Golf's $7 million road company hit the bituminous hills of western Pennsylvania last week, suffering a clear case of prickly heat and creeping ennui. Only the hostilities of Hazeltine and the heroics of St. Andrews had broken the relentless doldrums that have seemed to afflict the tour lately.
By the time the pros had cleared out of Ligonier and headed for the next stop on sport's equivalent of the Orpheum Circuit—the Westchester Classic—the tour showed signs of rebound if not recovery. Part of it was the prominence of a couple of faces whose familiarity breeds anything but contempt among the golfing public. By winning the PGA's $200,000 National Four-Ball Championship at Laurel Valley, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus had restored the cosmos to its old and comfortable order. Even the Almighty had seemed to lend an occasional hand, as if He, too, had had enough of all the Philadelphia Classics and Nowhere Opens.
But something else infused the tour with a sense of change at Ligonier, and that was the fact that this time it wasn't just another tournament. The Four-Ball, for all its suggestion of deuces and one-eyed Jacks wild, added an element of novelty for the golf fan grown too knowledgeable and too jaded by an enterprise going flat. The novelty was a simple one: instead of 144 players scrambling on their own, the Four-Ball grouped teams of two players, each member playing his own ball but counting only the best score on each hole.
The only mistake the other pros made was letting them hold the thing on Arnold Palmer's home course, for any hopes they had that old Arnie would play Mr. Nice Guy Host and treat his visitors to a little western Pennsylvania hospitality were dashed at once. First of all, he had Jack Nicklaus for a partner, which Terry Dill allowed was "not a bad team." When a deluge hit Ligonier on the first day, the other pros probably relaxed in the knowledge that at least Nicklaus and Palmer were not being joined by the Almighty. But when the clouds parted and the rain quit five minutes before the Nicklaus-Palmer starting time, nobody could be really sure. And after they came in at 10-under for the day—three strokes ahead of the nearest mortals—it was clear that their round had been not only splendid but perhaps divine.
Things got back to normal on the second day except that, yes, there was that peculiar break in the rain that allowed Arnie and Jack to finish their rounds—only four under par this time. Then the lightning and rain started again, prompting Dave Marr to suggest that Arnie and the Lord might want the round wiped out. A couple of twosomes operating on terrestrial guidance made runs at the leaders after that—Sam Snead and Gardner Dickinson on Friday, Dave Eichelberger and J. C. Goosie on Saturday—but the first-day leaders closed strong on Sunday for their $20,000-each payoff.
A good part of the spirit that suffused the Ligonier countryside last week came from the players themselves, who also seemed to regard the Four-Ball as a refreshing break from the boring routine of the weekly 72-hole tournaments they play. Seldom recognized is the fact that professional golfers play a longer "season" and perform in more "games" than athletes in any other sport. A pro who is exempt from qualifying may enter up to 35 tournaments a year. Counting the pro-am rounds on Wednesdays and assuming he makes the cut most of the time, this means he could play as many as 175 serious rounds a year. By the end of the tournament year the average pro is a package of raw ganglia. For that and other reasons the Four-Ball is expected to become a regular feature of the tour, and if they can swing it Palmer and his friends at Laurel Valley would like to keep it there.
"We'd sort of like it to be known as the Masters of the North," said George Love, the tournament's general chairman. Love and all the other members already wear hot-pink sport coats and hats on the club grounds, obviously borrowing from the green-coat tradition at Augusta, Ga.
The Four-Ball also is a part of pro golf Commissioner Joe Dey's master plan to revitalize the tour. Despite healthy television ratings and strong attendances at the gate, the tour is not growing as it has for the last decade or so. Many of the sponsors of tournaments offering less than $150,000 in prize money have become increasingly bitter toward Dey and the members of the PGA's Tournament Players Division. Dey admits there has been friction, but says. "Frankly, we can be cavalier. We have more sponsors than we have dales." Maybe. But some observers of the game feel that golf will be one of the first sports to feel the effects of economic hardship. More than any other sport, golf depends on the beneficence of institutional spenders—corporations or high-paid executives—and these have been precisely the sectors hit first and hardest by the economic downturn.
Tournaments such as the Texas Open, the Greater Milwaukee Open, the San Francisco-Lucky Open and Houston Champions International have all had run-ins with Dey and the TPD. The San Francisco tournament was canceled after Dey and the TPD arbitrarily shifted dates without consulting sponsors. The Greater Milwaukee Open, played opposite the British Open last month, has been ironically dubbed the Lesser Milwaukee Open because so many top golfers went to St. Andrews.
The most bitter sponsors, though, are in Texas. The Texas Open, once known as the father of the winter tour, has been offered 1971 dates during football season or on New Year's Day weekend—which, with so many Texas teams in bowl games, is about the same thing. Says Gilbert S. Brown, president of the San Antonio Golf Association, "I'm fed up with the TPD and I'm in favor of telling them to go to hell. It's a damned insult to the association and all of San Antonio to be treated this way.