On television, golf is all glamour and suntanned players—Tom Watson earning half a million dollars and Jack Nicklaus arriving by private jet. But last week at Pensacola, the tour's second-and third-class citizens chased after the tailings of the year's $13 million in purses. For the desperate ones, golf is a bottom-line business, and on the PGA tour, the Pensacola Open was the last chance to improve the figures before everyone quit until January.
And so glamour was in short supply at the Perdido Bay Inn and Golf Club, a course laid out on a refilled swamp. Signs cautioned the golfers to take heed of snakes and alligators. Pensacola is somewhere at the end of pro golf's world. But for the rabbits and dew-sweepers of the tour—those who have not met various PGA-established minimums during the season—Pensacola is the biggest tournament of the year. Last week, as Dan Halldorson played toward the $36,000 first-place check, others at several different levels were struggling desperately to squeeze a few final drops from the money pipeline.
The big prize was qualifying for exempt status—automatic qualification for next year's PGA tour events, which is accorded the Top 60 money-winners. Going into Pensacola, people like Terry Diehl, George Archer and Rex Caldwell (58th through 60th places, respectively) fought for that 60th spot like dogs over an old shoe.
Others were worried that they might be thrown off the tour. To keep their playing privileges, veterans like Stan Altgelt had to finish 160th or better on the money list, while rookies like Jon Chaffee had to earn at least $8,000 in their first season. Altgelt was No. 161 on the money list, $27 behind Rod Funseth, while Chaffee was $352 short of earning his minimum. "This looks like the survival of the worst," Altgelt said.
He had been down this road before. He played the tour from 1976 through 1978, had back surgery, lost his playing card and had to go through the qualifying school again last year. This season had produced only $9,970 in 25 tournaments. It costs about $30,000 a year to play the tour, and Altgelt sponsors himself. His wife, Lani, teaches school and works nights as a hostess in an oyster bar back home in Dallas so the checks don't bounce. Now, a month shy of his 32nd birthday, Altgelt was saying, "I'm here to make some money. If I miss the cut and lose my card, that's incidental. I live with an extreme amount of pressure every day." At Pensacola, Altgelt played well enough to keep his card, shooting a 68-76-69-71—284, a finish worth a check of $1,360. That moved him up half a dozen spots on the money list.
Chaffee's view of tour life is markedly different from Altgelt's. Chaffee is 24, single and comfortable with his group of financial sponsors back home in Austin, Minn. In his first 17 tournaments this year he made a grand total of $138.47. He missed qualifying in 11 events, including five straight. It was not until mid-June that he got cranked up, and since then he has been respectable. Last week he was only $351.36 short of the $8,000 he needed to keep his card. But if he failed to earn a check he would have to wait until next spring's qualifying school for another chance. Thursday Chaffee had a first-round 74 that put him right behind the $8,000 ball. And so his last nine on Friday afternoon was nervous time. He figured he needed at least a 70 for the round, two under par, to make the 36-hole cut. Walking along after him was a lone spectator, his girl friend of nine years, Shari Kearns, who had gotten up at 3 a.m. in order to fly from Austin to Pensacola.
Chaffee was three under par standing at the tee on the last hole, a short par-4 with water down the left side. He took out an iron, aimed well to the right, and swung. The ball headed toward the water. Shari was standing 10 feet away when it plopped in. "Oh God," she said.
Chaffee is fair and blond with bright rosy cheeks. Now his face flushed crimson. "O.K.," he said. He dropped away from the water, hit his third shot on the green and carefully two-putted from 25 feet. Then he walked to the scoreboard to see if his two-round total of 144 really would make the cut.
"I was choking so bad out there I couldn't believe it," he said. He had not slept the previous night. "I was trying so hard. I think I made it. If I don't, I'm going to die." An hour went by before it was announced that the 36-hole cut would be at 144. Chaffee was in. In the next two days he shot 67-69 and finished in a tie for 10th worth $4,150.
The race for the last spot on the Top 60 list was surprising because several names involved are often found on the tour's leader boards. Right behind Diehl ($67,636), Archer ($66,675) and Caldwell ($64,859) were Lanny Wadkins, the 1977 PGA and World Series of Golf champion, and Mark Hayes, who won the TPC title that same year. Wadkins' money total was $63,628, while Hayes had $62,385. Both pursuers were exempt for 1981 by virtue of their major titles, but Wadkins found some dark humor in the situation. "I can make those other guys sweat," he said smugly.