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Down in a dark, cozy forest last week, near the end of a golf tournament with the world's longest proper name—the Liggett & Myers Inc. Tournament Players' Division U.S. Professional Match Play Championship—any spectator who took the game casually was forced to ask himself a serious question: Would he rather wander through the pines and gnats of The Country Club of North Carolina to see DeWitt Weaver go 18 with Phil Rodgers or fly out to El Paso and watch Lee Trevino's appendix scar heal?
In terms of drama and a climactic final curtain, the Carolina tournament—let's shorten it to the U.S. Match Play—didn't leave the spectators or L&M or television with much reason to tap dance and play the banjo. It had started on Wednesday with 64 top professionals on hand, including the biggest names in golf (except Trevino, of course, who was recovering from his operation, and Billy Casper, who had a virus infection). But the big names melted away and by Sunday the head-to-head tournament had worked itself down to Rodgers, a man who wore his hat brim turned down like a muni player and who hadn't won a tournament in five years, and Weaver, who had never won a tournament in seven years on the tour and who had such a deeply ingrained habit of spraying his tee shots into trees that he bore the underground nickname of Dutch Elm Blight.
Early Sunday a Southern fan pondering the prospect of Weaver meeting Rodgers for the title, and those charisma kids, Ken Still and Bruce Crampton, in a consolation match for third place, said, "Hell, Ah wish I'd gone to Southern Pines airport yesterday and watched Arnold take off. Ah'da got my money's worth." Yet everybody sort of had the feeling this might happen when plans for the tournament were announced. That was why TV backed away from it for so long and why advance ticket sales were slow. And it was certainly the reason the championship never drew many more people than normally frequent the musty old resort area of Pinehurst. Everybody knew the final match would probably pair a DeWitt Weaver and a Phil Rodgers, although the odds were probably more in favor of John Schlee fighting it out with Fred Marti. Match play does that. Wasn't Toney Penna always eliminating Ben Hogan by 10:30 a.m. on the first day of the old National PGA?
Even so, for people who truly understand and appreciate golf, particularly the fascinating mysteries of match play, this new experiment on the PGA tour was well worth following to its conclusion, right down to the last hole on the last day, when Weaver could have knocked down a dozen trees and lost a sleeve of golf balls in the waters of a big black lake without worrying too much about Rodgers catching him. It was a truly exciting event much of the week, often dramatic, at times hilarious, always frustrating, and it just might be that, forgetting the financial bath, the tournament will be more widely discussed in the months to come than anything else that happened in golf in 1971—excepting only Lee Trevino.
The sponsors—and TV and the fans, too—would have been ecstatic if Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer could have fought their way into the finals. That was what everybody hoped for on Wednesday until Ray Floyd dusted Nicklaus with a 67. Oh, well, everybody said, Palmer and Floyd won't be too bad on Sunday. Friday took care of that, when Tom Weiskopf dusted Floyd. Oh, well, everybody said, Palmer and Weiskopf won't be so bad. Saturday morning Bruce Crampton dusted Palmer. Oh, well, everybody said, Crampton and Weiskopf will be O.K. A half hour later Still had dusted Weiskopf. Oh, well, everybody said, a little weakly now, are you ready for Crampton and Rodgers? Saturday afternoon Weaver dusted Crampton. Oh, well, everybody said, what's the movie in Southern Pines?
But that's the way it goes in match play, the original competitive form of golf and in many ways the most engaging. Match play is head-to-head competition, one on one, man to man. In true match play—such as they still use in the British Amateur—two golfers try to see who can win the most holes from each other, and the man who is ahead by more holes than there are remaining on the golf course has captured the match.
The U.S. match play tournament last week, designed by PGA Commissioner Joe Dey in a noble effort to break the monotony of the tour, was not true match play, but match-medal, which is a tougher variation. There can never be a letup on the part of the man who is ahead. He can't walk to the clubhouse triumphantly if he leads his opponent by, say, six strokes with five holes to play. It is his 18-hole total against the other man's, and a six-stroke margin can change drastically in a couple of holes, what with birdies and bogeys and things like that. Match-medal play can be exhausting. As Ray Floyd said after he upset Nicklaus 67 to 69 on the first day, "I feel like I've just played a final round on Sunday trying to beat Jack for the championship. I'm mentally whipped. And I've got five more matches ahead of me, if I keep winning."
Floyd did not like the format, and he probably did the most damage to the tournament by eliminating Nicklaus so early. He also made some disparaging remarks. "The guys who play the best golf here may not win," he said, meaning those who played the best golf against par. He missed the point of the whole thing. This was never meant to be another Pensacola Open at stroke play.
Floyd also made an unfortunate wisecrack about L&M holding a Tuesday pro-am to soften its financial strain. He undiplomatically suggested that L&M shouldn't have held the pro-am, that the tournament should have had 128 players instead of 64 and that it should have started on Tuesday. "L&M will write it all off, anyhow," he was quoted as saying. "Are they going broke?"
Players with perhaps more tact than Floyd and certainly a stronger awareness of where the golf tour's $7 million in purses comes from do not greatly enjoy hearing one of their contemporaries knocking the people who put up the money the pros get rich on. "Anyone who raps a sponsor is just showing his ignorance," said Arnold Palmer, rushing to the defense of high finance. Joe Dey leveled a $200 fine on Floyd for his remarks, and on Friday, with the crowds scowling at him and cheering his opponent, Tom Weiskopf, poor Floyd lost and took leave of the tournament, much to the relief of the sponsors.