That was not the only reason. An important consideration was that I have to play in 25 tournaments a year to be eligible for full membership in the PGA two years from now. Playing in Phoenix meant I could quit work a week earlier in the fall. Besides, I was beginning to feel that I might be ready to win. My warmup period had lasted plenty long enough.
WHERE HOUSEWIVES SAT WITH A CHAMP
Golfers were piling into Phoenix without even knowing whether or not the tournament was going to be played. The Nicklaus crowd—myself, Barb, Stevie, Jackie and the nurse—arrived Tuesday noon. I settled them at the Ramada Inn, which had given the golfers a rate of $15 a day for a suite, and then went out to the Phoenix Country Club to check in. One of the first people I met was George Low, the putting whiz. I guess he knew I had been having my troubles on the greens. "How about beginning those putting lessons you were going to take from me at the Crosby?" he suggested. "A great idea," I said. "Just let me play nine holes and I'll be with you."
Most people believe that when putting you should always try to keep the blade at right angles to the line of the putt. Not George. His theory is that putting should be like opening and closing a door. On the backswing the blade should open; coming through the ball it should close. To achieve this the left thumb acts as the fulcrum during the stroke, which is mostly wrist. Nothing above the elbows moves. The stroke is supposed to put overspin on the ball, making it roll much more smoothly on bad greens. George's theory seems like a good one, but I know I am going to have to give it a long, long look before I am satisfied it is the answer to my problem.
George and I went out to the 10th green so we would not be bothered, and practiced there for a couple of hours. The stroke he showed me seemed to be working pretty well. It was dark when we quit.
In the pro-am the next day I concentrated on my putting stroke and ignored the rest of my game. I played awful golf, naturally, and shot a 75. I was paired with Pappy Walsh, Jim Dunnigan and Phil Taber, and we were scheduled to tee off early. Too early. We had to wait an hour for the greens to thaw out. They had frozen during the night. It was a good group of amateurs in that I had something to talk about with each one. Walsh is the director of the Desert Inn in Las Vegas, Dunnigan owns a harness track in Buffalo and is building one in Phoenix, and Taber's father was tournament chairman of the 1958 U.S. Open, held in Tulsa. Dunnigan and I were supposed to have some promotional pictures taken later—for a 3-year-old stakes race that my pacer, Bervaldo, is entered in—but we never got the time.
After lunch I went to the practice tee for a three-hour session. Then I tried some more putting with George. It was a full day's work. That night Barb and I went to the local dog track with Gary Player—who is back on the tour after three months at home in South Africa—Bruce Devlin and Don Cherry. We ate dinner at the track and then concentrated on the betting. Not much luck. We split all bets and we all lost. I managed to get to the track for the next three nights, too, and ended up ahead.
On Thursday, the first day of the tournament, I was paired with Gary and Bob Rosburg. Oddly enough, on the final day, when relative scores decide the pairings, we played together again. This meant we played three of our four rounds together. I shot a 71 and Gary played his worst. He holed putts from absolutely all angles and still had only a 72. Both of us went to the practice range for another long session, and then I did some more work on my putting. This is something I have not done much of in the past. It never has seemed to help. Often before a round I have holed everything on the putting green and then gone out on the course and sunk nothing. What is more, I never knew what I wanted to practice. I would just take the club back and hit the ball. If my touch was there it was there, if it was not it was not. Arnold came over while I was putting and we talked about it. His putting method is similar to George Low's, and he is without doubt the best putter in the game today. Putting, putting, putting. It looks so simple.
The next day I started the second round of play off the 10th tee. I missed a 10-foot putt on the 11th green and then ran off a streak of seven straight 3s to finish my first nine holes in 29. I missed an eagle putt of eight feet on the next hole and made another 3 on the one after that. So I came within inches of getting nine straight 3s. Then, suddenly, I lost it. This simply showed that I was not as sharp as I thought I was. There is also a mental problem that is quite common among touring pros and easy to understand. When you get a bunch under par you still want to play your same bold game. That is what you tell yourself. But you also tell yourself that what the hell, all you need is to par in for a 66, which is a great round, so you do not take too many chances. You decide to stay on the safe side of boldness. As you might suspect, it is hard to be bold and not bold at the same time. What happens, especially early in the year when you are not as sharp as you will be later, is that you start making ridiculous little mistakes. Mental ones and physical ones. Touring pros call it "crippling in." That is what I did. I finished with a 37 on the second nine, for a 66. This left me a shot back of Tony Lema, who led after the first two rounds with a 136.
Being up among the leaders in a tournament—for a change—I was able to tee off late on Saturday, and so I spent the morning with Jackie at the motel. The Ramada has slides and swings, and we had a lot of fun. Then I went out and bought him a little windup cart. $6. Seems like a lot for such a small toy. That afternoon I shot a 68. This left me three shots back of George Bayer with one round to go.