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The big winner was the loser
Dan Jenkins
October 22, 1979
Bill Rogers took home the World Match Play title, but Isao Aoki took a home
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October 22, 1979

The Big Winner Was The Loser

Bill Rogers took home the World Match Play title, but Isao Aoki took a home

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Each year, professional tournament golf continues around the world, offering flavorful events with rich prizes, long after the American tour has done its best to cure insomnia. Last week, in an elegant patch on the fringe of Windsor Forest near London, the pros played a classy tournament called the World Match Play Championship, a competition far more thrilling than any of those Southern Opens and generally regarded as such by golfing fans elsewhere on the globe.

This time a young colonial named Bill (Buck) Rogers outlasted the amazing Isao Aoki of Japan, who earlier in the week had swung a club on the 2nd hole of the Wentworth course and fired a shot heard around the world. Well, maybe that noted sportswriter, Ralph Waldo Emerson, could have said it better. The point is that with a birdie on the last green of the 36-hole final on Sunday afternoon, Rogers, who was not even supposed to be there among the elite, had won himself a very big championship. And there was little wringing of hands over Aoki's loss, because by virtue of a hole-in-one on that second hole and by making it into the last round, he assured himself of winning more money in one week than any golfer in history.

First things first. Rogers, 27, slender, stylish, Texan, gloveless, winner only of the 1978 Bob Hope Desert Classic on the U.S. tour, got invited to the World Match Play because Tom Watson turned it down. The sponsor always reserves the right to include in the match play field someone out of the ordinary who has not automatically qualified by having conquered some part of the world earlier in the year. Rogers was the odd-man-in this year. To prove he deserved to be in the same company with the major championship and Order of Merit winners, Rogers did the following in four days of grueling 36-hole matches: he beat Sandy Lyle, tops in the European Order of Merit; Hale Irwin, the U.S. Open champion; Fuzzy Zoeller, the Masters winner; and Aoki, the defending World Match Play champ. In so doing, Roger was never out of the 60s as he literally butchered the famed old Wentworth course. He was five-under against Lyle, also five-under against Irwin, 10-under against Zoeller and eight-under against Aoki, which, as it turned out, was barely good enough. Those who did not know that Rogers was ready to win had only to look back and see that he had been second his last two times out, in the Texas Open and the World Series of Golf.

"I've never had more fun in my life," said Rogers after his victory. "I came here playing good, driving straight. Wentworth is like a tough, tight American course. And I had the underdog incentive. I love match play. This is a great tournament."

Monetarily, it was even greater for Aoki, a charming and talented player who is not only a straight hitter off the tee but is, quite possibly, an alltime master of the pitch, chip and putt. That his 12-foot birdie putt on the final green against Rogers only greased the cup and did not fall thoroughly astonished him, because most of Aoki's putts do disappear. They normally drop with the swiftness that his 155-yard hole-in-one did on Friday, in his match against David Graham. Aoki struck a seven-iron. The ball hit one foot to the right of the flag and hopped in. That gave him $125,000 to go along with the $40,000 he would earn as the tournament runner-up. It was not $125,000 in cash, but the price of a two-bedroom condominium at Gleneagles in Scotland, a prize offered by a real-estate company that had not bothered to send any executives to Wentworth because of the unlikelihood of anyone actually making an ace. After the hole-in-one, however, a man was flown to London to present Aoki with a key to the front door. Thus, Aoki left Britain with the equivalent of $165,000. Rogers, the victor, had to be content with a paltry $65,000 from the tournament's new sponsor, Suntory, the Japanese distiller.

The World Match Play Championship has been a huge success since its inception in 1964. For a long time there had been a need for a big tournament in the London vicinity, inasmuch as the British Open is alternately played in Scotland and on the Lancashire coast. The Piccadilly World Match Play, which later became the Colgate World Match Play and is now the Suntory World Match Play Championship, has, in a sense, become a sort of " London Open," taking its place in sporting and social circles alongside Wimbledon, the Henley Regatta and Royal Ascot. Enormous crowds always turn out, as they did in the glorious weather of last week, and press coverage is second only to the British Open among European tournaments.

It was Mark McCormack who first recognized that both London and golf could use a premier match-play event. McCormack, who began his career by managing Arnold Palmer and now handles countless people and interests on six—or have you expanded to Antarctica, Mark?—continents, came to this conclusion after the U.S. PGA Championship allowed itself to be changed from match to medal play for the benefit of television. The PGA had been the grandest match-play tournament of them all. It took a while, but McCormack finally got the World Match Play going. Now, after 15 years, it is firmly established as one of the finest tournaments played outside the U.S.A.

Through the years, the event has produced high drama and winners of top quality—Palmer, Jack Nicklaus, Gary Player, Hale Irwin. That type. Player probably did more for the event than anyone. He not only won it five times, but he seemed forever to be getting embroiled in thrilling head-to-head battles. One year, Player found himself seven holes down to Tony Lema with only 17 to play. He won with a barrage of birdies. Afterward, Lema was heard to remark, with a certain amount of mysticism, "What Gary did had nothing to do with golf."

Although he was not to win this time, it was Player who again supplied some of the more dramatic moments. In the first round on Thursday, he found himself four down to Japan's Tohru Nakamura with only 11 holes left. Predictably he fought back to win. Then on Friday against Fuzzy Zoeller, he birdied the 35th hole to draw square and enacted a typical Player drama on the last hole. While Zoeller played safely onto the green in three strokes and had an eight-foot birdie putt, Player had struck a wild second shot into the forest, so deeply into the trees, in fact, it seemed that only Robin Hood would be able to find the ball. But the next thing anyone knew. Player had it in hand and was asking an official for a free drop to another part of the forest. A Japanese TV tower was in his line of sight, Player claimed, and he intended to play out to the fairway backward. The official unwittingly granted him the drop, whereupon Gary played forward toward the green. Ha! An old trick. Golfers often try to bend the rules, and sometimes they get away with it.

Playing forward, however, was no bargain. Player had an opening about the size of a Titleist. He slashed at the ball, and it mowed down six branches and 200 leaves before bounding out of the woods and onto the green, about 20 feet from the flag. In that one slash, Player went from a treehouse to a birdie putt. But there, alas, the miracle ended. He missed the putt, and Zoeller made his to win. Had it gone the other way, Windsor Forest would have been decorated with a man hanging by his thumbs from the branch of a horse chestnut—the official who granted Player the free drop.

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