As everybody knows, there is nothing wrong with the professional golf tour that Arnold Palmer can't cure by living forever. But as everybody may also know by now, another multimillion-dollar season got started last week at the L.A. Open in rather the same old way—with the crescendo of a Billy Casper yawn, the thrill of a Dave Stockton smile and the intriguing question of whether Hale Irwin was really Larry Mowry or Bill Brask Jr. or just exactly who?
The tour might have entered the 1970s in grander style had Palmer got the thing started the way he ended it in 1969, by winning. Palmer victories have the knack of correcting all of the ills of spectator golf. And the scene was perfect for him. It was the L.A. Open, a tournament he had won a few times before. It was also a Hollywood-styled affair just up the road from where 20th Century-Fox's massive Hello, Dolly! set poked into the sky and where the gallery glittered with its usual array of actors whose names you can't quite remember and couples in matching his-and-hers neck braces.
Palmer excited the town and everyone out around Rancho Park by shooting a 67 in the first round and taking the headlines away from a group of tri-leaders that included Dave Hill of Hill's Angels, last year's third-leading money-winner and lowest stroke-average player (opposite). The world was quickly alerted that Arnold was going for his third win in a row because he had closed out 1969 by capturing the Heritage Classic and the Danny Thomas/Diplomat tournament in Hollywood, Fla. back to back. In short time, however, Palmer fell into his old putting woes and got a hard case of the 72s, and the L.A. Open became that never-ending thing that constitutes most of the PGA tour, a vehicle for the Hale Irwins to battle it out with the Paul Harneys and Dave Stocktons and, if it's lucky, the Bill Caspers.
As it happens, L.A. got lucky. While Casper sat in the Rancho pressroom with his eight-under 276, Irwin was out on the back nine, dribbling away a two-stroke lead in the chill Southern California drizzle. On the 18th, still one up, he hit a shot into a tree, then tried to recover with an approach that left him 25 feet from the hole. His putt came up two feet short, and it was sudden death. Listening to all this on the pressroom radio, Casper observed, "Too bad. He's a nice guy." Then he stepped out in the wet and sank a five-foot birdie putt on the first playoff hole that slammed the door on nice guy Irwin.
Maybe it was the day or the fact that the Super Bowl had drained off most of the gallery, but whatever it was, hardly anybody seemed excited—not even Casper, whose $20,000 payday made him golf's second million-dollar winner, along with Palmer. And, suddenly, for all of the glamour of another opening of another show, Rancho Park was all the Tucsons, Hartfords and Pensacolas that had ever been played.
Just as suddenly the question might have occurred to some: does the L.A. Open signal the start of a new tour, or is it only another stop on a tour that has been going on steadily since Walter Hagen passed the hat?
As one looked fancifully into the future, one might imagine the big stories of the next few years: in a single season Bill Brask captures the U.S., British, Australian, Argentine, Japanese and Turkish opens, completing the first Global Slam. Joe Dey, the czar, announces a National PGA Match-Play Championship for assistant pros. Bruce Fleisher captures the Hattiesburg, Tallahassee, Newport News and Montgomery opens, completing the first Satellite Slam. Frank Beard comes out of retirement to take the $500,000 Frick Museum Open and the $750,000 AFL-CIO Invitational and lead the tour in prize money and write another book. Joe Dey announces a National PGA Mixed Foursome Championship in which teams will consist of one exempt tournament player, one heavy-industry president, one country-western singer and one airline stewardess. Mark McCormack signs the President of the United States and refuses to let him attend a summit meeting because it conflicts with a pro-am. Arnold Palmer's other hip hurts. Frank Beard comes out of retirement again to take the $800,000 Bloomingdale Festival and the $900,000 Versailles Treaty Memorial. Joe Dey announces the National PGA Satellite Four-Ball. Mark McCormack signs Joe Dey.
Some of these fantasies aren't so farfetched. Pro golf will definitely undergo some changes, and some of them have already begun. Although the tour faces fewer problems now than it did in the days when players and officials were constantly challenging each other to honed niblicks at 20 paces, there are always improvements to be made.
Guaranteeing names for a tournament sponsor, upgrading players, scheduling, providing a continuity for the long season—all of these are problems. But they are problems that can be solved pretty much to everyone's satisfaction, especially now that the PGA has Joe Dey and the "instant status," as Dave Marr called it, which the appointment of Dey guaranteed.
Dey has been awfully quiet in his new job for a year, but he has been quietly at work. Proof of this can be seen in a couple of ways. For example, the pros have long discussed changing the present arrangement that qualifies the year's top 60 money winners, in favor of a point system based on finishes. So in less than a year—a new world record for the PGA—Dey has instituted such a system. Without going into great detail, it will work like this: the winner of most events this year will get 120 points, second place 90, and so on down to one point for 70th place. PGA and U.S. Open champions get 25-point bonuses. The 60 leading point getters at the end of the year will automatically be exempt from qualifying the next year.