There comes a time for any home-loving tournament pro when he must decide whether it is worth the loneliness land heartache to travel around the country month after month in pursuit of big money—or whether he would rather remain at home with the family and be content with a more modest income. Johnny Pott, who is 32 and who last year earned $42,000, began 1968 with this in mind. He had spent 11 years on the tour, yet he had won only four tournaments in that time and none since 1963. Thus he was determined either to win handsomely this year or to toss it in and return to Mississippi, his wife Maryrose and his two children. Last Sunday at the Bing Crosby pro-am at Pebble Beach it became fairly certain that Maryrose Pott will have to get along by herself for a while. By sinking a 25-foot chip shot for a birdie on the first hole of sudden death, Johnny Pott beat Billy Casper and Bruce Devlin in a three-way playoff to win $16,000 and start the year in a style to which he has not been accustomed.
During the Crosby, Pott shared a room with Jack Burke Jr., an old friend who makes only sporadic tournament appearances at the major events. They talked golf both on the course and off, since for the first three days they happened to be playing in the same foursome. "We just talked about things like positioning correctly and getting the club back at the start of the swing," Pott explained.
Johnny's golf responded to the treatment. He opened with a 70 at Cypress Point that was a model of consistency and followed that with a 71 at the difficult Spyglass Hill to take the tournament lead. A 71 at Pebble Beach kept him in front, but in the final round—which everyone played at Pebble Beach—a rash of three-putt greens and a bad bounce seemed to have finished him. As late as the 16th tee Pott was two strokes behind Casper and Devlin, but birdies at 16 and 17 brought him even, setting the scene for his dramatic victory.
As the name pros arrived for the start of the tournament, it was apparent that the Crosby, which has gone through more than its share of changes in the 31 years since its modest beginning, was in danger of becoming known as the Waistline Classic. For the first time in its history the Crosby opened the pros' winter tour, and a lot of the regulars looked jowly and paunchy, as if they had not yet digested their Christmas turkey. You could pay your week's expenses making book on the weight difference between Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer (merely five pounds, according to the early figures—202 to 197—although Palmer claimed he was only 190). Bobby Nichols, who had been spending a week at Palm Desert getting his game in shape, ate his way out of it, ballooning to 215 pounds, 12 over last year. An ample Frank Beard, who last year won $110,000 on the tour, shot a 94 in a practice round at Palm Springs. And so it went. By their profiles you could scarcely tell some of the young pros from their middle-aged amateur partners, just out from behind a desk.
Waistlines aside, there was almost unanimous rejoicing among the professionals over the Crosby's change from second or third on the tour to No. 1. Because it is played over three different courses, often in minor hurricanes, the PGA declared the tournament "unofficial" several years ago, meaning that the money, while still green, and the scores no longer count in the year's statistical accounting. This, combined with the tournament's new lead-off position, means that the players can show up plump and short-winded from their winter indiscretions and tune up their games without fretting over the effect on the record book. "It's like spring training in baseball," observed Jack Tuthill, the PGA tournament director. "We never had anything like it before. Now, if we could just work the Hope [the other unofficial tournament on the early schedule] in right after the Crosby, everybody would be ready to go when the regular events begin."
Palmer, who started the 1968 season with a shaky 76 over the Pebble Beach course, was among the first to praise the new arrangement. Palmer scarcely touched a club during the snowy holidays in Latrobe, and a week before the Crosby he had to fly to Palm Springs to make some advertising stills for his apparel line. He squeezed in nine holes of practice each of the first two days on the desert, but his concentration was spotty, since he had to change ensembles on practically every hole. On Sunday he did manage 27 serious holes, and he played tune-up rounds at each of the three Crosby courses.
Such limited practice is not enough, and Palmer's score on the first nine holes at Pebble Beach on Thursday reflected it. Using one of the new aluminum-shafted "jumbo" drivers out of his factory, a weapon that looks as if it were about as easy to swing as Babe Ruth's 54-ounce bat, Palmer was pushing his drives out to the right. The one he hit at the 6th hole shot out over the ocean and may still be going. Minutes before that he had taken a double-bogey 5 at the 5th hole by sending his tee shot into a bunker and three-putting. After his wild drive across the Pacific at the 6th, he finally salvaged a bogey, then followed with a three-putt bogey at the 7th. At the 9th, where he bunkered his approach shot, he three-putted for another double bogey to finish with a five-over-par 41 going out. It took birdies on the two closing holes to cut his score down to 76.
"I was fresh out of the box and really wasn't ready to go," Palmer explained later. "At the start of the season you get a little careless, and you're not thinking right. It takes a little while to get confidence in what you are going to do and get your momentum going. There's no question that it's a great improvement to have the first tournament unofficial. It gives you a chance to work your game into shape."
Nicklaus, whose opening 71 at Cypress Point was a considerable improvement on Palmer's start, nonetheless had much the same problems as Arnold. Since his winter home is on the Lost Tree golf course north of Palm Beach, Nicklaus interrupted his fishing to work in a bit more golf than he usually plays during the holidays, but he felt anything but tournament-ready as he reached the Crosby. After the 71 he went out to the practice tee at Pebble Beach and worked some two hours until it was too dark for the caddie to shag balls. The next evening, after an uneasy 75 at Spyglass Hill, including four bogeys in a row on the first nine, Jack again practiced until dark.
In subtler ways than just its position on the schedule, the Crosby was showing other signs of change—and age. Time was when a large percentage of the amateurs, who now number 168, were recognizable names and faces from show biz and sport. Naturally, the Hollywood contingent changes with the years as people like Richard Arlen, Dennis O'Keefe and Randolph Scott fade into the background, and the new darlings of the ratings turn out to be Dean Martin, Pat Boone and Andy Williams. One expects that.