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A rough time at La Costa
Barry McDermott
April 30, 1979
Tom Watson strayed from the straight and narrow at the Tournament of Champions, but came out of the sand, water and weeds so dexterously he won by six strokes
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April 30, 1979

A Rough Time At La Costa

Tom Watson strayed from the straight and narrow at the Tournament of Champions, but came out of the sand, water and weeds so dexterously he won by six strokes

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The upper crust of the pro golf tour returned to the land of milk, honey and the jet-powered Jacuzzi last week for the MONY Tournament of Champions, an event strictly for the elite. Members of the elite will remind you that tour golf was never meant to be fun, but at the La Costa Country Club it is about as far removed from torture as it ever gets.

The T of C is a chance for the game's top players, defined here as those who have won at least one tournament in the preceding 12 months, to gather with their wives and children at a fancy resort outside of San Diego, steam all the Masters' tradition and history out of their pores, play a little, party a little and laugh a lot. La Costa's walkways are lined with flowers, its buffets are dazzling showcases and the grounds could have been groomed by a team of hair stylists. In this tranquil setting the golfers are soothed by free rooms, meals and beverages. They also have privileges at the resort's pushbutton spa, where they can be kneaded, pummeled, greased, pampered and worked over by a team of specialists in starched white uniforms and tennis shoes. After being pounded by a muscled masseur in sunglasses, golfer Bruce Lietzke sighed, more or less happily, "I feel like The Iron Claw just got done with me."

With so many distractions, this event leads the tour in "missing wives." Instead of watching their husbands play, the women are out horseback riding, whacking away at tennis balls or trying out a new eye shadow in the beauty salon. Taking one thing with another, however, the very best thing about the tournament is its first name. The MONY is $300,000, and that kind of bread slices pretty thickly among a 28-man field. Tom Watson won $54,000 for his six-stroke victory over Lietzke and Jerry Pate, who won $29,500 apiece. Gary Player was fourth for $18,000. Even last place was worth $3,500; Jerry Heard won it and still looked happy. Jack Nicklaus, who spent the week trying to kick-start his game, never got the motor going and finished tied for 15th for a check of $6,250. That meant, however, that in 16 T of Cs he has won $204,002, which is an entire career total for some people.

All in all, it was a good week for champions, and one of them, a female, used the tournament as a setting for her wedding. Carol Mann, the 1965 U.S. Women's Open champion and a television announcer for NBC at La Costa, married Jim Hardy, a former tour golfer, in the clubhouse on Saturday afternoon after the third round of play.

And if this is not evidence enough that the T of C enjoys a special niche on the pro circuit, consider that many of the competitors brought along their children, which is almost guaranteed to be the equivalent of a two-stroke penalty. Lee Trevino, for example, had four kids with him. The oldest is 13. "They're running me ragged," he reported at one point. "Sea World, the zoo, and they never miss a concession stand. They're just about breaking me. I was going to take off next week and spend the time with my family. After a few days of this, I'm thinking about entering New Orleans instead." Trevino finally figured out how to keep his brood occupied. He had them pick up practice chip shots for him. Trevino chipped every afternoon, until it was almost dark.

At first glance, the La Costa course appears tame because it is only 6,911 yards long, a distance hinting that its par of 72 might be quite soft. But the constricted fairways meander through foliage thick enough to choke a tractor. La Costa has some of the longest and most wiry roughs on the tour, which means that the straight shooters like Nicklaus, Trevino and Gary Player inevitably perform well. Player, the defending champion, is second to Nicklaus in T of C earnings with $149,351, and he sounds like Johnny Apple-seed, always suggesting that golf courses should plant more trees. Trevino subscribes to any philosophy that penalizes unbridled enthusiasm. "That's why I love it here," he was saying last week. "Heck, I wish they'd make the gallery ropes out of bounds. We're the only sport that plays in the audience."

The tournament enjoyed the best of weather: clear skies, warm temperatures and light breezes. Still, only half a dozen players broke par in Thursday's first round; the greens were hard, and iron shots weren't holding. One of those struggling was Fuzzy Zoeller, the four-day-old Masters champion. Zoeller shot a 77, well off the pace of Watson's leading 69, and was obviously distracted, a bit let down from his big victory but also worrying about his wife, Dianne, who was back in New Albany, Ind. awaiting the birth of the couple's first child. Zoeller kept in touch, telling everyone he would withdraw if the baby arrived early. But Dianne lasted out the week, and so did her husband, who wound up in a tie for 20th place.

Watson was also awaiting the birth of a first child, though Linda Watson is not due until September. The pressure seems to be good for him. In his last three tournaments before La Costa, he finished second, first and, at Augusta, second. "It's depressing for me to play with him," said Lon Hinkle after the opening round. "I just feel like I'm hacking it around."

The pros are impressed with Watson's dedication; sometimes he hits so many practice balls that he loses feeling in his forearms, an extraordinary effort for a man who has been the leading money winner as well as Player of the Year the last two seasons while winning the Vardon Trophy for low scoring average. Watson's diligence is matched by the un-obtrusiveness of his dress. He owns only one pair of white golf shoes, the tour's badge of high style, and at the end of the day his plain, dark slacks are usually dusty from a siege at the practice tee. "He works like a rookie," says Lietzke.

Watson claims to see signs that his game still is improving, although he isn't ready to accept the designation as Nicklaus' heir. "The difference now is that I can play badly and have a chance to win, and years ago I couldn't," he says. "At times I hit the ball as well as anyone, but there are times that I'm well behind the pack."

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