Among the soothing pines of Georgia, a select group of (he nations finest golfers played a tournament last week before a gallery of hardly anybody. The contestants were club professionals, that breed of men who are at once tutors, confessors and sweater salesmen.
In a glamorous sport, the club pros exist, in effect, on the other side of midnight. They are the 8,200 Class A members of the Professional Golfers Association. They clean up the driving ranges, punch their cash registers and explain the intricacies of the 9-Hole Blind Bogey. If they are lucky they have an autographed picture of Jack Nicklaus on the wall.
But once each year they dust off their clubs and play the game the way they once dreamed it would be. Last week at Callaway Gardens, a charming resort near the community of Pine Mountain, 353 players entered the PGA National Club Pro Championship, a 72-hole event worth $120,000 in prize money and an incalculable amount in self-esteem.
Few of the club pros ever thought it would be quite this way. Where once they had envisioned studying a three-footer for the U.S. Open title, their opposition turned out to be the hardware store selling cut-rate clubs. Somewhere along the way, golf became a job. Hampton Auld, a 57-year-old professional from Charleston, W. Va., summed it up on his entry blank. For college attended, he wrote, "Hard Knocks U."
But more than just a smattering of the players in the club pro tournament were once on the tour, and the entry list was dotted with those who at one stage of their lives had found themselves talking to their drivers on the back nine at Pebble' Beach or Doral. In fact, in the 11 years of the event, only one man has won the title who has not had at least a nodding acquaintance with courtesy cars and marshals. Roger Watson also is the only fellow to win the tournament twice.
"I never had any idea what I was doing when I was winning the tournament in 1974 and '75," said Watson. He did, however, have a good idea of what the pro circuit would be like and decided while in college to skip it. "Besides, the top live club pros in the country make between $150,000 and $200,000," says the 36-year-old Cary, N.C. club pro. Which is a lot of alpaca.
If golf is cruel, then the pro circuit is infinitely perverse. Consider:
?Jim Ferriell, who was a forgotten straggler at the 1967 U.S. Open at Baltusrol. Playing last during one round, he and his partner found themselves so far behind Nicklaus, Palmer and the rest of the action, and so far out of things, that occasionally a wandering fan would ask, "Are you guys members?" Last week, on the eve of the club pro event, Ferriell said, "You're either a has-been or a never-was here. I'm a never-was."
?Herb Hooper. Ten years ago, after a round of the Memphis Open, Hooper pulled his car onto the driving range an hour after sunset, and his wife Holly ran out into the field with a shag bag. Back in the darkness, Herb would hit a shot, Holly would cock an ear, listen for the ball, then run over and pick it up. A passerby, observing this odd scene, asked the panting woman her husband's name. She replied in one breathless run-on sentence: "Herb Hooper he finished-third at Maracaibo!" (And 10 years later he missed the cut at Callaway.)
Still, the tour is hard to give up. When Ferriell finally quit in 1975 after seven years, he couldn't bear to watch golf on television. Now he is 36 years old and enjoys his job at the Crooked Stick Club in Indianapolis. In 1976 he tied for second in the club pro event, earning a berth on the nine-man PGA Cup Match team that plays an annual series with Great Britain- Ireland. Another bonus in the tournament is that the low 25 finishers qualify for the PGA Championship. This year, however, Ferriell was a has-been. He also missed the cut.