What Deane Beman needs to do as overlord of the PGA tour is move New Year's Eve to Labor Day. Among other things, this would complicate college football, putting the Rose Bowl ahead of the regular season, but there may be no other way for Beman to convince everyone that the 1977 pro golf tour ended two weeks ago with the World Series at Firestone Country Club in Akron. What Arnold Palmer and all those other pros were doing in Endicott, N.Y. last week playing the standard 72 holes of golf for the standard $200,000 may be a bit difficult for Beman to explain, particularly to all those people who think Arnold Palmer invented the game and then lost it to Jack Nicklaus in a side bet.
Still, Beman has been asking the golf fan to accept other equally strange things. Not especially in order of importance, they are: a World Series of Golf exists that is so potentially prestigious it "transcends," according to Beman, the Grand Slam tournaments; a Tournament Players Championship exists that is going to become the "fifth major"; and there are three significant and separate golf seasons—the Winter, Spring and Summer tours. There are elements of truth in each of the above. The problem lies in selling the act to the public, and even that may be accomplished in time. Certainly Beman deserves credit for trying.
But two things are happening at once. The 1977 tour is not over so far as money earnings are concerned. Tom Watson, with $305,428 in "official" money—the British Open doesn't count, which is hard enough for some of us to accept—still has a chance to break Johnny Miller's record of $353,021. But the 1978 tour has already begun in terms of winning that Winter thing and qualifying for next year's World Series.
It is entirely possible that none of this matters as long as there are those Big Four tournaments, the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA, which come in that order every year and give the sport its weeks of special excitement. The other weeks have always belonged to the Gil Morgans and most likely always will.
No matter when it began or when it ends, 1977 happens to have been as thrilling and unique a year as golf has ever produced. To touch on a few major episodes, it was the year of steadily shocking low scores, from Al Geiberger's 59 at Memphis to Tom Watson's 268 (and Nicklaus' 269) in the British Open; the year of Hubert Green's death-threat U.S. Open; the year of Lanny Wadkins' sudden-death PGA; the year of Bruce Lietzke's coming to life; the year of comebacks by Lee Trevino and Tom Weiskopf as well as by Wadkins; the year of Johnny Miller's disappearance; and, more bizarre than anything else, the year that Jack Nicklaus went to the 71st hole tied for the lead in three major championships (the Masters, British Open and PGA) and did not win any of them.
Overall, of course, it was Tom Watson's year, and that, too, was good for the game. Matinee idols have been hard to come by with Nicklaus around. If you totaled up all of the money Watson has taken this year, he would be nearing $350,000. In one stretch he captured three tournaments in a row—the Western, then an event in Barcelona called El Prat Cup, and then that British Open in which he and Nicklaus pushed each other beyond the boundaries of credibility.
But Watson aside, there can be no question that a younger group of stars is taking over. A telling statistic is that 20 of the 38 events that have been played to date have been won by men in their 20s. Watson, who just turned 28, certainly helped the figure along, but Wadkins, Lietzke, Ben Crenshaw, Jerry Pate, Bill Kratzert and Mark Hayes, to list the most impressive of the new wave, made their contributions.
In what might be called the Nicklaus Lottery, this would seem to be a good time to pause and contemplate some of the new heroes. It is fairly safe to say that none of them is going to match what Nicklaus has done; the golfer who can do that may not have been born yet. But they are an exciting and likeable gang, all of them personable, articulate and talented. And they are going to give the game a continuing combination of pleasure and suspense the likes of which it has not known since Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Byron Nelson, Lloyd Mangrum, Jimmy Demaret and assorted Lawson Littles were thrashing around trying to decide who was No. 1 and who was 1A. It took Hogan about 15 years to straighten that out.
Watson might not wind up the champion of the present era, but he has the early lead with three major titles. There are those who think his swing is too upright, although no one found much fault in the fact that Nelson's was. As for his character, Watson seems to have more self-control than most of his contemporaries. It is stunningly refreshing to hear him say, "If I'm not playing well in my estimation, then I don't think I deserve to win a tournament and it doesn't bother me if I come close and lose. I know I shouldn't have been there in the first place."
Because of Watson's year and the fact that he jarred Nicklaus twice in the majors, he has been rather inaccurately put in the same category as Lee Trevino and Johnny Miller, two others who came along and briefly interrupted Nicklaus' appointment with immortality. But Watson appears to be neither as unpredictable and erratic as Trevino, nor as streaky and moody as Miller. Tom may not go away. And if he does, he may not stay gone very long.