Tour qualified. No ifs, ands or exemptions. The format was designed to assemble the best possible field for a gala affair to crown the season. But its purely materialistic criteria left some glaring omissions in human terms. Tom Watson, who won this event last year when it was played at Oak Hills Country Club in San Antonio, was not eligible to defend his title, having finished 39th on the money list in 1988. Seve Ballesteros, the British Open champ, who won more than $1 million worldwide this year, also was absent; he competed in only seven U.S. events and was 68th in Tour earnings.
The result was a field as bland as, well, the regular PGA Tour. Twenty-two of the 30 contestants had won at least one Tour event in 1988, but only six had won two. The only three-time winners were Strange and Masters champion Sandy Lyle of Great Britain, whose three victories came in 16 U.S. starts.
Besides the prize money, the other thing on everyone's mind last week was: What happens if the money runs out? That is to say, What happens if the leveraged-buyout people kill the golden goose and RJR Nabisco is cast to the highest bidder like so much Shredded Wheat? What happens if, say, Nabisco, which has a long-term contract with the PGA Tour and has invested more than $9 million in professional golf this year, was sold off piecemeal? Triscuits here, Ritz Crackers there, Chips Ahoy! over yonder?
"We're not afraid of what may or may not happen," says PGA Tour commissioner Deane Be-man. "We have a long-term agreement with RJR Nabisco. They've made a huge investment in golf in the last few years and are just now getting the benefit of that. It would not be a good business decision to terminate our agreement."
It would certainly not be a good business decision for the PGA Tour. As for Nabisco, whether it is broken up into tiny Ritz Bits or not, its investment would be enhanced considerably if its year-end bash were televised by one of the major networks instead of by ESPN, which used Beman as a guest commentator and cared so little for the results of the tournament that it cut away from its live coverage on Sunday, with Strange on his way to the 14th hole, to broadcast pro football highlights.
The Nabisco was originally under contract to stay at Pebble Beach for the next two years, which would have delighted the pros, who all praise it as their favorite track. But when the Tour drew up its 1989 schedule, it moved the tournament ahead two weeks, to Oct. 26-29, and the course was unavailable then. So in 1989 the Nabisco will be played at Harbour Town Golf Links on Hilton Head Island, S.C. In 1990 it will move again, and again in 1991. "Then we might stay put," says Wayne Robertson, a Nabisco executive. "You probably build heritage and tradition faster by remaining in one location."
On Friday, Kite, who set the course record of 62 in the 1983 Bing Crosby National Pro-Am, shot a seven-under 65 to move within two strokes of Strange. "Obviously, the course is playing fairly easy right now," Kite said, citing the soft greens, the lack of wind, and the drought-hardened fairways.
Strange, meanwhile, shot a workmanlike 71, which let the rest of the field back into the tournament. "I got conservative real quick when the shots I hit weren't coming off," he said. "But if 71 is the worst score I shoot this week, I'll be in decent shape."
Strange held on to his edge after a 70 on Saturday, but the leader board began to look like something from the Texas Open. Strange: —11. Mark Calcavecchia and Ken Green: —10. Kite, Stewart and Bruce Lietzke: —9. Eleven players were within four strokes of Strange, and only five players in the field were at par or over.
Which is when Pebble decided that enough was enough and it was time to let down her hair. The wind, gusting up to 30 miles per hour, wreaked havoc on the ball not only when it was in flight but also when it was resting innocuously on the green. At the par-4 4th, Strange left his 12-foot par putt 18 inches short, but before he could get to his ball to mark it, the wind blew it, inch by inch, back down the slope until it finally stopped six feet from the hole. He sank it from there for the bogey.
Kite proved he could handle the wind, scratching his way to 10 under and a share of the lead after eight holes. Then the elements ganged up on him, and the rain started falling in earnest. Actually, it did not so much fall as blow in from Carmel Bay horizontally, as if hundreds of fire hoses were turned on at once. Umbrellas blew inside out. Spectators, soaking wet and cold, fled. And the players gave back shots to par in bunches. Lietzke, who was 10 under for the tournament after the 2nd hole, played the next 10 in eight over to fall out of contention. Kite, paired with Lietzke, bogeyed 9, 10 and 11 to drop to seven under, and by his own estimation, he did so without making a bad shot. "I thought, I've gone bogey, bogey, bogey, and gosh, I haven't done anything wrong," Kite moaned. "It was brutal."
Play was eventually suspended. When it resumed an hour and a half later, Pebble was once again transformed. The wind had calmed, the greens had drained, the rain had stopped, and the players were respectfully humbled. Her honor regained, Pebble gave herself back over to the shot makers.
At that point it was Strange's tournament to win. A splendid front-runner, he had lost only one stroke to par in the three holes he had played in the rain. When he birdied 13 from three feet, he was 10 under par, two shots ahead of the field. On the tee at the 17th, Strange knew that all he needed was to par in to pick up his half-million-plus check.
He blocked out a four-iron, sending his tee shot over the green and into a small pot bunker. As he approached his ball to inspect his lie in the sand, Strange asked someone with a walkie-talkie, "Has Kite made four?"
At that moment Kite, who had birdied the 12th to get to eight under, was standing over an eight-footer for birdie on the par-5 18th. As Strange stepped into the bunker, Kite drained his putt, and the crowd let out a roar. Strange blasted long, then lipped out his seven-footer coming back and settled for bogey. He made a routine par on 18 for a 74, tying Kite at 279, to set the stage for Monday's playoff.
"I think we all know what Pebble Beach can be," said an exhausted Kite later. His 72 strokes in the wind and rain were the fewest taken on Sunday. "You get the worst weather in the world under the most trying conditions, and it's still fun to play. I do like Pebble. I wish we played here every week. But it wears you down to a frazzle."
Kite, who had a streak on the line of seven straight years with at least one tournament win, as well as a potentially lucrative payoff, did not get quite the same kick out of Pebble during Monday's playoff After both men made routine pars on 16, where the playoff began, Strange knocked that four-iron stiff on 17 and, just like that, the richest tournament in history was history. Strange barely reacted when he made the winning putt, unemotionally retrieving the ball and almost as an afterthought raising his fist.
"I'm as excited as I can be, but I don't really look like it," he said, appearing as if he would gladly have traded some of that cash for a good strong cup of coffee. "There's a difference between winning Sunday afternoon and winning 9 o'clock Monday morning."
Just another day at the office. And an extra trip to the bank.