Normally on a slightly clear day at Riviera Country Club, in a kind of exotic land called Pacific Palisades, you can look down from one of the overhanging verandas of the clubhouse and see Glen Campbell's golf cart or a barranca where your golf ball might be heading. And if you glance to one side, you can see a layer of exhaust fumes protecting the ocean from the evils of sunlight. But last week, as another fat and happy PGA tour got started, things weren't normal. For one, the Los Angeles Open was back at Riviera instead of on the junk-food strip of Pico Boulevard, and there was heaven-sent cool and clear weather that revealed sailboats, islands and mountains. Also, for much of the tournament at least, you could gaze upon another equally rare sight—a 60-year-old man shooting sub-par scores with a putting technique that made him look as if he were paddling his boat to a spot where the catfish were biting.
It wasn't in the script, alas, that Sam Snead could hold on and go ahead and win the same tournament he had first won almost 30 years ago amid the same eucalypti of Riviera—the winning of the Glen Campbell Los Angeles Open was left to a mere 39-year-old, Rod Funseth—but Snead succeeded in so dominating the event that people must have started wondering whether golf, as athletic fare, might not fall somewhere between backgammon and country dining.
For a whole week, or right up until Sunday's finish, Snead was the best golfer in town, shooting rounds of 64 and 68 in pro-am events and then a couple of 70s and another 68 in the tournament proper, always putting with that style he describes as the sidewinder.
It was Arnold Palmer who best put Sam in perspective. "I'm wearing glasses and not hearing so good at times," said Arnold, "and there's Sam hitting the same old great shots. Who even wants to play that good when you're 60?"
In some ways the most marvelous thing about Snead's performance was not his age but that hilarious putting stroke. Since there are not likely to be any instruction books written on it, here's the way it goes. Use a regular putter of any kind. Put the head down on the ground behind the ball to the right of the toes of your shoes, so that you're standing behind the ball. Grip the club at the top with one hand and slide your other hand down the shaft as if you're using a tape measure. Hold on firmly. Take the club back. Poke at the ball without falling forward. "I had to do something," Sam confessed last week. "On the short ones, when I tried to putt normal, I'd catch myself hitting the ball twice, and I was losing too many bets."
They call this nerves, of course, and nerves were what finally caught up with Snead on Sunday, when the event turned into a hardly thrilling contest between Funseth and Don Bies, but Sam had certainly proved that if you just want to go out and play some golf, a golden oldie who has preserved himself can still move the ball around as well as anybody.
Snead began the last round only one stroke behind Funseth, who had assumed the tournament lead with a record 65 on Saturday. The entire gallery was pulling for Sam, especially since Funseth had announced that he probably would not win because he rarely ever does. "What I usually do after a 65 is go back to my normal 76," he said good-naturedly.
It was quickly evident, however, that Riviera on Sunday was going to yield only to the younger men. Snead bogeyed three holes on the front nine and thus joined Jack Nicklaus, Bruce Devlin and a few other challengers in the category known as out-of-contention. This left the first tournament of 1973 to three barely-knowns—Funseth, Bies, David Graham.
Bies, who likes to think of himself primarily as a club professional, birdied four of the first five holes and passed Funseth to become the new leader, but then, as the cynics in residence were thinking up funnies like "Things were a lot different around here when Don Bies was alive," Bies double-bogeyed the 7th hole and Funseth made a couple of birdies, giving him a two-shot lead going into the last nine. Back there he did something he had not done in seven years and something he had done only one other time in his life. He won a golf tournament. In fact, Rod Funseth, who has an easy, flattened-out type of swing and looks like the nice, wavy-haired guy who sold you a Pontiac, won with, to him, mystifying ease. He simply parred every hole on the back nine, hitting shots safely out of a rough that was more like a smooth and onto the soft greens, conditions that made Riviera play less ruggedly than usual.
Funseth did not shoot the 76 he had predicted, he shot a fine 69 for a 276 total to wind up three strokes ahead of Bies, Graham, Tom Weiskopf and Dave Hill, all of whom tied for second. At the last hole Snead sidewinded a nice putt for a par and a closing 73, which was perhaps predictable, but everybody had to admit that a tie for seventh place wasn't bad for a guy who was too old to be doing that.