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For the year in professional tournament golf, Lon Hinkle has to be the leading environmentalist in the clubhouse. Only Hinkle can make a tree, as he did at the U.S. Open last June. And only Hinkle can skip a ball across a pond, as he did last week at the Firestone Country Club in the World Series of Golf. The tree the USGA planted at Inverness to keep him from taking a shortcut on a par-5 hole resulted in Hinkle winning more fame than a victory in an average tour event would have brought him. But fame does not spend like $100,000, and that was the amount he took away from Akron, Ohio after embedding Hinkle's Pond into the lore of the game alongside Hinkle's Tree.
Skipping the ball intentionally over the water on the 16th hole in Saturday's second round did not by itself win the World Series for Hinkle, but it kept him in contention and very much alive, so that he was able to make all of the good golf he played during Sunday's 36 holes pay off in a victory over the likes of Tom Watson, Larry Nelson and Lee Trevino. The 36-hole marathon final day had been made necessary when Friday's round was rained out.
The outcome of a tournament is usually determined by a combination of good and bad things that happen to the principals over the last few holes. So it was at Firestone. The shot Hinkle pulled off on Saturday by hooding a six-iron and hitting a two-rippler across the water and up on the green to save a par—a dazzling, mysterious sight to the high handicapper, no doubt—should have been a good omen to him and a bad one for his rivals.
Hinkle was close all the way. His opening 67 kept him within shouting distance of first-round leader Andy Bean, whose 64 indicated that Firestone's south course, with its perfectly textured greens, soft conditions and the lack of any strong wind, was there to be had. Hinkle's second-round 67 left him only one stroke behind Watson, who flashed ahead with rounds of 68 and 65, and his third-round 71 on Sunday morning put him just two strokes behind Nelson, the 54-hole leader. But at this point Hinkle was in a crowd of contenders and as the long day wore on, Nelson, Bill Rogers, Watson and Hinkle juggled the lead around as Trevino lurked a shot or two away.
First it was Rogers' tournament to lose. He went to the 17th hole needing a par-par finish for what proved to be Hinkle's winning total of eight-under 272. But he located a bunker at the 17th, blasted out none too close to the flag, and missed the putt for a bogey.
The next catastrophe befell Nelson. With what amounted to a two-stroke lead at the same 17th hole, he bunkered his second shot, hit a terrible sand shot, putted too boldly for his par and then missed the one coming back. Double bogey—and because Hinkle had just birdied there, a three-stroke swing.
On the last hole, Hinkle had a makable eight-foot birdie putt that would have eliminated the need to watch the efforts of the final threesome—Watson, Nelson and Trevino. But the putt curled away and Hinkle had to sweat it out in the gallery.
When he saw Watson drive badly into the trees and then Nelson drive badly into a bunker, Hinkle knew all he had to worry about was Trevino. He was used to it. Hinkle and Trevino play on Tuesdays before tournaments. Not for $100,000. "Just for enough to keep an edge," Hinkle says, not without a grin.
Trevino had missed birdie putts on the 16th and 17th. He had another chance on the 18th, but it too stayed out and so Hinkle gained the distinction of becoming a double winner on the tour (he took the Crosby in February) and the advantage of being able to talk about something besides his tree in Toledo. Now he can tell people all about his pond.
"Well, sometimes you just have to invent a shot," he said. "You don't go out and practice skipping the ball over the water, but when you've got a bare lie and you can get to the ball, and when your other choice is to play backwards, it seems worth the gamble. Maybe it was dumb. I know the tree thing was."