If King Kong had ridden down the 16th fairway on a tricycle or the Queen Mary had sailed through downtown Akron on giant Firestone tires, it would only have been in keeping last week with the weird and wonderful happenings at the 48th PGA Championship. What else could rival Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus practically having dogfights overhead in their private planes, 54-year-old Sam Snead crouching down and putting between his legs to keep from hitting the ball twice in one swipe, Billy Casper gulping oxygen to thwart a smog only he could see and Dudley Wysong, whoever he may be, addressing the ball a foot away from where it really was? Finally, amid the faint scent of rubber fumes, the last and goofiest major tournament of the year was topped off, mercifully, when a tall, thin, easygoing Californian named Al Geiberger, who looks like the new guy they've hired at the bank to handle home improvement loans, won it as easily as he would spread peanut butter on a slice of light bread. Considering the way he played, and the tranquillity he brought to the scene, Geiberger at least made sense.
The site of the tournament, the Firestone Country Club, has prestige among golfers, but this was a different Firestone than anyone had ever seen. Since an attack of Dutch elm disease that began five years ago had wiped out a lot of trees, the course could best be described as long (7,180 yards), and uninspiring. On top of that, heat had scarred most of the straight and narrow fairways, a seeding process had changed most of the greens to pure bent grass—the hardest to read and putt—and the greens had been watered so much to avoid ruin that they were soft and slow. Partly as a result of the conditions, the scores came in two sizes, high and higher. Nothing shows this better than the fact that Geiberger could shoot an even-par 68-72-68-72—280 and win laughing, with Wysong in second place four strokes behind.
One of the things that made Al Geiberger's victory distinctive was that if you had really stopped to figure it out beforehand, nobody except Geiberger could have won at Firestone. It was all clear late Sunday evening. Geiberger had won the American Golf Classic there last year. In 20 competitive rounds on the difficult par-70 course he had shot 72 or better in 16. Moreover, he had quietly been a good "tough course" player on the tour for some time, though he seldom finished first. He was fourth in the U.S. Open at Bellerive in 1965, and this year he was third both in the Crosby and in the Colonial.
"I feel pretty good on a long, hard course," he said. "I'm not a charger, I don't make a lot of birdies. I try to hit it straight and not make many mistakes, and I try not to lose control of myself. When I'm on a course like Firestone, where there won't be a lot of birdies popping up on the board, I feel much more confident."
Geiberger began by shooting a 68 on Thursday to tie hip-sore Sam Snead for the lead, and even though Snead held the 36-hole lead by one stroke over Geiberger, you had to think that the winner, if it weren't going to be the 6-foot 2-inch, 160-pound Californian with the smooth, upright swing, would be perhaps Gary Player, or Doug Sanders or Jack Nicklaus from a few shots further back. After Saturday's third round, though, there was little doubt, for Al marched out and smilingly got his second 68 of the tournament. This gave him a four-stroke lead that looked impossible for anyone to overcome at Firestone.
So Sunday was a simple stroll for Geiberger, once he calmed down from a start of three bogeys on the first four holes. "I was thinking about the title and all it would do for me," he said. "It almost wrecked me."
He planned to go out there Sunday with his usual supply of peanut-butter sandwiches in his golf bag to keep up his strength, just steer his drives straight, and let the big course prevent anyone from making a charge at him. It happened exactly that way. No one near him made a move of serious consequence, and when he rolled in a 35-foot birdie at the fifth hole it restored the confidence that his early bogeys had partly erased. After that it was just a matter of time until he was officially the PGA champion, $25,000 richer and carefully trying to explain for posterity his cool attitude toward the game.
"I don't think of myself as a golf star," he said. "I'm really more nervous than I look out there, and if people think I don't care they're wrong. I guess I look like I don't care because I'm basically lazy. I just try to plug along staying out of trouble. That's my style."
That style of his has been a particular bother to Stan Wood, Geiberger's golf coach at USC and his foremost fan through the seven years that Al has been on the tour. Wood was not at the PGA, but at tournaments in the past he has been known to scribble notes on pieces of paper, dodge under the gallery ropes, and hand them to Al. The notes have always said something like "Attack," or "Charge," or "Get mad." Geiberger would look at them, grin, crumple them up, and then not attack, not charge, not get mad and not win. He was a very good golfer and for the last three years has ranked among the top 15 money winners, but thrilling he wasn't, not even in victory last week.
So it was left to other people to provide the excitement of this PGA, and they provided it in some distinctive fashions.