Most people who attend a major golf tournament are a little befuddled by all the obscure characters who seem to be cluttering up the course and getting in the way of Arnold Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Billy Casper. When the likes of Bill Bisdorf and Larry Mancour and Davis Love intrude, the gallery considers it irrelevant if not impertinent. Then there are others whose names are vaguely familiar and, although hardly anyone is quite sure who they are, they are accepted as a convenient backdrop for the tournament—what the fight game used to call "opponents." They have names like Dave Hill, Tommy Aaron, Dan Sikes, Don January and Don Massengale. Occasionally they win tournaments in Memphis and Jacksonville and St. Paul, but they conveniently fade into the background when the big shows begin. Last week at the PGA championship in Denver, however, Hill, Aaron, Sikes, January and Massengale owned the show. It was as if Walter Slezak and Thelma Ritter were billed over Richard Burton and Liz Taylor.
When it was all over after an 18-hole playoff on Monday afternoon, January was the new PGA champion. He shot a three-under-par 69 to beat Massengale by two strokes and in the process his putting, which had been excellent throughout much of the tournament, verged on the sensational. January had lost a previous PGA playoff to Jerry Barber in 1961, but he was never in danger of losing this one after he made up an early two-stroke deficit at the 8th hole. Over the last nine, January knocked in four birdies from as far away as 35 feet, and if his name wasn't Nicklaus he certainly played like it.
Until two weeks before the start of the tournament, it looked as if the 1967 PGA was destined to go down in history as the Snakebit Open. In fact it wasn't until then that the touring pros finally called off their threatened revolt and agreed to take part. But the troubles of this tournament started long before that.
Back in June of 1965 one of those flash floods that in summer occasionally wash away sizable chunks of the western states struck central Colorado and sent the South Platte River roaring and tumbling through the suburbs of Denver. In its path was the Columbine Country Club, which was already in the early stages of plastic surgery for the 1966 PGA. At one point, a third of the golf course was, in effect, the bottom of a lake. When it emerged two days later, two holes had disappeared. So had some $35,000 worth of face-lifting. In September, Tournament Chairman J. E. (Ev) Collier, the gregarious businessman-golfer who had launched Columbine 11 years earlier and had brought the championship to his new club, invited 500 eager citizens for a kickoff dinner. The kickoff turned out to be more like a touchback. Former Colorado Governor Dan Thornton arose to announce that there was no chance to rebuild the course in time for a tournament only 10 months away.
PGA Championship Director J. Edwin Carter immediately began scrounging around for another locale. No easy job. Staging a modern golf tournament is a little like moving the 3rd Division across the Rhine. Carter's knowing eye lit on the Firestone Country Club in Akron, which just loves big golf tournaments and knows how to put them on. Since Firestone had the 1967 PGA, Carter persuaded that club to trade dates with Columbine, permitting the latter an extra year for repairs.
All told, it took another $90,000 to put Columbine back in playing condition. With a lot of energetic frontier blood in its membership, the young club did a fine job. The hardy bluegrass on its fairways was groomed to perfection, troublesome fairway bunkers were added and the fairways themselves were narrowed. At several places in the areas where drives would land, it was a mere 17 paces from one side of the fairway to the other. At 7,436 yards from the back tees, the most yardage on which a championship has ever been conducted, Columbine seemed long enough to contain even Jack Nicklaus.
Such man-made impedimenta were enough to convert Columbine into a reasonable facsimile of a championship test, although the course would never be confused with Baltusrol or Merion as a God-given site for the ancient game. For one thing, in Denver's rarefied 5,000-foot atmosphere, golf yardage is deceptive. Shots played by the pros will travel an average of 7% farther than at sea level, which immediately reduced Columbine's yardage to the equivalent of something like 6,900 yards under ordinary conditions.
Through the months of preparation, the local papers kept printing disquieting news of the long-playing hassle between the touring pros and the PGA officers. The PGA championship, it should be noted, has traditionally been the championship for PGA members, some 4,600 of whom are those leathery, put-upon characters who spend the year on the practice tee at Babbling Brae trying to inject a little rhythm into the golf strokes of the lame, the halt and the blind. Only a few more than 100 of them belong to the glamorous white-shoe brigade of the regular tournament circuit. The way it usually works out, approximately 60% of the starters in the PGA come from the ranks of the club pros, most of whom are there only for the thrill of testing their limited skills against those of their more celebrated brethren. Without the latter, the tournament would be about as exciting as Ladies' Day on Tuesday.
Ever since the Masters last April, the playing pros have been threatening to boycott this year's PGA unless some internecine procedural problems were ironed out with PGA officials. The incipient revolt has blown hot and cold through the intervening months, but the various truce arrangements had about the same stability as that other truce along the 38th parallel in Korea. At one point when it seemed that the dispute was beyond solution, PGA President Max Elbin, himself a club pro from Burning Tree in Bethesda, Md., began phoning various aging PGA champions of the past, urging them to show up at Columbine for what would have been little more than an oldtimers' day of golf. Meantime the determinedly optimistic Denverites, who had already invested $250,000 on their course and tournament promotion, wondered nervously about the nearly $600,000 they had counted on in ticket sales and program advertising. Then, during the first week of July, the playing pros convened at Indianapolis and voted to appear at Columbine despite the unsettled state of their quarrel.
Snakebit Open was not yet in the clear, however. Just as word was received that the tournament was on and that the Palmers and Nicklauses and Caspers would be present as promised, a giant hail storm struck Denver. It pelted Columbine with hailstones widely described as being "the size of golf balls," pitting the greens and leaving a major repair job for Course Superintendent Ken Voorhies and his harassed ground crew. Thanks in part to some of the rainiest weather Denver has seen in years, the grass responded, and the greens became playable if not carpet-like by the time the pros arrived to start their practice rounds.