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As has been their custom since 1926, the once and future kings of professional golf assembled in all their alligator-shoe and cashmere-sweater splendor in Los Angeles last week to open another year on the pro golf tour. The king of kings, Arnold Palmer, was there, fresh from his duties as Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses, at which he dispensed smiles, fellowship, good will and an occasional Life Saver (having taken up Life Savers to help prevent a feared smoking relapse). So was not-so-portly Billy Casper, announcing that a new diet had helped him take strokes off his game as well as inches off his middle; lean and damaged Tony Lema, cured of the back ailment that had forced him to stop playing in November but now sporting an elastic bandage on a sore wrist; and that contented United States Open champion, Ken Venturi, who had to be asking himself: Now that you are a Comeback King, where do you go?
At immediate stake and of immediate interest to all the big money winners—only Jack Nicklaus (see page 49) was missing—was the $70,000 purse of the Los Angeles Open and the opportunity to get a fast start on what they assume will be their fair share of the numbing total of $3.25 million to be won on the PGA tour this year. This gargantuan sum is an increase of 18% over 1964 (and don't think about how large an increase it is over the wildest dreams of old John Wanamaker, the department store man who in 1916 announced he would put up prize money for a golf tournament open to professionals only and thus, in effect, launched the PGA. It is sufficient comment on the status of the pro golfers of that era that the fledgling PGA had to write Mr. Wanamaker a few months later "regarding the inability of members to get a supply of golf balls when needed, when at the same time a supply could be had at the store's retail department").
But if it was obvious at Los Angeles that the future of pro golf had never been brighter and the rewards never greater, it was also evident that the struggle to partake had never been tougher. When they thought about that $3.25 million figure, all the golfers from Moody Mountain, Me. to Dinkey Creek, Calif. who had ever broken 80 wondered if it might not pay to pack their mashies and head for the tour. As a result, an unprecedented number of rookies attempted to qualify for the L.A. Open, and the most interesting story there became the one of the rabbits, as the pros who have got it made call the pros who haven't.
The tour rookie has become a problem on several counts. The PGA has long felt that, once certain stipulations are met regarding financial backing and quality of play, the right to try to qualify for a pro tournament is as inalienable as the right to three-putt. So it has set no limit on the number of players it will approve for the tour. It has often discussed the possibility of a kind of minor league tour for rookies but is loth for many reasons to start one. Thus the pro golf rookie, playing a pressure-filled game, finds himself roughly in the position of a baseball amateur trying to break into the Yankee infield while watching countless other fellows attempt the same thing. Even to get into tournaments the rookie must week after week fight odds something like those at Los Angeles, where more than 200 rabbits competed for the 19 open spots that remained in the field. The list of the top 50 money winners in 1964 reveals a lot about the rookie's chances. The average age of the 50 most successful earners is a well-experienced 33. Only two rookies managed to make the list at all—Dick Sikes, who finished 23rd by winning $23,353, and Chuck Courtney, who was 38th, winning $19,668.
To tell the story of a typical rookie, one who seemed no better or worse than a host of others, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED decided early last week to follow the fate of the young man pictured at left. He is George C. Blocker Jr.—Chris to his friends—a rangy country boy from Jal, N. Mex. Now 25, he has four years of college and two years of the Army behind him, but none of this has removed the sagebrush from his speech or manner. He fits the mold of the modern pro, big and handsome and pleasant and ready to tug a forelock in front of a TV camera. ("They all look and talk like cowboy heroes," said a woman in the Los Angeles gallery who was seeing her first tournament.) He moves down the fairway with the long, bowlegged stride of a plainsman. His brow is furrowed, as befits a man of the Southwest. But he is also, in tour terms, a rabbit's rabbit, for until last week he had never played as a pro in a major tournament. "For five years," he says, "'this has been my ambition—to play pro golf on the tour. I might have made it earlier, but I wasn't ready. I hadn't had the experience. I wasn't mature enough. Now I think I'm ready. I can go out there and hit the ball without bein' scared to death. I didn't want to come out here and be a big old flop."
He has been a long time trying to insure that he will not flop. The son of a wholesale gasoline jobber, he has played tournament golf since high school. When he was 17, he reached the finals of the New Mexico Amateur and was good enough to get a golf scholarship to Texas Tech. In 1958 he won the New Mexico Open as an amateur, and he reached the third round of the U.S. Amateur in 1959. This was followed by other nice, if not startling, achievements. In 1962 he went into the Army, and he spent a lot of time driving colonels around Italy. Fortunately, some of the colonels liked to play golf and were broad-minded enough on occasion to include a specialist 4th class in their foursome, particularly one who could break par. During this period Blocker played in two British Amateur championships and did fairly well, going as far as the fourth round in 1963.
By last August, Blocker was out of uniform and, after a brief attempt at trying college again, he turned pro. In November he decided to fill out his application for Approved Tournament Player status, the first step toward going on the tour. This ATP status is the one under which about 125 of the 200 touring pros play. They must keep their cards active for five years before they can become full members of the PGA. This is not necessarily easy, for their performance is reviewed twice a year and the card can be taken away. In 1964 the PGA revoked the cards of 56 players, thus barring them from the tour.
When it comes to inquisitiveness about the private lives of potential members, the PGA has much in common with the CIA. After years of complaints from choleric sponsors and irate hotelkeepers about fast-moving golfers whose checks bounced farther than their drives, the PGA has started investigating applicants thoroughly. It wants to know about their education, their family background, their personal habits, the size of their bank accounts and, almost incidentally, how they hit a golf ball.
After filling out the required form, Chris Blocker had to play test rounds with two PGA club pros, who submitted the required letters of recommendation. His bank wrote another letter swearing he had the funds to carry him through at least six months of the tour, estimating that a single man can get by on $250 a week. The money Blocker had saved while in the Army plus what his father guaranteed was actually enough to last him a year. All this paperwork was sent to the PGA Headquarters in Dunedin, Fla., where copies were made and mailed to the members of a nine-man screening committee.
This committee consists of five full-time PGA officials and four players, who at this time arc Dave Marr, Johnny Pott, Tommy Jacobs and Casper. Each examines his copy of the application separately and casts his vote of approval or disapproval without consulting the others. If there is one no vote the application is returned to the committee with the reasons for the blackball. A second try is made, in which six aye votes will pass the man, but that is the last chance. The vote in Chris Blocker's favor was unanimous, and he got the good news on December 20.