For a while there last week at the TPC of Michigan in the
Detroit suburb of Dearborn, it seemed as if winning the Ford
Senior Players Championship wasn't as important as merely
surviving it. All week it was so hot in Motown that Heat Wave,
the 1963 classic by Martha & the Vandellas, should have been
made the tournament's official theme song. The heat easily beat
the golf as the No. 1 topic in the clubhouse and the hospitality
tents, where folks were so sopping that they actually enjoyed
the other elements that made at least a cameo appearance at one
time or another--heavy rain, high wind and ball-marker-sized hail.
The fashion statement of the week belonged to J.C. Snead, who
drove the tournament's image nerds into an apoplectic fit--or was
that just another case of dehydration?--by playing a few holes on
Friday with his pants rolled up to his knees and his socks
rolled down to his ankles. "What's the big deal?" fumed ol'
Jesse Carlyle after being chastised by the fashion police. "It
was just my way of getting cool. Heck, it's not a beauty contest
out there. How about those knickers? All you need with them is a
rubber nose and you look like Marco the Clown."
On late Sunday afternoon, however, many in the perspiring
gallery were mentally fitting Snead for the rubber nose and the
funny suit. There he was, teetering on the brink of collapse as
he fought his nerves and Jack Nicklaus down the stretch of the
Senior tour's fourth and final major. On his 71st hole, Nicklaus
reached back to 1966 or somewhere and pulled out an eagle to tie
Snead, who was playing just behind him, for the lead at 16 under
par. Then on the 72nd, Jack came within one roll of the ball of
sinking a birdie putt that would have brought him the title.
After the eagle, as the roar of the overwhelmingly pro-Nicklaus
gallery cut through the sultry air, it seemed inevitable that
some variation of the BEAR IS BACK theme would be the next day's
headlines in the beleaguered Detroit daily papers, which were
publishing despite a Teamster-led strike by six labor unions
that stopped both rack sales and home delivery. After all,
everyone remembered Snead's shocking pratfall at the end of this
same tournament in 1992. Holding a five-stroke lead at the start
of the final round and a two-shot advantage with only a hole to
play, Snead politely handed the tournament to Dave Stockton by
duck-hooking his tee shot at 18 into the water.
July 23, 1995
So now, while everyone was buzzing about Nicklaus's eagle, Snead
played the same hole as if tranquilized, half-shanking an
approach shot and saving par with a putt that did a complete lap
around the cup before dropping in. But then, after matching
Nicklaus's par on number 18 to force the tournament's first
playoff, J.C. suddenly found the verve and nerve that always
belonged to his famous uncle, Slammin' Sammy, and proceeded to
deliver the Snead family of Hot Springs, Va., its first major
title since Sam, now 83, won the 1954 Masters.
It was a happy ending, and, heaven knows, no tournament has ever
deserved one more. The newspaper strike began on Thursday night,
at roughly the same time that a violent thunderstorm was
knocking out electricity throughout the city. This meant that
many of the area's sports fanatics started the weekend deprived
of their air conditioning and their refrigeration as well as
their baseball box scores.
The high-octane field (what else would you expect from a
tournament held in the Motor City?) included the winners of the
first three 1995 Senior majors--Nicklaus (Tradition), Raymond
Floyd (PGA Seniors) and Tom Weiskopf (Senior Open). So,
naturally, Thursday's opening round ended with Jerry McGee, Bob
Charles and Bob Zimmerman atop the leader board with 68s. An
hour or so after play concluded, the storm swept through the
course, ripping limbs off trees, blowing the canopies off some
hospitality tents and refreshment stands, and temporarily
knocking out a transformer that supplied the electricity for ABC
and for the golf carts used by the players.
But when the first threesome teed off at 9 a.m. on Friday, the
debris had been cleared and the bunkers restored. "We had 32
people working from midnight on," said head groundskeeper Mike
Giuffe, who had cots installed in his office for the benefit of
exhausted workers. Alas for everyone, however, the storm's
legacy was the killer heat wave that set in across the Midwest
and East and eventually claimed more than 200 lives. At Dearborn
the temperature climbed to 103 degrees in the shade. "I don't
care about the shade," said Lee Trevino, who staggered off the
course bedraggled and dripping. "I wasn't in the woods all day.
What I want to know is, how hot was it on the golf course?"
Well, it was so hot that the first-aid team handled three times
its normal load of exhaustion and dehydration cases. So hot that
Arnold Palmer, an outspoken critic of golf carts, rode in one
instead of walking for the first time in his career. And so hot
that Bob Charles, who kept Rocky Thompson's score, soaked the
scorecard with sweat, forcing Thompson to turn in a soggy card
that disintegrated into halves.
