Three of the five times the National Team Championship had been held, including the past two years, Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus had laughed their way to victory, whipsawing the field so convincingly that the event came to be called the Palmer-Nicklaus Benefit. But last week at the Laurel Valley Golf Club, 15 minutes from Palmer's backyard workshop in Latrobe, Pa., a phone call from a Columbus, Ohio hospital transformed the Palmer-Nicklaus Benefit into the Walter Mitty Open. The caller was Nicklaus, who told Palmer to find a new partner. Jack had just had part of the nail cut away from an index finger so swollen by infection that it left in doubt his appearance in this week's PGA Championship. He had no idea what had caused the infection, but golfer Harry Toscano, harking back to Jack's downfall in the British Open, snickered, "He probably got it biting his nails watching Lee Trevino chip."
So what did Palmer do for a partner but reach into the bushes and pull out a rabbit. Astonishingly, he announced that he would defend his championship with Jack Lewis Jr., a 25-year-old South Carolina nonentity. Lewis turned out to be a sandy-haired little gent with a broad grin, a round face and a pair of granny glasses that made him resemble an amiable bullfrog. When he made his first appearance in the Wednesday pro-am, his wife Mary heard a voice in the gallery say, "Who's that with Palmer?" Another voice piped up, "That's Jack Smith." But Jack Smith/Lewis also was Walter Mitty, a tournament spear carrier abruptly thrown into the giddiest experience of his life. As matters turned out, Babe Hiskey and Kermit Zarley, not exactly household words themselves, picked off the team title along with the $20,000 per man that went with it. Zarley, asked how he felt about breaking up the Palmer-Nicklaus monopoly, shot back, "Guh-reat! I get tired of seeing those guys winning this tournament. But they'd have probably won it again if they'd teed it up."
The Team Championship, since it was moved to Laurel Valley two years ago by Palmer's well-heeled Laurel Highlands neighbors, has stood as an annual celebration of Palmer's name. Distinctive in its format, the tournament is a best-ball competition played by two-man teams who gun recklessly for birdies as soon as one partner has made par or seems reasonably sure of it.
As the week began, Palmer, aware that in three years his unique party had succeeded in winning a certain amount of acceptance as a major event, stood alert to slug it out with any cur who might want to cast aspersions, and the ever-engaging Bruce Crampton wasted no time giving Arnie a neck to sink his teeth into. In a TV interview Crampton complained that he had found Laurel Valley galleries worshipful of Palmer and Nicklaus but "unruly and discourteous" to him and his partners. Then he added that he hoped that this year's galleries would improve their manners. Palmer struck back swiftly with an interview of his own in which he barked, " Crampton has a problem in that he's always complaining about the galleries, but if it weren't for the galleries Crampton would not be playing. Why doesn't he stop bitching and play golf?" That's what Palmer said—on television—and then said he was glad he'd said it.
Well, the hair on Crampton's neck still must have been standing at attention when he reached the 10th tee during the next day's pro-am. After hitting his drive he spotted Ed Conway, conductor of the fractious interviews, and did an extraordinary thing. He veered off the tee and ducked under the gallery rope, crying at Conway, "What are you trying to do to me?" The two men then stood nose to nose waging a jawing match. Were they on the verge of blows? "I know I wasn't," said Conway. "He was the one holding a club."
At any rate, Palmer's dismissal of Crampton as a crybaby so effectively cast the Australian as the villain that Crampton, perhaps in order to avoid contact with the public, was seen traveling from the practice tee to the practice green via a circuitous route that involved a hike up a goat hill and across a parking lot. With Crampton off among the parked cars, Palmer turned to the next order of business as the tournament's patron and argued that, shucks, Nicklaus' withdrawal would drain scarcely a nickel from the box office.
"People interested in golf turn out," he argued. "There are plenty of superstars. It's like baseball. You used to have just Babe Ruth. Today Hank Aaron's a Babe Ruth. Willie Stargell's a Babe Ruth. So is Brooks Robinson. So is Carl Yastrzemski." A skeptic wanted to know if Vic Davalillo and Denny Doyle are Ruths, too, but Palmer grinned and said, "I think people are gonna come out to see who Jack Lewis is."
It is questionable that many did. But at least the press made a strong effort to determine Lewis' identity and, the nature of golf-tournament coverage being what it is, the effort rapidly deteriorated into a quiz show that left Lewis slightly befogged. One time at the Cleveland Open, a disc-jockey type arrived at the press tent to request credentials, and when the man in charge, one Herman Goldstein, asked his identity, he announced, "I'm a radio personality." Whereupon Herman Goldstein ran him off the grounds. Jack Lewis Jr. (whom Sam Snead addresses as Junior) surely had a similar impulse on the eve of the tournament when a goateed interviewer jabbed a mike under his nose and said, "Do you plan to turn pro?" Junior fought down his worst instincts and politely answered, "Well, I've been a pro for a couple of years." And then, following his first round, in which he had a devil of a time hitting fairways but managed to contribute two birdies, a red-haired reporter trailed him to the grill where approximately 17 times he asked him, "Were you nervous out there?" Each repetition of the question was followed by an interval in which the reporter helped himself from a dish of salted peanuts and ate them to the same tune a Saint Bernard plays as it laps up its lunch.
"Well, yes, a little nervous," Lewis kept saying, "but I was more fired up than nervous." The dish of peanuts at last showing its bottom, the reporter closed his notebook, tapped his head, and said, "No matter what you say, it's obvious that up here you're out of it." Lewis smiled and said, "Well, sure."
Actually, it was Junior's belly, not his head, that revealed him to be considerably less collected than he would have it appear. Before his opening-round tee-off at nine a.m. he had eaten a breakfast consisting only of cereal and fruit. By 3:30 Palmer, who had taken to behaving like a concerned daddy, was urging Junior to have some lunch. Junior said he couldn't possibly eat and settled for a Coke. That, plus the fact that he had spent much of the first round in Laurel Valley's unruly and discourteous six-inch rough, left little doubt of the turmoil boiling inside Lewis. He had declined an invitation to stay at Palmer's guest house (what! a rabbit turning his tail on golf's holiest residence) for the reason that in the nearby city of Johnstown he had close friends with whom he often had stayed in the past. He feared that if he stayed elsewhere they might feel slighted. Exhausted by the day's ordeal, Lewis drove to their house and, still in his golfing clothes, flung himself onto a bed and fell fast asleep.