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Professional golfers hate distractions, but last week they made their annual pilgrimage to that biggest distraction of all, Las Vegas. There the girls beside the swimming pools peered at all the Palmers, while the Palmers tried not to peer back; the galleries cheered with that special kind of enthusiasm a crowd works up when it is backing its favorites with both hot spirits and cold cash; and the bookies, doping out the morning line, worked manfully to find out which champion had been up how late in whose casino playing what games. By Sunday evening, when golf's Tournament of Champions was over, every player in the field would have been relaxed, delighted and carefree had it not been for his thoughts about the one man who is both undistractable and almost unbeatable, Jack Nicklaus. On opening day Nicklaus had shot a 64 that broke the course record at the Desert Inn Country Club. By Saturday he was such a prohibitive favorite that it was hard to place a sensible bet on him in bet-mad Vegas. And by Sunday he was in with a 273, had beaten the field by five strokes (and par by 15) and had won himself (ho-hum) 13,000 more dollars. Still, it was the kind of formful performance that bookmakers appreciate, even if Palmer, Player, Casper, Lema, etc. do not, and this is the one golf tournament where it is quite fitting not to upset the bookies.
Although the Tournament of Champions, born in an era when golf purses were penny ante by today's lush standards, is far from the tournament of the year, it is still a treat for the pros. The $13,000 first prize makes nice walking-around money for chaps like Nicklaus and Palmer, but the main attraction is a pleasant weekend of golf on the cuff, so to speak. The Desert Inn provides free room and board for the contestants and their wives and, to qualify, a player merely has to win one of the 47 tournaments recognized as official by the PGA. The minimum prize of $1,000 is a unique and attractive distinction that adds, somewhat more than subtly, to the pleasure of the occasion, too—even for today's Cadillac-oriented athletes.
This year's field numbered only 27 players, largely because Palmer had won seven of the tournaments over the past year and Nicklaus five. ( Jack Burke Jr., winner of the Lucky International, sent the only regrets. He doesn't believe in mixing gambling and golf.) With such a small field, it is possible to play each round rapidly with twosomes. Thus first pairings don't tee off until after lunch, leaving the golfers ample opportunity to catch the nightly shows along the Vegas Strip and dally afterward at the gaming tables. One of the big attractions during the past two years has been the sight of Palmer dealing blackjack in the Desert Inn Casino, and other lively spirits, less well oriented than Palmer, are inclined to leave at least part of their winnings in the Vegas vaults.
All this is so foreign to the usual pressures of a golf tournament that Dave Ragan and his wife, Joan, found themselves standing idly around the Desert Inn lounge one midnight with Dave complaining, "This is the funniest feeling. I don't have to tee off for 14 hours. I don't know what to do with myself." The fact that Dave shot himself out of contention the next afternoon with a 77 demonstrates the hazard of upsetting old habits.
Las Vegas takes a justifiable smalltown pride in its tournament, which is the major tourist attraction of the year for the city. It dresses each of its contestants in a well-tailored white jacket with the Tournament of Champions emblem on the pocket. This alone makes the healthy young golfers a conspicuous sight in the casinos, where most visitors dress in one of two ways: either as if they were about to go to bed, or as if they planned to spend the day rummaging through the junk in the attic.
What really separates Vegas from other tournaments, however, is the gambling. During its first seven years the Tournament of Champions operated what probably was the largest golf Calcutta in history, with the pot running as high as $380,000. But after Mike Souchak's victory in 1959, the PGA began to frown on the publicity that all this activity was attracting, so the word went out to muffle the big action or lose the tournament. The Calcutta went underground, where only the guys and dolls in the know could find it. In addition, the "oddsmakers" who operate the local sports books were advised to confine their business activities to their stores on the Strip and in downtown Vegas. During the last four years these gentlemen have been more and more circumspect, to the point where Jimmie (The Greek) Snyder was able to say last week: "This is the cleanest tournament they've ever had." On the course betting was nil.
Jimmie Snyder is a big, swarthy gambler who migrated to Las Vegas in the mid-'50s and eventually became one of its fixtures in the high science of operating a sports book. A friendly fellow who means nobody any harm, Jimmie has been making book on the Tournament of Champions for the last seven years, and this year was no exception. The big difference is that since the tournament began scrubbing off the patina of gambling, Jimmie and the representatives of the five other sports books have had to take their betting action at the office each morning and spend their afternoons sitting in front of the Desert Inn clubhouse, following the golfing action as it is registered on the giant scoreboard alongside the 18th green.
Nonetheless, the oddsmakers still take their work very seriously and, as a result, the Tournament of Champions is the only major golf function throughout the year where a spectator can match his wits against the nonsentimentalists who try to make a living out of predicting the uncertainties of the game. As they sit in a little row of three or four and catalog the progress of each day's play, Jimmie and his colleagues confine their conversation strictly to business.
Snyder and his rivals do most of their business in two ways. Before the tournament begins, they handicap everyone in the field—win, place and show. Then, after each day's play, they adjust the odds to the new circumstances.