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.
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° 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."