Meanwhile, Jay McClure, a pro for whom Chris had been working in Lubbock, Texas, let the local Spalding representative know that Chris, who had been using Spalding equipment for some years, would probably join the tour in January. Spalding signed him up as a staff member—which means free golf clubs, a free bag and an ample supply of balls (important, even as it was in Wanamaker's day, since the average pro uses 750 a year). The local Foot-Joy man in West Texas got the word, too, and came through with a couple of pairs of shoes. Blocker phoned Fred Hawkins, a veteran playing pro who lives in El Paso and is on the staff of Izod, and Hawkins said he would see what he could do about getting some shirts and sweaters for the rookie. Finally, Chris bought himself a new Dodge four-door sedan capable of carrying all his equipment—which was plenty. When he set out for Los Angeles, he had the car loaded with his golf bag, six dozen new balls, two dozen sport shirts, 20 pairs of slacks, five pairs of golf shoes, two business suits, three sport jackets and 10 dress shirts. He arrived in Los Angeles on January 2, two days before he had to try to qualify for the L.A. Open, and went straight to a cousin's house where he stayed several nights.
Neither a Class A membership in the PGA nor an ATP card guarantees a golfer one of the 144 starting places in the normal tour tournament. To begin with, something like 90 or 100 of the 144 places belong to those with various kinds of exemptions, such as being one of the top 50 money winners of the previous year. In addition, anyone who "made the cut" in the preceding PGA tournament—i.e., was among the 70 golfers whose scores on the first two days were low enough to qualify them for the final 36 holes—is automatically eligible. The rest must play an 18-hole qualifying round on the Monday prior to the tournament to obtain the positions available after all of the exemptions have been taken care of. Sometimes as many as 50 places are open, but at Los Angeles there were just 19.
The Rancho Golf Course, the public course where the Open is played, is closed to all but contestants during the tournament week, so Chris Blocker found that his first pro golf test, the Monday qualifying round, would not even get him to a PGA tournament site. He and a thicketful of other rabbits assembled at another course, Hillcrest Country Club, and there Blocker started his touring career by shooting an excellent 69. It was the second lowest qualifying score of the day, and at last he was officially in the L.A. Open.
He accepted his small success casually enough, and seemed self-possessed at the Rancho course two days later when he was asked what it felt like to be strolling through a clubhouse beside a Palmer, Casper or Venturi.
"Oh, this is purty nice out here," he said. "You see a lot of class people, like over there is Jim Garner, the fella on television. We don't have much in the way of that kind of people down home. Of course, I've got plenty to learn about playing on courses like this. Those courses down where I live, they's jest a lot of grass spread out across the plains and jest nothing but flat land and a few sand traps and maybe 50 trees. I'll be lucky if I can jest pick up a little change until I get used to all this." It all sounded pretty folksy and certainly was sincere, and you might have found yourself wanting to suggest to this poor young rookie that he get back to New Mexico before somebody hurt his feelings. And then you remembered that he had tramped his way through some very big amateur tournaments at some very posh places—Saint-Nom-La-Bret�che in France, St. Andrews in Scotland, Broad-moor in Colorado Springs and Canterbury in Cleveland—and you decided he probably could find his way around a Los Angeles municipal course, even if Arnold Palmer and his buddies were playing it at the same time. This proved to be sound reasoning.
At 8:28 on Friday morning, Blocker teed off. It was cold, damp and bleak. He was playing with another rabbit and an amateur, and before a gallery of zero. His dress looked professional enough—and why not, with that carload of pants and shirts?—but every time he followed through he exposed a section of bare midriff that somehow said rookie country boy. He was not exactly nervous, but for the first six holes he was afraid to let out on his drives and kept steering them. Then he told himself, "I've got to get back to hitting the ball, get my timing back." His drives began traveling anywhere from 250 to more than 300 yards. Unlike most green young pros who hit the ball from a closed stance to see how far it will go (but know not where), Blocker swings from an open stance and moves the ball from left to right. That is where the control is, something that can take years to learn.
Before he settled down, Blocker bogeyed the 2nd and 6th holes to go two over par, but he birdied 8 and 9 to make the turn in even par 36, and he finished with a respectable one-over-par 72. He could look at the board where names were listed under scores, and there under 72 was Chris Blocker right along with Arnold Palmer, who had shot the same. It was something to think about.
On Saturday, in the tournament's second round, Blocker started with a birdie 3, and right away, as he said afterward, "I began to feel good." Three birdies and three bogeys later, he stood on the 18th green and sank a tricky putt that gave him a 69, two under par for the day. By that time he had acquired an enthusiastic gallery of at least 10 people.
But he had also accomplished considerably more, for he had gotten off to about as good a start as any rookie could hope for: his 141 total put him just three strokes behind the leaders, Bill Casper and Dan Sikes, and four strokes ahead of Arnold Palmer; he had made the cut, thus automatically qualifying for next week's tour tournament, the $34,500 San Diego Open; and he had a chance to win some money.
On Sunday he found himself playing with Tony Lema, decidedly a nonrabbit. There was a real gallery, even if it was not exactly an Army and not precisely there to watch Chris Blocker, and he now had a shirt that covered his midriff. Undaunted by the company, he shot a 71, one stroke lower than Lema, and tied for sixth. By now he was not a typical rookie at all. "Who is this Blocker?" asked Bruce Devlin. "I don't think there are any weak spots in the kid's game," said Lema. If there are, Blocker hid them pretty well on the last day, too. At one point he was threatening the leaders, and when he finally came in with a 73 he was tied for 13th and only nine strokes behind winner Paul Harney. He received a check for $1,400, which is $1,400 that Chris Blocker will never forget, and off he went to San Diego, a mighty fast rabbit on a $3.25 million run.