Four days of designer weather on the Monterey Peninsula last week produced one of the weirdest tournaments in the lusty 44-year history of the Bing Crosby National Pro-Am before it wound up in the sensible clutches of Hale Irwin. For a while there on Sunday it seemed to belong to a little guy who plays righthanded, putts lefthanded and looks like a New Wave guitarist. But Jim Nelford simply wasn't destined to win. How can you beat somebody at Pebble Beach who's going to bounce a golf ball off an oceanside rock, then carom one off a flagstick to get himself a tie, and then overcome a skied tee shot on the second sudden-death playoff hole with a career two-iron shot out of a fairway bunker? Except for that 213-yard blast, which got him in there for his birdie putt, Irwin looked as if he were winning—or losing—the Bing Crosby National Bumper Pool Championship.
Nelford, a 28-year-old Canadian who grew up playing more ice hockey than golf, performed grandly in Sunday's final round in an effort to gain his first victory in seven years on the PGA Tour. He rapped in six birdies as he fired a four-under 68 and reached the scorer's tent two holes ahead of Irwin with a total of 278, 10 under par. Meanwhile, Irwin, 38, who had begun the day with a two-stroke lead on the field, spent a good deal of time wondering if he'd forgotten how to play the game. For a two-time U.S. Open champion and a man with a reputation for showing off his best golf on the toughest courses, he seemed always to "pull out the wrong club," as he said later.
Irwin was struggling to get to the house with an even-par 72, which would tie Nelford, and only the tenacious competitor that he is could have rescued this round. Even so, it looked lost when Hale bogeyed the 15th hole. He needed a birdie somewhere, but he wasn't hitting many greens in regulation. On the scenic and infamous par-five 18th, he had one last chance, but from the way he struck his tee shot it appeared as if he were trying to hit the ocean in regulation.
"It was low and it was hooking," Irwin said. It had fifth place written all over it, but...."
But it hit a rock along the steep drop-off to Carmel Bay and popped right back onto the fairway. From there he was able to put a three-wood second shot into position for an 81-yard wedge to the pin. Hale hit a splendid shot—as it turned out, even better than it looked. The ball one-hopped square into the flagstick and stopped five feet from the cup. He rapped it in for a birdie that gave him a 72—and a deadlock with Nelford, who stood watching and was too much of a gentleman to throw up in front of so large a gallery.
They halved the first playoff hole, the 15th, with par 4s, and then Irwin stunned himself by hitting "the worst tee ball of my life." Driving with his usually reliable three-wood, he hit the turf behind the ball, and high handicappers everywhere must have taken heart. In the heat of the moment, Irwin had hit the ball exactly as they would have. It came down from another universe to rest in a long fairway bunker, less than 200 yards from the tee.
Nelford was safely in the fairway with only a seven-iron to the green, and once again it seemed he held the upper hand. Irwin couldn't possibly reach the green, could he?
"I thought I might as well try," he said. "In a situation like that—one of those 'Well, what have we here?' things—you have to make yourself forget everything but the mechanics. Stay down on it, swing slowly, make contact with the ball first. That's all I thought about."
The shot was an absolute beauty, 213 yards of perfection, over the dangerous cross-bunker guarding the green, onto the putting surface, the ball rolling toward the pin, then coming to a stop about nine feet behind the hole. Irwin wasn't about to miss the putt after having made a shot like that—and he didn't.
Irwin thus had gone from a ricochet romance to instruction-book stuff in the space of half an hour, from the rocks to the winner's circle, proving once again what a marvelous golfer he is on the most testing terrain. Irwin, who with his $72,000 Crosby check now ranks fourth on the alltime money list with $2.45 million, has won championships on such storied layouts as Harbour Town, Winged Foot, Butler National, Riviera, Pinehurst No. 2, Inverness, Muirfield Village—and now Pebble Beach.