This year's two-month West Coast swing on the PGA Tour, which ended on Sunday at the Nissan Open at Riviera Country Club, in Pacific Palisades, Calif., leaves us with an amalgam of curiosities and intriguing loose ends.
Topping the money list are the unlikely duo of Peter Jacobsen and Kenny Perry, who nearly achieved the first back-to-back, back-to back victories on the West Coast but fell short when Perry faded to finish in a tie for second at Riviera. Not even on the list is the world's best player, Nick Price, who has yet to compete in the U.S. this year, while America's best, Fred Couples, is the leading money winner on the European tour. Almost invisibly, John Morse won the Hawaiian Open in January, while nearly as softly but carrying a very large, titanium-headed stick, Jack Nicklaus recorded his best finish on the regular Tour in four years with a tie for sixth at the AT&T Pebble Beach National Pro-Am. Along the way we've been tantalized but not fulfilled by the prospective comebacks of John Daly, Paul Azinger, Payne Stewart, Curtis Strange and Lanny Wadkins.
It used to be that the West Coast provided a reassuring feeling of constancy to the start of a new year. Nicklaus would win at Pebble Beach, Arnold Palmer would win in Palm Springs and Los Angeles, and Johnny Miller would sweep Arizona, all amid the languid television banter of tournament hosts like Bing Crosby, Bob Hope, Dean Martin, Andy Williams and Glen Campbell. That has all changed now, and it takes the wit of Bill Murray or the weight of President Clinton to register more than a blip on the celebrity radar screen, while the highest Q-ratings among this year's winners belonged to Phil Mickelson, in Tucson, and Corey Pavin, who on Sunday became one of just three players—the others are Ben Hogan and Arnold Palmer—ever to win consecutive L.A. Opens at Riviera.
On the surface this might seem to support the perception that today's Tour stays in a holding pattern until it reaches Florida in March. Price, the leading money winner for the last two seasons while winning nine tournaments, has completely bypassed West Coast events in that time. This year the top players on the Tour—Price, Greg Norman, Couples and Ernie Els—made only three appearances out West among them. Last week at Riviera, the same course at which this year's PGA Championship will be held in August, only two of last year's Top 10 PGA Tour money winners showed up. Many players took the week off to gear up for the four upcoming Florida events.
No wonder the swing out West is dubbed the Rest Coast or the Left Out Coast. The advent of year-round golf—with the U.S. off-season of November and December peppered with lucrative, limited-field events—has encouraged established pros, a large proportion of whom make their homes in Florida, to take a break during January and February. When they comparison shop in making up their schedules for the year, those players think that the West Coast's spotty weather, multiple course venues, 72-hole pro-ams and cross-country logistics make it the place not to be.
All that said, there were signs this year that the West Coast may be on the rise. A significant group of stars one rung down—Ben Crenshaw, Steve Elkington, Nick Faldo, Hale Irwin, Tom Kite, Davis Love III, Craig Stadler, Pavin, Azinger, Mickelson, Daly, Stewart, Strange and Wadkins—all played at least four events through Los Angeles. As a group they made 66 appearances on the West Coast, compared with a collective 46 appearances last year.
There are some good reasons for better fields, the biggest being this September's Ryder Cup; the qualifying system for the U.S. team offers double points for 1995 events. As a result of their victories both Perry and Jacobsen have jumped from nowhere to become strong contenders for the team.
"I think everybody is more jacked up to play this year," says U.S. captain Wadkins. "Guys trying to make the Ryder Cup are helping all the fields."
Another factor: Tournament organizers are working to enhance their events. Course conditions were improved dramatically at Torrey Pines and Riviera, while purses were up $100,000 to $200,000 for Tucson, Phoenix, Pebble Beach, San Diego (Torrey Pines) and Los Angeles. "Money talks," says Jacobsen.
In general, veterans are playing more events than in the past. The proof is in the timing of the "reshuffle," a process in which players who gained Tour cards the previous year through the qualifying school and the numbers six through 10 off last year's Nike Tour money list are reranked for tournament eligibility according to their performance to date. The first of the year's five reshuffles is done after all the Q schoolers have played in at least three events. Since this periodic re-ranking started in 1982, the first reshuffle has always taken place during or immediately after the West Coast swing. But this year, because of all the veterans filling up the fields, one new member is still shy of three tournaments, so the reshuffle probably won't happen until April, when the Tour goes to New Orleans.