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Golf is the only game which permits the spectators to mingle freely with the contestant, and this precipitates a rather remarkable change. The same man who would boo and snarl at his hero from the comfortable anonymity of the bleachers suddenly becomes docile and uncharacteristically sympathetic. There is a reason for this: we are a nation of congenital spectators, the transition from remote critic to virtual participant makes the galleryite feel uncomfortable, almost a trespasser, as if he were standing in center field with Mickey Mantle. This not only strips him of his anonymity, it also gives him a closeup look at how difficult it is and changes him incredibly from a derisive lout to a considerate, polite companion on a tour of the links. Occasionally, a galleryite will be heard to murmur gently, "He shoulda used a nine there," but always with genuine regret, never in the aggrieved tones of the $2 bettor whose horse just cantered. At last year's L.A. Open, a spectator on the rugged fifth hole shook his head as Mike Souchak pulled a two-iron from his bag for a long, uphill second shot. "Never make it with that," he warned. Souchak never changed expression, swung—and didn't make it, the ball striking a mound before the green. The crowd turned reproachfully on the advisor, right though he was. He had broken the code.
Of course, the first-tee gallery at Los Angeles will include a few bewildered chorus girls in net stockings, on hand to ballyhoo a Hollywood night club which is hosting a pre-tourney blowout for golfers and their wives. Conspicuously present, too, at the Los Angeles Open will be the portly trailer manufacturer, William MacDonald, who has maneuvered himself into the unique position where he bankrolls the tournament but has very little to say about it. MacDonald was lured into this spot two years ago (SI, Jan. 3, 1955) when the pros decided the longtime sponsor of the tourney, the Los Angeles Junior Chamber of Commerce, was not treating them with the respect they deserved. So MacDonald was lassoed into staging a rival tournament, and then everything was patched up—more or less. Now the Junior Chamber still runs and polices the tournament, but Bill MacDonald parks one of his gaudiest trailers hard by the first tee and plays lavish host to the important golfers, press and assorted celebrities who come to view the sport. For this he ponies up $25,000 a year and gets to play in a predate meet—which he does with more gusto than skill.
On the theory that golf alone would never drag the entertainment-jaded southern Californians away from their scented swimming pools, a pro-celebrity, one-day tournament precedes the serious Open play. Besides the buffooning MacDonald, characters like Leo Durocher are star attractions at these clambakes and, unlike the pros, they are not immune to ridicule. A skied shot by Leo usually brings the soothing gag from the gallery "Don't worry, Leo, Willie Mays'll get it." When UCLA Coach Red Sanders hits one behind a tree, he is usually advised to "Punt it out, Red." This year it is hoped Walter Hagen will be enticed into appearing—which would lend a unique touch of class that a dozen movie stars couldn't produce.
No one would think of showing up for the Open in Los Angeles in simple slacks and sweater. It is probably the one tournament where the spectators wear louder clothes than the players, and from a distance it sometimes looks like 15,000 Jimmy Demarets trailing down the fairways. It is the duffers' chance to wear their four-handicap raiment without having to live up to it on the greens. There are more Bermuda shorts with vermillion high stockings than there are at a Vassar lawn party, and enough alligator shoes with flaps on them to depopulate the swamps of Florida—if they were genuine.
This flashy crowd loves a flashy leader, and it is a rule of thumb at the L.A. Open that if there are 10,000 fans on the course, 9,000 follow the leader. No one is lonelier than an also-ran and even the great Hogan used to lose two-thirds of his audience—leaving him barely enough to frame a green—if he fell a few strokes off the pace. The pros get along remarkably well with their galleries. Middlecoff did once snarl at a crowd to get out of his way, because "I make my living this way," but this was an exception. They usually take their frustrations out on the press or cameramen. Since there are so many expensive cameras on the course, it is impossible for the golfer to tell amateur from pro and any clicking shutter usually results in a barrage of invective directed at the pressroom.
There is no longer any pretournament Calcutta from the L.A. Open, which cuts considerably into the winner's take-home pay, the practice being for the winning gambler to bestow a percentage on the swinger who won for him. For one thing, Rancho is a public golf course, and there is no home membership to stage the lottery. For another thing, Calcuttas have come into disrepute generally.
For some reason a golf crowd eats its head off—perhaps because of the unwonted fresh air. As a result, concessionaires strive to keep the maw filled by staggering candy-striped tents around the course, catering to the inner man. The queue at the Scotch-and-soda bar is sometimes a good two-iron shot long, but the briskest business is in that staple American sports diet of hot dogs and Cokes.
Movie stars are in abundance, yet they go largely unnoticed. Years ago it was not uncommon to see Humphrey Bogart take up a station at the 13th green at Riviera where he would watch each succeeding threesome each day until the tournament was over. Dean Martin and Tony Martin are usually under foot as are Danny Kaye and Dennis O'Keefe, a scratch player. It's a tribute to the obsessiveness of golf that its victims would rather get the autograph of the first-round leader than any other type of celebrity. Even Ted Williams went overlooked one year when he was gallerying with his buddy, Sam Snead.
But the fact is the Los Angeles Open is big league—not just another tournament but a premium open in terms of cash ($37,500), press coverage and audience (rich and style-conscious and with demonstrable impact nationally).
The aspiring pros, however, whether they arrive by new Cadillac with Michigan license plates still attesting their factory freshness or by family flivver with sandwiches in a shoe box, do not come west solely for the Los Angeles Open. The whole winter circuit of lucrative purses lies before them. On subsequent weeks the tour will wind aimlessly up and down California (the Crosby Open on the Monterey Peninsula at Monterey, the Caliente Open at Tijuana, Mex. and the Thunderbird Open at Palm Springs) before heading relentlessly eastward via Phoenix, Tucson, San Antonio and Houston.