The garishly colored and ornamented resort-hotel nightclubs that screamingly herald the approach to Las Vegas form an unlikely setting for a golf course, let alone a major golf tournament. But the bizarre is a Las Vegas specialty, and its Tournament of Champions is a two-act spectacular which, though it certainly is not golf in the old-fashioned sense, is still quite a show.
Part One of what used to be referred to as the Slot Machine Open before it gained a certain amount of respectability is a pretournament calcutta, which this year piled up a record pool of $380,000. Part Two is the 72-hole golf tournament itself, held at the Desert Inn Country Club course just a few hundred feet from the garish glow. The entry list for the tournament is composed only of PGA tournament champions of the preceding 12 months plus, of course, the man who returns to defend his title. The entry list of those who bid at the calcutta is weeded out of a select field of well-heeled gamblers, real estate owners and big-money men in general who not only have plenty of cash but who are delighted to invest it recklessly. It's readily apparent that this year's winners—Chauncey Needham, who hit a $136,800 jackpot in the calcutta, and Mike Souchak, who shot a 7-under-par 281 to win the tournament itself, $10,000 in prize money and a gift of around $12,000 from Needham's calcutta share—bested some pretty rough competition.
Even in a town jumping with high-powered nightclub acts the calcutta auction held on the eve of the tournament is always the best show of the night. No competing golfers were allowed to be present, but jammed into the flossy Painted Desert Room at the Desert Inn were 450 potential high spenders, plus Bob Hope, Bing Crosby, Phil Harris, Jimmie Durante and Joe E. Lewis, while red-faced, white-haired Walter Winchell kept a beady eye on the proceedings in his role as director of the Damon Runyon Cancer Fund for whose benefit the calcutta and tournament are held.
The structure of the calcutta is relatively simple. When the entire field (26 this year) has been auctioned off, 10% of the total pool is donated to the Damon Runyon Fund, and the rest is parceled out for delivery at the close of the tournament in this fashion: 40% to the winning ticket, 20% for second, 15% for third, 10% for fourth and 5% each for the fifth, sixth and seventh places. This year's pool amounted to $342,000 after the deduction for charity, and first place paid a staggering $136,800. Even the seventh-place ticket was worth $17,100.
Anticipating this fat pot, potential buyers fingered their checkbooks and money clips, and at 9:30 p.m. Auctioneer Milt Wershow glided on stage to start the ball rolling.
"There's Crosby," said Wershow, as he started to warm up the crowd. "What club are you representing, Bing?"
" Fort Knox," bellowed Bob Hope before Crosby could drawl a response, and the audience roared.
Finally getting down to business, Wershow auctioned off Gary Player, who went for $16,500, and Billy Casper, who drew a top bid of $21,000. Crosby ambled up to the stage to sell U.S. Open Champion Tommy Bolt for a modest $12,500, and then Hope bounced up to raffle off Arnold Palmer.
"Well, here we are at the Desert Inn's annual benefit for Frankie Laine," said Hope. "I'll tell you, if I ever bought a winner in this thing I'd breed him." The bidding on Palmer reached $19,000 and stalled.