Madison, Miss., had to be the only place in the golfing world last week where the mere mention of the British Open brought a sneer, a so-what shrug or outright hostility. Because while all of golf's glamour-pusses were across the Pond playing for everlasting glory and fabulous riches, 143 has-beens, wannabes and what-ifs were scrapping it out at the PGA Tour's Deposit Guaranty Classic, a 72-hole consolation prize for those who skipped Scotland.
Saturday morning found Kirk Triplett, at 29th the highest ranking player on the PGA Tour money list at the Classic, watching the British Open on a clubhouse TV at the Annandale Golf Club. He slouched in a chair like a schoolboy being held inside during recess. Triplett is ordinarily a pleasant man, but watching the British Open was making him a tad grumpy.
At one point the TV commentators remarked on John Daly's fine play. "He's still got the worst haircut on Tour," Triplett sniffed. Jack Whitaker then weighed in with a typically saccharine essay, to which Triplett rolled his eyes and said, "Man, I wish he would retire." Moments later, after viewing a series of reverent images of St. Andrews and hearing more pontificating, Triplett said, "If I hear 'em say 'grand tradition' one more time, I might lose it."
Triplett's bad trip was understandable. He had already made plans to attempt to qualify for the British Open when he found out that his wife, Cathi, was pregnant with twins. Reluctant to stray too far from home, Triplett bagged the British. "Sure, it's painful to watch it," he said. "It's one of my favorite events, and sometimes it's hard to believe I'm here and not there."
Triplett was not alone in his pining. Said Tour rookie Jay Williamson, "Let's face it, we all dream about winning the British Open, not the Deposit Guaranty Classic."
True enough, but the Classic left Ed Dougherty feeling rather dreamy. Dougherty is a frumpy 47-year-old who looks like he would be more comfortable with a socket wrench than a six-iron, but he shot a smooth 68-68-70-66-272 to win his first PGA Tour event. The victory brought a coveted two-year exemption, $126,000 and, among other things, an invitation to the '96 Masters. "I went from being a washed-up old pro to something kind of special in four days," said Dougherty, who had earned a paltry $2,605 in '95. "I said earlier that I was mighty glad to be in Mississippi, and nothing since has changed my mind."
The week was a triumph for the tournament as well as for Dougherty. For its first 26 years the Classic was known derisively as the Mississippi Masters, a podunk event held the same weekend in April as the real Masters. Victories were unofficial, course conditions were subpar, and Hattiesburg, the host town, became a synonym for second-rate. But last year the Classic moved to Annandale, a strong layout with swank facilities, and, more significant, the tournament became a fully sanctioned event with a $700,000 purse. It has found such a nice niche opposite the British Open that even Triplett concedes its charms. "Yeah, I'm glad to be here," he said, stoked by his fourth-place tie, worth $27,563. "Last I checked, this money spends the same as the stuff won at St. Andrews."
Money is what keeps these players away from the British Open: the chance to earn it as well as the need to save it. Last year Mark Calcavecchia was accused of being an Ugly American and a tightwad when he complained about the cost of playing in the British. But Calcavecchia had a point.
Those who are not exempt for the British Open must travel to the U.K. a week early to qualify. This means skipping that week's Tour event, paying a hefty airfare and being gouged for a few extra days of meals and accommodations—all for the chance to play in an event in which they are guaranteed about $1,000 if they make the field. "I rolled the dice [in 1990] and lost $7,000," said Bob Gilder. "I'm not going to get raped again." Instead Gilder played in the Anheuser-Busch Classic in Williamsburg, Va., earning $3,146. Then he tied for eighth at the Classic and pocketed $20,300.
Elite U.S. golfers have been critical of their countrymen who don't wade overseas, and the situation turned especially acrimonious last year when Tom Watson, Brad Faxon and Fuzzy Zoeller all sounded off.