On the morning of January 4, 1957, as the postdawn mist lifts slowly from the green hollows and eucalyptus hills of the Rancho Golf Course in Los Angeles, a young man in visored cap, practice-swishing a top-heavy club, will stand silhouetted against the morning sky. He will pause a minute and stare toward the shrouded fairway. Out there lies Torquemada—7,131 backbreaking yards of sapling-strewn torture. The rack.
The young man will draw a deep breath, then step purposefully to the teed-up ball. The club will be a stroboscope blur as it describes its arc into the ball. A resounding thwack will cut the chilly air, and the white sphere will streak out of sight into the veil of fog. The 1957 tournament golf season will be under way. For this will be the start of the 31st Los Angeles Open, the rich and venerable tournament which has since 1926 touched off for America's professional stars the annual quest for golf glory and money that will end some 40 cities (and million dollars in prize money) later.
The chances are that our young golfer—who is only one of 160 qualifiers and gets the first starting time because of his complete inconsequentialness—will long since have gone back to selling cars or repairing clubs in the pro shop by the time the 1957 tournament trail ends. But there is a chance, too, that he—or someone like him in the dew-cutters' brigade—will go on to become one of the famous first-tee silhouettes in golf history. It was in 1932, in this tournament, that a young man in ill-fitting slacks (with the hip pockets run together and his entire poke of $75 thrust deep in them) first took his stance on a pro-circuit tee. A month later he was back home in Texas, broke, but there would have been more than the official scorer and his fellow players on that tee in 1932 if the golf world had known what an historic occasion it was—the debut of Ben Hogan.
There may be a Ben Hogan (but not the original) teeing up with the sun at Los Angeles next month. But there will also be the current elite of the golf world, and the probability is they will cow the future Ben Hogan as thoroughly as MacDonald Smith, Leo Diegel and Joe Kirkwood did the old one in that vintage year, 1932.
The noon starting times, when the anticipated crowd of 25,000 will be out on the new municipal course across the street from 20th Century-Fox film studios, will not offer neophytes but the adored heroes of the game—Doug Ford, still playing as though the sheriff were after him; Cary Middlecoff, still agonizing over every shot like a new father trying to put a diaper on baby; Gene Littler, compact, poker faced, methodical; Tommy Bolt, a volcanic temper still bubbling close to the surface and threatening to erupt all over and leave the Pompeian ruins of a first-rate golf game; Ed Oliver, still peering around his belly to see his lie; Jackie Burke, curly haired, invulnerably boyish-looking but playing with the new confidence of a man who finally won two major tournaments (Masters, PGA); Jerry Barber, barely taller than his two-iron, desperately letting out the shaft on all shots just to stay on the same fairway with his threesomes, but deadly on the greens; Dutch Harrison, the ambling Ozark who looks as though he ought to have a black hat with bullet holes in it and a long-barreled hunting rifle instead of a golf club in his hand.
Although Rancho as a tournament course is not as grueling a test of golf as other earlier Los Angeles Open sites, notably Riviera, it has been made considerably tougher than it was last year. A wartime antiaircraft installation, it was taken over by the city in 1949 and will be beautiful and stern when the 2,500 new trees (900 of them planted in the last four months) grow up. For this tourney, its 6,642 yards have been lengthened by moving back the tees on four holes. Host Pro Charley Lacey, who learned his golf in England in the heyday of Henry Cotton and once carried Tommy Armour to the 36th green in a PGA semifinal match, thinks Rancho will test the mettle of the touring pros and produce another worthy winner for the tournament whose roll of champions reads almost like a Who's Who of golf (see below). "The winner will be one of the top 10 players," flatly predicts Lacey. "And if any wind is blowing at all, he will not break 280."
If the wind blows or the rain falls, it will spoil more than golf. It will spoil what is unquestionably a number-one spectator show. A southern California golf gallery is a democratic hodgepodge which will range from the truant-playing bank president to the lordly movie hero blindingly decked out in checked coat and smoked glasses and sporting his own chattering gallery of sycophants in billowing collars and suede shoes. It will even have a heavy smattering of truck drivers who normally play their golf on the rubber mats of city driving ranges.
It is a gallery as garish as Broadway and as noisy and uninhibited as an Elvis Presley fan club. It is also alive with misinformation. Everyone is an expert—particularly those who have only lately learned to tell a wood from an iron. The popular notion is that when Ben Hogan said "I never believe anything a gallery tells me," he was thinking about southern California.
It is a gallery which revels in disaster, and more than one chattering clump has been stampeded by the breathless—and erroneous—word that " Snead just took an eight!" or "Bolt just smashed his putter!" The town criers are abroad in force at the Los Angeles Open, happier than an old maid with a new spyglass.
On the other hand, a southern California golf gallery is never downbeat, and, unlike galleries at most other sports, there is no malevolence. A golf gallery is, in effect, a claque. Brilliant strokes always evoke rather unseemly enthusiasm while a missed putt or a nasty kick into a trap brings on looks of distress which make it appear that every heart in the crowd has just been broken.