The Silly Season is upon us. By now, you know the telltale
signs: globetrotting golfers prostituting themselves to the
highest bidder and bogus tournaments that are the sporting
equivalent of New Coke. That is, glossy imitations that simply
can't beat the real thing.
The Silly Season is sometimes referred to as November and
December. It used to be called the off-season. The official PGA
Tour ended Oct. 29 at the Tour Championship, and in the old days
what followed was a couple of months of hunting and fishing for
the Tour pros. But off-season events have invaded the calendar
like a kikuyu-grass infestation. The Silly Season got off to a
far-flung start last weekend. New Zealander Frank Nobilo
pocketed the biggest check of his career, $350,000, for winning
the rain-shortened $1.9 million Sarazen World Open Championship,
played in Braselton, Ga. Jim Furyk won $180,000 at the $1
million Lincoln-Mercury Kapalua International, on Maui. The cash
registers were ringing, in Surround Sound.
Of course, there's nothing wrong with making a buck or two
hundred thousand. "The Silly Season is a stupid name," says Mark
Calcavecchia, who made $67,000 (he tied for fourth) at the World
Open. "We're pro golfers. Our job is to play for money."
Yes, but as fourth-year Tour vet Emlyn Aubrey says, "It's not
silly, but it's pretty funny. All this free money...."
Fred (Mr. November) Couples is the acknowledged king of the
Silly Season, having won $750,000 in a span of four weeks last
year. He ka-chinged $21,333 at Kapalua, which probably didn't
cover the tab for his entourage of 17.
Which goes to show, just when you thought things couldn't get
any sillier, along comes the Sarazen World Open. By contrast,
the U.N.'s 50th anniversary was an understated get-together. The
Sarazen, which debuted last year, is open to the past two
winners of the world's 63 national open championships. This
includes such storied tournaments as the Scottish Open, and some
events that are still carving out their place in golf history,
such as the national opens of Slovenia, Trinidad and Tobago, and
Vanuatu. The past two champs of the four majors are also
invited, as are the four immortals who have won all four of the
Grand Slam events. Ben Hogan, Gary Player, Jack Nicklaus and
chairman emeritus Gene Sarazen have all abstained, so far.
The World Open elbowed its way onto the scene by ponying up the
whopping $1.9 million in prize money, making it the
fourth-richest domestic tournament, including all the legit
events. It was breathtaking excess, even for the Silly Season,
and a solid field turned out for the maiden voyage. When Ernie
Els capped his epic year with a dazzling win, it was the most
exciting thing to happen in Braselton since Kim Basinger bought
the town a few years back.
The World Open has continued to spread its wings. This year the
event was officially sanctioned by the European tour, and while
this official stamp of approval doesn't mean much in practical
terms, it further distinguishes the World Open from the other
postseason events. So, too, does its classy home page on the
World Wide Web (http://www.intellimedia.com/sarazen).
But the best thing the World Open has going for it is the
93-year-old Sarazen, who is still a kick in the pants, and don't
think he isn't strutting around now that he has his own
tournament. "In 10 years I may be gone," he says, "but this
tournament will still be going strong."
World Open founder Don Panoz says furthering Sarazen's legacy
was his only motivation for establishing the tournament, on
which he has spent $2 million of his own money. He does have a
dear relationship with Sarazen. But Panoz is a man who made his
fortune inventing the nicotine patch yet still smokes like a
chimney. The World Open has brought tremendous exposure to his
Chateau Elan resort, a faux 16th-century French chateau, as well
as its ritzy housing developments and winery.
And what goes best with wine? Cheese, of course, and the World
Open offered up plenty of that. Like the golf course, the
Legends of Chateau Elan. Sarazen and fellow golf greats Sam
Snead and Kathy Whitworth each designed six holes "in the
spirit" of their favorites from other courses. As such, the
Legends has more knockoffs than those guys hawking Gucci
handbags on New York City street corners.
The field was also bathed in a Velveeta glow. Three of the top
names--Lee Janzen (15th place), Craig Stadler (tie for eighth)
and Fuzzy Zoeller (tie for 13th)--didn't even win tournaments to
get here. They were special Squire's Selections. If you're going
to trumpet it as the World Open, there shouldn't be any free
When Colin Montgomerie faxed in a letter to the attendance
office Monday morning canceling his trip, that reduced the
92-man field to just three blue-chippers: Els, Janzen and John
Daly. There were another two dozen or so guys who could play,
and the rest were just window dressing.