"The card I kept was dry as a bone," Thompson said, "because I
used the cart. You get a breeze, and it's just like air
conditioning. Kermit Zarley didn't take a cart, and I can't
believe that. Give me that chariot on a day like this. The
scorer finally came up to me and said, 'Can I ride?' And that
was our second scorer. The first one quit after nine. You
Yankees can't handle that stuff. Your blood's too thick."
But Yankees weren't the only ones suffering. Snead became so
uncomfortable that he did the thing with his pants and socks.
Known to be truculent on occasion, Snead admitted that he "kinda
snapped" at the tournament official who informed him that
derogatory comments were being made about his appearance. "I
really didn't care what it looked like," Snead fumed. "I was
just trying to get through the round. I'd wear shorts if I
could, even though my legs are as white and skinny as
out-of-bounds stakes. Heck, I'd have taken my pants off if I
could have. I mean, what's the big deal? Colbert can turn his
shirt collar up, so why can't I turn my pants up?"
Maybe the turned-up collar helped, and maybe it didn't, but Jim
Colbert was so unstifled by the Friday heat that he stunned
everyone with a course-record 63 that put him 11 under par after
two rounds and four shots ahead of Snead and Trevino, his closet
competitors. "In the locker room some of the guys told me it was
the best round they had ever seen on the Senior tour," said
Colbert. "I know it's the best round I've ever played. I've been
out here 4-1/2 years, and I've never hit the ball like I hit it
On Saturday, at 2:50 in the afternoon of another insufferably
hot and humid day, play was suspended because of lightning.
Another storm, this one including a spattering of hail,
stretched the postponement to four hours. By 6:50, when the
final eight threesomes resumed play, it was so cool and overcast
that Snead joked, "I felt like I needed a sweater." Only 20
minutes later the threat of more rain and lightning caused
officials to order the players to come in from the gloaming and
call it a day.
During the short resumption, Snead eagled the par-5 13th to take
the lead at 13 under, a stroke ahead of the faltering Colbert,
who was finally feeling the heat. Also pulling an eagle out of
the evening session was Nicklaus, who moved into contention at
10 under. On Sunday morning the third round was completed with
Snead, at 13 under, leading Dave Stockton by one stroke and
Nicklaus, Floyd and Zarley by two. Colbert shot himself out of
contention by bogeying three of the four holes he played Sunday
morning. Nevertheless, 15 players were within seven shots of the
lead, and all of them knew that Snead, because of the 1992
fiasco, was apt to rattle like a Model T if somebody applied
That somebody turned out to be Nicklaus, the only player to make
a serious move. Isao Aoki of Japan, the Senior tour's leader in
scoring average and putting, was finished after a snowman on
number 2. Floyd dropped out of contention by hitting into the
water on number 6. Stockton, who won the tournament in 1992 and
'94, couldn't get anything going, and nobody really took 61-
year-old Ben Smith seriously, although everybody was delighted
when he played well enough to finish 12 under, tying Colbert and
McGee for third. On the lead, Snead went out in 32 and seemed to
have himself well under control until the tough 14th, where he
made what turned out to be his only bogey of the day after
getting steamed at an official who warned him against slow play.
"No, it wasn't the same guy who made me pull the pants down,"
Snead said later. "I thought it was totally uncalled for,
though. Here I was, leading the tournament and trying to figure
out how to get my ball out of the rough. Should I be worrying
about winning the tournament or how fast I'm playing? Besides, I
never play slow. Never. I don't know what's going on. You think
they [the officials] are picking on me or something?"
No, but fate seemed to be. The playoff began at number 18, the
same hole where Snead had suffered his devastating collapse
three years earlier. But this time he outdrove Nicklaus. Then,
after Nicklaus had hit a five-iron so far to the right that he
had a 30-foot putt for a birdie, Snead pitched a lovely dart
that stopped four feet from the hole. After Nicklaus missed,
Snead calmly tapped in for a victory that still wasn't sweet
enough to make him forget about '92.
"You can't make up for something like that," Snead said. "That
was the first time in my life I felt I had it right there and
let it get away. It hurt me. But today it was great to win the
way I won. I honestly wasn't nervous in the playoff at all. I
just said the hell with it."
How special was it to beat Nicklaus?
"Like everybody else, I've lost my share to Jack," Snead said.
"But at least one time, it was my day. Guys like me don't peak
very long before we drop back into a valley. It seems that
throughout my career, Jack peaked at the same times as me. Of
course, his peaks were higher and lasted longer."
As Snead posed for photographs with the crystal pitcher that
went with the winner's check of $225,000, the biggest of his
career, yet another storm was pelting the dark, deserted course.
Snead smiled wearily. "I'm glad it's over," he said. "It's been
a long, hot, hard week for all of us."