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THE BATTLE OF THE AGES
Dan Jenkins
August 22, 1977
It was sudden death as 47-year-old Gene Littler faced 27-year-old Lanny Wadkins in the National PGA at Pebble Beach—and Lanny killed a dream
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August 22, 1977

The Battle Of The Ages

It was sudden death as 47-year-old Gene Littler faced 27-year-old Lanny Wadkins in the National PGA at Pebble Beach—and Lanny killed a dream

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Play golf at Pebble Beach only once or twice and you would miss Lanny's putt four inches to the right. It was hardly a tap-in. But Wadkins nailed it, and the leaping began. One leap. Two leaps. Three leaps. No, it wasn't the beer, he would say later on. It was the title.

For Wadkins, it was his second national championship. He took the U.S. Amateur in 1970, a title Littler had won 17 years before. Gene was a whiz kid of the '50s, and Wadkins was expected to be one of the '70s, but during the 1974 season he began to feel weak and bloated. "I would get tired and think it was because I was out of shape," he says. "I'd run and get even more tired. Then that December I had the operation." He fell from fifth on the money list in 1973 to 54th that year to 88th in 1975 with just $23,582. "I never played bad in my life until 1974," he says. "I didn't know what it was to play bad. I didn't know golf was so hard. I went from long and straight to short and crooked."

If Wadkins was the story on Sunday, the great groove scandal dominated talk earlier, diverting conversation from forest fires, the price of suede in Carmel, the water rations of the Lodge and where Joan Fontaine's house was located. It got to where a man would order a steak and be tempted to say, "I'd like that within .035 of medium, please." For the first couple of days of the tournament, physics shoved everything else aside.

The controversy began innocently and simply enough the week before, at the Greater Hartford Open. There was an interlude during the second round when players were stacked up on the 2nd tee, chatting and killing time by fooling around with each other's clubs, which is what pros do when they aren't complaining. As it happened, Jerry Heard looked at an iron belonging to young George Burns and said, "Nice looking club, George. Too bad it's illegal."

For as long as the game has been played, golfers have been needling one another about their clubs. Usually the comments are on the order of "Where'd you find that wedge? Why, you could back the ball down the highway toward Birmingham!" But Burns started to worry about the remark. He did not know that with the naked eye no one can determine the width of grooves in a golf club. "I don't know anything about golf clubs," Burns admitted at Pebble Beach. "I thought, 'Well, what if they are illegal? I don't want to win any money like that.' "

What Burns did next at Hartford was what turned the PGA into a scientific convention. He took his clubs to Deputy PGA Commissioner Clyde Mangum to have them examined. Mangum got out his gauge and he looked at the faces of Burns' clubs. The device told Mangum the grooves were too wide. How much? About the width of a baby's fingernail. Nevertheless, rules are rules, and Burns disqualified himself at Hartford.

A minor incident at the time, it seemed. Except that a few other pros use the same irons as Burns, clubs made by the Ram Corporation of Elk Grove Village, Ill. And those few other players happened to be Tom Watson, Raymond Floyd, Littler and Gary Player. At Pebble, the Ram troops took their clubs to Mangum's eyepiece. No rule says you have to. There had not been a club check that anyone could remember since the 1948 U.S. Open at Riviera.

Well, of course, Watson's were too wide (.037 instead of .035), Floyd's were too wide, several of Player's were too wide, but Littler's were O.K. Next, other competitors asked for a check. Nicklaus, for example. His clubs were fine. But Hale Irwin lost a couple of Wilson irons, John Lister lost some Australian-made irons, Tom Weiskopf was denied his wedge, and so on. Meanwhile, Watson had sent for the MacGregors he used to win the 1975 British Open. When they arrived, they, too, failed to meet specifications. Which is how it came to be that an hour before tee time on Thursday Watson wound up with a spare set of Roger Maltbie's MacGregors. "Anybody got any clubs?" Tom hollered on the putting green. "I'll take anything." Maltbie came through. And this was the set that Watson used in his opening 68, proving how much difference grooves make. He hit a total of eight practice shots with them.

All of this brought up the question of how clubs are made, what the grooves are good for, and why there are "specs" in the first place. Grooves basically are for control, and grooves on the short irons are there for backspin. Grooves can help get the ball up, which is good unless you want to keep the ball down in the wind. The rules governing grooves were adopted in 1941 by the USGA because certain guys had designed wedges that could make a golf ball dance with the Russian ballet.

But consider what happened after the 1948 club check at Riviera. In those days MacGregor had a powerhouse staff including Ben Hogan and Byron Nelson. Before that Open all of the MacGregor irons had to be filed down. With that disadvantage, Hogan shot 276 and broke the Open record by five strokes. Grooves have little to do with drivers and putters, and those clubs have always been where the money and titles are.

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