Here's how Gary Marks of London describes his competition at the
'94 Polish Open: "It was a decent field, about 50 players."
Pause. "Only half of them were pros, the rest weekend players."
Pause. "In all honesty, it was a pretty weak field. There were a
half-dozen decent players."
Wayne Bradley of South Africa was looking forward to defending
his '94 Ivory Coast title, but the tournament went belly-up this
year. Australian Steve Conran spent most of the World Open
explaining what and where Vanuatu (pronounced van-wah-TOO) is.
"If this is Australia," says the '93 champ, holding up his right
fist, "and this is Fiji," he adds, holding up his left fist,
"then this is Vanuatu," he says, motioning with his chin to what
would be a chain of tiny islands in between.
Such a story is indicative of what is neat about the World Open.
It's not the fat-cat stars playing for Porsche money. Rather,
it's the randoms and the wannabes savoring their first brush
with the big time.
Last year Urban Legat, the '93 Slovenian champ, came to the
Sarazen and shot 88-84-88-92, finishing 79 shots behind Els.
Replaying memories of that trip, he gets tears in his eyes.
Tears of joy. It was his first visit to the U.S. After the
tournament he road-tripped to the Grand Canyon.
"Un-bee-lievable," he says in his choppy but charming English.
Still, Legat has an athlete's pride, and he almost didn't return
this year. The chance to see the States again swayed him, and he
shot 80-82 to partially redeem Slovenian golf.
Most players were floored by the red-carpet treatment, which
included Volvo courtesy cars, daily excursions for the family
and free long-distance phone calls. There was no preferential
treatment on the golf course. Rattled by the large crowds and
starstruck by the competition, many of the fringe players
crashed and burned.
"Not everyone can play well," says Panoz, the founder, "but
these players came here and improved their golf knowledge, and
that they'll take home with them."
Gee, there's nothing silly about that. In fact it sounds rather
So, Urban, what will you be taking back to Slovenia with you?
"Five thousand dollars, American," he says.
For most touring pros, the 1995 season is over. For others, the
year is just getting interesting. Last week's Sarazen World Open
and Kapalua International marked the opening of golf's Second
(a.k.a. Silly) Season--the series of invitation-only, usually
made-for-TV events that, while unofficial, can be milked for
more money than an entire season on Tour. In 1994, for example,
Fred Couples, the acknowledged king of the Second Season, won
almost half again as much ($907,000) as he did in official
tournaments ($625,654). And Couples didn't even play in the most
lucrative Second Season event, the Million Dollar Challenge in
South Africa. Nick Faldo won that, and made more in four days
than he did on the '94 European Tour ($816,379). Who gets
invited to this free lunch? All it takes is a big year (winning
a major helps) or a big name (for TV ratings). Although most of
the events are strictly for show, some definitely are better
theater than others. Here's our viewer's guide to the Second
Don't miss it [Five golf balls]
Will be rehashed at work [Four golf balls]
Beats shoveling snow [Three golf balls]
Only looks like golf [Two golf balls]
Stuck for something to do? [One golf ball]
World Cup [Two golf balls]
TPC at Mission Hills
Six-hour rounds turn U.N. of golf into creep show.
Shark Shootout [Two-and-a-half golf balls]
Thousand Oaks, Calif.
Is Mark McCumber invited?
Skills Challenge [Five golf balls]
Pointe Hilton GC
Lookout Mountain, Ariz.
Mano-a-mano shotmaking makes for good fun, better TV.
Skins Game [One golf ball]
Palm Desert, Calif.
Been there, done that.
Million Dollar Challenge [Two-and-a-half golf balls]
Gary Player CC
Sun City, Bophuthatswana
$4 million/$1 million
P.C. to play here now.
JC Penney Classic [One-and-a-half golf balls]
Nov. 30-Dec. 3
Palm Harbor, Fla.
Mixed teams ... and emotions. Can get grim in a hurry.
Diners Club Matches [Four golf balls]
La Quinta, Calif.
32 teams from the three U.S. tours get 11 1/2 hours of airtime.
Johnnie Walker World Championship [One golf ball]
Montego Bay, Jamaica
Never clicked. Even pros prefer to be home for the holidays.
Andersen Consulting [Two golf balls]
$3.65 million/$1 million
Name the finalists and win a prize.