It was the golfing equivalent of hitting the upright with no time left. Al Del Greco raised his arms in premature celebration, then doubled over as if sucker punched when his downhill eight-footer, the putt that could have won him the tournament, caught the left lip of the 18th hole and stayed out. In disgust the stubby Houston Oiler kicking specialist slammed his helmet—er, rather, his tournament-issued NFL Properties cap—to the turf.
Thus did last weekend's NFL Players' Championship come down to a playoff between Del Greco, winner of the first two NFL Players' Championships, and Browning Nagle, the Indianapolis Colts' quarterback who had sneaked his way into sudden death by birdieing four of the last six holes, including 17 and 18.
Considering the Oilers' recent postseason performances, you could hardly blame Del Greco for dreading a playoff. But why dredge up such sordid memories now? This was a week for reading greens rather than coverages, for blasting out of sand rather than through defenses. For Del Greco and his kicking ilk, it was a time for shanking and slicing little white balls rather than oblong brown ones. It was the third Cadillac NFL Golf Classic, one of the game's most successful pro-am marriages: 56 NFL players teaming up with the Senior PGA Tour for four days of uneven golf and unremitting mutual admiration.
Capitalizing on hardpan fairways and receptive greens at the Upper Montclair (N.J.) Country Club, George Archer won the Senior portion of the tournament, and $142,500, with a 54-hole, 11-under-par 205. Archer, who came home with a creditable 70 on Sunday, had moved into the lead with a sizzling back-nine 30 the day before. As much as Archer won the tournament, Raymond Floyd lost it by squandering a final-round lead and settling for second for the second straight Sunday. This time Floyd handed the oversized winner's check to Archer by bogeying the 17th hole, a long par-3. Suggested vanity plate: ALSO RAN.
Playing in the threesome behind Floyd, the 55-year-old Archer kept an ear cocked as he walked up 17. "But I heard no roars," he said. Floyd was out of birdies, and the angular Archer coasted in for his 17th victory since joining the Senior tour in 1989. "When I came out on this tour," he said, "I was going to play hard for five years and then enjoy my life a little more. My wife now tells me"—$4,684,734 later—"that's not the plan anymore."
Unlike the pros, the NFL players did not dare attempt to take the course by the throat. For the amateurs victory awaited the fellow who screwed up the least spectacularly. Nagle's drive on the first hole of sudden death, the 590-yard par-5 18th, split the fairway. Del Greco—still obsessing, he later admitted, over the putt that didn't fall—pulled his tee shot 40 yards left into a grove of oaks. He recovered splendidly, punching a three-iron through an aperture in the trees, while Nagle's second shot went slicing toward local Route 3, which borders the course, eventually coming to rest behind a leader board. (Nagle was awarded a drop.) Both pitched onto the green: the Colt to within 45 feet, the Oiler to within 30.
First prize for the NFL contestants was $25,000 and a '95 Sedan DeVille, but everyone had agreed beforehand to donate his winnings to the charity of his choice. So the football players were really competing for nothing—and everything. Though it's only three years old, this tournament has become, among NFL players, the gold standard for bragging rights, which are, to these guys, far more precious than 25 G's and a luxury sedan.
The playoff provided the week's most electric moment, just as the NFL contingent gave the event its luster. Since 1970 three tournaments—one PGA Tour, one LPGA and one Senior event—have died on the vine in this part of the Garden State. Then in 1993 someone at Cadillac came up with the bright idea of throwing a full-fledged golf tournament and inviting football players. Instant hit. While the members of Upper Montclair cringed, 85,000 sports fans roamed the grounds of this very private enclave last week. It is safe to say of the paying public that more of them showed up to see Emmitt Smith than Kermit Zarley.
Even as they were dwarfed by their large friends, the seniors accepted their temporarily reduced status with, for the most part, equanimity and grace. "They're my heroes," proclaimed Floyd, who won here last year and is first on the tour's money list this year. "I'm an NFL nut," said Jim Colbert, who is second on the money list, "so this week is very special to me."
There was touring pro Bobby Mitchell taking Carolina Panther quarterback Jack Trudeau to the practice range for an hour-long lesson. There was Colbert, a former Kansas State quarterback, going out of his way to make Brian Kinchen feel at home during their Friday round. So effectively did Colbert loosen up the Cleveland Brown tight end that Kinchen bettered Colbert's opening-round 74 by a stroke.