As the tournament golf trail winds, it is 5,000 miles-and 1,000 holes of pressure golf—from California in January to the Masters at Augusta in April. This week, with the exception of Sam Snead, who has been bonefishing off Miami, and Ben Hogan, who has been lovingly adding the final touches to the new golf clubs he has been manufacturing in Fort Worth, just about all of the country's outstanding playing professionals are journeying, as is the tribe's inveterate custom, on that long sun-swept haul, variously known as the grapefruit circuit, the winter swing or simply "the tour."
The annual motorized migration begins in Los Angeles in the first week of January, proceeds across the dry, golf-able Southwest and South at the pace of a tournament a week (save for one week open for rest and recuperation), and winds up some three months later with the climactic Masters. This week, as the caravan of some 300 persons—the ranks of the "name pros" swelled by scores of relatively unknown young men hoping to obtain a firmer foothold in golf, the whole troupe rounded out by the wives and occasionally the children of many of the players—pulled into Baton Rouge for the 10th tournament on the schedule, the $12,500 Baton Rouge Open, the 1955 tour had produced half a dozen different winners. Gene Littler, the sensational sophomore, had won at Los Angeles and Phoenix. Tommy Bolt had led the way at San Diego and Tucson. Cary Middlecoff had won the Crosby, Shelley May field the Thunderbird Open, Mike Souchak the Texas Open and last week's Houston Open. (In the subsidiary tourney at Brawley, held the same week as the Thunderbird, Mike Fetchik was the victor.) The tour, to be sure, had also produced its usual quota of milder success, clean-cut disappointment, aching backs, and superannuated carburetors.
This strange sports phenomenon, the winter tour, first began to roll in the early 1920s shortly after two (then startling) discoveries were made. First, a number of the leading pros of that era, foremostly Walter Hagen, learned from personal safaris that, spread throughout the country far from the acknowledged centers of golf, were thousands and thousands of incipient fans who considered it almost a privilege to fork over the price of admission in order to watch touring professionals take their local course apart with long drives, beautifully struck approaches that actually spun back when they landed on the greens, and putts that rolled for the hole as if they carried road maps. And second, only a few years after Hagen and his colleagues had begun to include a few annual tournaments along the Gulf Coast and in the West as part of their winter schedules, it dawned on real estate men, resort promoters, chamber of commerce officials and other professional builder-uppers that when it came to making the rest of the nation conscious of their town or their spa, no other publicity gambit could compare with sponsoring a golf tournament. Why, all you did was shell out a couple of thousand (in those days) and in return you got, literally, a million dollars worth of publicity—coast-to-coast date lines before, during and after your tournament and mentions of it all year round as an authentic part of the sports picture.
On the tide of this logic, and thanks to some astute navigation by the late Bob Harlow and subsequently by Fred Corcoran, each acting as the director of the Tournament Bureau of the Professional Golfers' Association, the formal winter tour—which in 1921 had amounted to three tournaments offering total prizes of $8,545—gradually expanded during the 1930s and '40s. By the end of World War II, there was a tournament lined up for every week from January through mid-April, $10,000 was set as the minimum prize money for a tournament, and there was some talk (as there still is) of setting up one schedule of tournaments to be played in even-numbered years and another totally different schedule for the odd-numbered years in order to satisfy all the groups and individuals who wished to be golf sponsors.
The voluntary migrants traveling circuit this winter are shooting for a new record total of some $215,000 in prize money in 15 tournaments, and what with the way golf is galloping these days, purses should continue to grow for quite a few seasons. If they do, it will be a very salutary thing, for the fiscal advantages of being a touring pro have in reality a lot less of the golden glow than most people think. The golf fan in snowbound Montpelier sees in his morning paper where Gene Littler, by winning the Phoenix Open, has picked up $2,400 for four days of play (as opposed to work) beneath the kindly Arizona sun. This is nice pickings, all right, but to give the picture its proper proportions, it should also be mentioned that of the 200 to 250 circuit golfers who follow the sun (and occasionally the dust and the rain), only the top six hit the real money, only the top dozen or so clear their expenses, and the rest of the boys have to settle for calling it a "valuable experience," a handy phrase to fall back on when you are trying to salvage something from an exhausting effort that has been fundamentally disappointing.
