But it is the Los Angeles Open which the golf seers from coast to coast scan most penetratingly for portents of things to come. Each year of late the handwriting on the scoreboard has been popularly regarded as the oracle which firms up the emergence of a new elite. Two years ago, when Gene Littler won the event, the words to the wise buzzed through the Schweppes fumes in the clubhouse that "the old guard is through." But Cary Middlecoff and other veterans went on to make most of the subsequent golf headlines that year. And last year Lloyd Mangrum won the event itself for the fourth time (one more than Hogan, two more than Snead) and threw the youth program shudderingly into reverse before it even got started.
Barometrically, the Los Angeles Open tells the golf world more than the subsequent far western tourneys. The Crosby Tournament is a firemen's picnic in which only the pro who finds his game has somehow managed to stay together through the first two rounds really tries to push through to win. The Caliente Open is too new and the course too untried to mean much. Several of the deep-winter opens are played on Wild West courses where only an occasional rattlesnake mars an otherwise all-serene approach from tee to green and the only golfing hazards are the primeval fairways. A score of 68, for example, is a mediocre round at Tucson and San Anton.
The touring pros who will congregate in Los Angeles next month are, like all specialists, most happy among themselves and talking shop. Although they are the most traveled of U.S. athletes, golfers don't know cities, or even countries; they just know courses. They meet each other in Los Angeles, but they may—if they spot a colleague who has been there recently—discuss the grass at West Palm Beach. They can get lost trying to find their way back to their motels. But they know every rock on the course they will play.
They buy oil wells with golf winnings, but the only geology with which they are familiar has to do with the rock formations of a sand trap and whether to putt or blast out. They don't know there is a quantum theory, but the physics of a golf swing is miraculously clear and logical to them. There are no chesty pro golfers. Victories are never that decisive. A wisp—sometimes one missed shot a round—divides the best from the worst. A haggard pro once described the atmospheric pressure around a championship green as "about what it is at 20 fathoms."
On top of this a golfer has a formidable opponent—himself. In all the mutations of the game of golf, from the early implements (which Sir Winston Churchill himself dubbed "ill suited to the purpose") to the hickory shaft, to the steel shaft and the multiplicity of wedges—the one immutable is the golfer himself. The plain fact is that many of today's near stars need an analyst more than they need a new putter. This will not stop them from tinkering hopelessly with their games or experimenting with new clubs. At the L. A. Open next month, Kansas Pro Paul O'Leary is expected to try a new, short putter designed by a Los Angeles amateur named Robert Donohue which is constructed to strike the ball on the green like a polo mallet and which is held between the legs as in croquet. If O'Leary one-putts several greens, golfers being what they are, all over the locker room players will be throwing out two-woods, to make room for the latest sure-shot oddity.
But whatever befalls the gilt and gaudy group with their alligator shoes and mink mitts on the woods, next month's Los Angeles Open should touch off the most extravagant season since the Hogan high-water mark. For the golf fan is a devout disciple of the cult of personality. In a sport where it's tough to outscare another golfer two days in a row, let alone two tournaments, the hero-hungry fans are looking imploringly at Los Angeles for the new superpro to give them something to strut and boast about and enjoy loudly and vicariously. That superpro may be on the top of the scoreboard at Los Angeles next month and—if the wind doesn't blow—he may even break 280.