Each year since its flashy inception in 1973 the World Open has lowered its sights and raised its rating. The first year, the event, then held in November, was 10 days and 144 holes long, and the prize money was a record $500,000. It was played on two courses because the field was so large, and it was an unwieldy flop that Miller Barber won and Nicklaus, Weiskopf and Lee Trevino didn't even bother to enter. Weiskopf and Nicklaus went hunting and Trevino said he was incapable of staying anywhere for 10 days, much less in Pinehurst, N.C.
Last year the Tournament Players Division gave the World Open designated tournament status and a September date, so a glittering field was assured. Johnny Miller won a four-way playoff, beating Nicklaus, Frank Beard and Bob Murphy, but two courses were still being used and the field remained huge.
This year, at last, the Diamondhead Corporation, which acquired Pinehurst lock, stock and village five years ago, decided to let its greatest asset, No. 2, do the talking. The field was pared to a normal 156, the purse to $200,000 and the play was entirely on the one course. Suddenly the tournament had character. The presence last week of the British Ryder Cup team, on its way to Pennsylvania's Laurel Valley, did not hurt either. The nine Britishers and three Irishmen gave the old spa a cosmopolitan air as they tried to make their chip shots run on slow American greens.
On Thursday, opening day, a carillon in the village chapel played a noontime medley of old fundamentalist favorites ("... was lost, bu-ut now am found") and the cannons from Fort Bragg 30 miles away thumped like distant thunder while Lee Elder shot a 65, his best round in a difficult year and the lowest round of the tournament by two strokes.
Friday seemed like two days. The rain that had interrupted play briefly on Thursday held off until evening, but a strong gusty wind blew up in the afternoon and scores blew up with it. The morning rounds produced two 67s, Ben Crenshaw's and Joe Inman's, but no one who teed off in the afternoon could do better than 69. Leading the field after 36 holes with a 67-69—136, six under par, was the L.A. Open winner Fitzsimons. Even Nicklaus was impressed. "Some good golf was played out there today," he said, after shooting an even-par 71. "Better than I'd have expected at Pinehurst. I haven't been throwing any shots away and I'm five strokes off the lead and there are 10 or 12 guys ahead of me." Poor Jack.
Off the course, however, Nicklaus was a walking diplomatic incident. On Thursday a reporter asked him whether the real reason he had refused his place on the two-man U.S. team for the World Cup in Bangkok was that he feared for his life in politically unsettled Thailand. Jack answered, "You hit it on the button," and the story flew out over the AP news wire. The upshot was that the U.S. State Department, possibly for the first time in the history of the Republic, was forced to take a position in re a golfer. Its position was to "take exception" to Nicklaus' position.
Then there was the inevitable request for Nicklaus' opinion of the golf course. With characteristic candor Jack complied. "I used to think this and Firestone were the top two courses in the world," he said. "But they've made some changes here. I still think it is one of the top five or six."
Furthermore, he said, "This is a better golf course than Augusta. Augusta has the nostalgia and all that. But it's probably the worst-conditioned golf course we play. It's pretty and green, but there's no grass in the fairways and every shot is a flyer. A month later it would be perfect." Augusta National? Worst-conditioned? Say it isn't so, Jack!
Even Nicklaus' silver-topped caddie, Angelo Argea, got into the act. Argea drew a 30-day suspension from TPD Commissioner Deane Beman for being seen inside the clubhouse, clubhouses being off limits to caddies just as they once were to pros.
After this week's Ryder Cup, a dwindling troupe of players will cross the continent one more time, but Nicklaus will be with them only as far as Napa, Calif. and the Kaiser International. After that he will play the Australian Open, fish the Great Barrier Reef, travel to Spain on business, and maybe Japan, too, watch his Buckeyes play football in Columbus and his two sons play football in Florida. That is how the best golfer in the world rewards himself for the best year he's ever had.