FAST, HARD TRACKS
If there is one major respect in which circuit golf differs from championship golf, it is the type of course the tournaments are played on. For the most part the circuit "tracks," as the pros call them in their proud patois, are relatively short and play much shorter than their yardage, since their fairways have been baked hard by the sun. Usually there is plenty of room in which to spray your tee shot with relative impunity, and so you can bang the drive for all you are worth. Usually the greens are as devoid of undulation as an ironing board, so you can pitch and putt boldly. The El Rio layout, the scene of the Tucson Open, presents a particularly curious aspect for a golf course. The tees and greens are green patches at the ends of Bermuda-grass fairways which have been bleached the color of a sand trap. Instead of the conventional rough, the area between fairways is an expanse of black-brown dirt interrupted by clusters of tamarack trees and cottonwoods. Arriving from Phoenix, the previous stop on the tour, Marty Furgol parked his car at the clubhouse, walked four holes and then, announcing that "this isn't my kind of track at all," got back into his car and drove on to San Antonio, the next stop. It was a gesture in the grand tradition of Clayton Heafner, that really irascible man, who a few years back made the entire winter swing but was so disgusted by the aspect and condition of most of the courses that he usually kept right on traveling and actually entered only a quarter of the tournaments.
Circuit golf, it follows, tends to develop a special breed of player—men like Doug Ford and Ted Kroll, to name two who come quickly to mind—who are specialists in three clubs, the driver, the wedge and the putter. With this limited armory and their keen competitive edge, they perform the prodigies of scoring that have long been synonymous with the winter tour. Whereas a 72 still constitutes a fine round on a championship course like the Augusta National, a player who goes over 70 on a typical circuit course is apt to brood silently in the locker room until he has digested that unhappy fact, and with good reason, too: every year the number of capable pros increases and today, to insure yourself a visible chunk of the prize money at most circuit tournaments, you must average no higher than 69 for your four rounds. At the Tucson Open, for example, Ed Furgol led off with a 76, and though he followed it with a remarkable burst of 67, 66, 67, he still finished no better than a tie for ninth place, good for only $390 in that $10,000 affair.
A fortnight ago, over the 6,400-yard par-71 Brackenridge Park course in San Antonio, a municipal course so worn by constant traffic that the players drive off rubber mats, the most amazing scoring spree of the current tour took place. Mike Souchak, who last year was just another long hitter but is today a very handsome golfer indeed, won the Texas Open there with rounds of 60, 68, 64, 65. This adds up to 257 blows, the lowest aggregate for four rounds ever recorded in a PGA tournament. As for Mike's opening salvo of 60, which tied the record low score for 18 holes in an official competition, it was composed of a so-so 33 going out and a 27 coming back which not only smashed all PGA marks for nine holes but must surely be, whether or not all the returns are in from the Moscow Country Club, a world's record.
Mike did it this way. On the 10th, a fairly rugged par three some 180 yards long, he hit a six-iron about 14 feet from the pin and holed the putt. He played the 11th and 12th comparatively loosely—that is, he had to settle for two orthodox pars, his only pars on that nine. Then Mike began to roll. On the 13th, 520-yard par five: a lengthy drive, a superb three-wood, a five-foot putt—an eagle three. On the 14th, 370-yard par four: a drive that left him a foot short of the trap before the green, a niblick chip which he almost holed, the kick-in putt—birdie three. On to the 15th, a par four, 385 yards long: drive, niblick, an eight-footer—birdie three. The 16th, 375 yards: a four-wood off the tee, an eight-iron five feet from the cup, the putt—birdie three. Then the 17th, another brief par four, 360 yards long: same old sequence—a long straight drive, a chip with the niblick, a 12-footer for the bird. And then on to the 18th, with Mike standing 10 under par for the round, and seven under after eight holes on the back nine.