SI Vault
Barry McDermott
February 12, 1973
With only big-time baseball and football players in the tournament, what happened on the links never figured to be much. But poolside at El Conquistador was another story. There the action was all-star
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February 12, 1973

Putt-on At An Un-golf Classic

With only big-time baseball and football players in the tournament, what happened on the links never figured to be much. But poolside at El Conquistador was another story. There the action was all-star

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If Joe Namath can throw for 496 yards in a single afternoon in September, what are his odds off the tee on a dog-leg par 5 in February? Or to put it another way: if Johnny Bench hits 40 home runs in one season can he sink a 12-foot putt in another? To find the answer to these and other equally meaningful sports questions, American Airlines last week took one tropical island, added the cosmetic touches of an angelic resort hotel and a devilish golf course, threw in $30,000 in prize money for seasoning and nine smiling stewardess-hostesses for spice, and invited 64 bestselling sports biggies—most of whom couldn't tell the difference between a nine- and a six-iron—to play in a little tournament. Cooked for a week, it was served up as the American Airlines Golf Classic.

The money was not that much. Del Unser and Leroy Kelly picked up $5,000 apiece on Sunday for their 54-hole victory. Jack, Lee and Arnie make that much practicing putting. But where else could you sit down to dinner and see Joe DiMaggio or Willie Mays or Johnny Unitas or Joe Namath or Johnny Bench or just about anybody else who could throw, carry, catch, hit or pass a ball in Hall of Fame style all eating the same celery as you?

While hordes turned into autograph freaks and got sun poisoning monitoring the pool for a look at a beef-cake batting average, the golf itself verged on the comic. The three-day, best-ball, net-team format was the kind of event golf pros dream up on slow weekends to help move a little merchandise. It matched teams composed of a football player and a baseball player, both usually from the same city.

A typical hole went like this: top, slice, shank, putt, putt, putt.

"What'd you have?" an onlooker asked.

"No good," the misplaced athlete answered. "Only a net eagle."

With all the handicap strokes involved, an abacus was needed to keep score. Unser and Kelly shot a total of 177 to win, 36 under par, and on Friday they had the tournament's low single round of 57.

The El Conquistador Hotel and Club is one of those absolutely sensual places where time loses its immediacy and language is no problem. Everyone speaks American Money. Normally its gambling casino, which carries much of the operation, feeds off the flow of gambling junkets from the States. Beefy guys named C.A. or R.W., guys with hoarse voices, florid faces and sunglasses, arrive with all expenses paid courtesy of the hotel, which is counting on them to try their luck at the tables.

The hotel juts out of a cliff on the northeast tip of Puerto Rico, about 45 minutes from San Juan and light-years from the continental United States. You can stand in its lobby and gaze out at azure ocean frothing on the rocks several hundred feet below. Turn toward the front door and through the legs of a sculpture of a dashing Spanish conquistador astride his horse you can drink in the beauty of the golf course sweeping down the hill in lush, green trails. In the distance are dark mountains and a tropical rain forest, adding another dimension to the pastoral scene.

To this paradise American also invited and paid the on-the-grounds expenses of 64 businessmen, all of whom belong in the Balance Sheet Hall of Fame. They were presidents and board chairmen, executive home run hitters of major companies, thrilled to be in the company of a scrambling quarterback or a hustling shortstop. Even mother nature must read box scores: for most of the week sunny skies favored the course, the temperature hovered in the high 80s and a sea breeze cooled foreheads. Still, Otto Graham confused most people by wearing a long-sleeved sweater on the course. "It's not hot out there," he insisted.

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