Sam Snead and Las Vegas, it seems obvious, should have gotten together years ago. Both are dedicated to the proposition that money is the root of all success. And yet, until last weekend when Snead coasted home with a seven-stroke lead to win $10,000 in the Tournament of Champions, he and Vegas had never really come to terms. In three previous cracks at the tournament, the best Snead had been able to do was tie for ninth in 1954.
This year, to the great relief of those who have had to face an increasingly cantankerous Snead (he had gone since last April without a victory), it was quite a different story. True, during his first three rounds at the Desert Inn Country Club, Snead went grumbling and frowning around the course, as he often has done in recent months, while systematically accumulating sub-par rounds of 68-67-69 for a five-stroke lead over his nearest pursuers, Gary Player and Tommy Bolt. But things had gone so well for him that by the fourth round the 48-year-old Snead had lapsed back into the character of the genial, drawling hillbilly from West Virginia—the pleasant image of him that most golfing galleries carry in their mind.
The ever-present Las Vegas oddsmakers shared Snead's optimism. On the board of Jimmy (The Greek) Snyder, who sets the prices for the Hollywood Sports Service, Snead was down at a prohibitive 1 to 6. That was quite a switch from the 15 to 1 price on him before the tournament had started. Player had opened at 8 to 1 and was up to 10 to 1 on Sunday even though he was in second place behind Snead. Arnold Palmer, who had opened as the 6-to-1 favorite, wasn't even a bet to win on the final day, having fallen 14 strokes behind Snead.
If any oddsmen doubted that Snead's nerves were steady, they were immediately reassured by his first nine on Sunday. In a gusty, 30-mile-an-hour windstorm he played a steady, 1-over-par 37. The wind was the telling point. Although the Desert Inn course looks and plays kindly on a still day, once the wind comes up it becomes a treacherous opponent, blowing sand in the eyes, balls into the rough and the scores of the best pros into duffer figures. Snead nursed his lead and on several occasions used long irons instead of woods off the tees to keep on the fairways, which for this tournament had been narrowed to as little as 30 yards.
Dying wind, rising fortunes
Then, as Snead began the second nine holes on Sunday, the wind died down and there was now no further doubt about the outcome. Bolt, who was his playing partner, had crept to within three strokes of him, but Snead rectified matters with four birdies on the last nine holes for a 3-under-par 69 for the day.
At last Snead could talk to Las Vegas without inhibition. The victory brought his official lifetime golf winnings to more than $362,000, far more than anyone else on record. And with his success of last Sunday, Snead became the oldest golfer ever to win a tournament on the regular PGA circuit.
There were several superb places from which to watch, or better yet, follow, the Tournament of Champions throughout the four days. One was the Health Club at the Desert Inn, that spangled caravansary on the Vegas strip whose golf course is used for the tournament. There you need only overhear the talk among the gamblers and Las Vegas regulars, who, as is their custom, were baking out in the steam room of the Health Club.
A throaty, disembodied voice carried out of a cubicle, "Did you hear what that bum, Palmer, did today? Out in 40, 4 over par. Two double bogies, the dirty bum! And I was on him for a wad and gave eight to five like all the other jerks. I should have known Snead would murder him! Here I been watching Sammy on the TV every week, and I don't even have the brains to bet on him! Somebody ought to shoot me for an imbecile."
"What about that Hebert, that Jay Hebert?" asked another voice, pronouncing the name as if it were spelled Hee-burt. "Who ever heard of that bum? You could've got him at 15 to 1 a couple of days ago, and now look at him. Lucky if you can get three and a half. I did better than that on Crozier," the voice continued, pronouncing the name of the Kentucky Derby second-place finisher as if it were spelled Kroo-jer.