Golf's richest first prize—the juicy $25,000 check shown above—was handed to Gene Littler last Sunday afternoon at the Upper Montclair (N.J.) Country Club, thus bringing a fitting financial conclusion to what had become an intriguing, and somewhat perilous, sporting venture. Gene, of course, didn't even change his expression; he never does. "It's the biggest check I ever won," he told the assembled sponsors of the Thunderbird Classic Invitational, who had put up a grand total of $100,000 in prize money as a low-key promotion pitch for the Newark District Ford Dealers Association. "I like the trend."
Oddly enough, this was the first big-time golf that the New York area had seen—except on television—in three whole years. And it was a wonderful tournament, handsomely produced and excitingly played. Sam Snead, that old man whose instincts are fastest when the money is biggest, moved to the front briefly on the second day with a very fine 66, six under par. On the third day Jack Nicklaus bettered this by a stroke with a 65, knocking in 10 birdies in the final 14 holes after three-putting the first three greens. For a moment it looked as if Jack, who was then tied for the lead with Dow Finsterwald, might win his first tournament after scarcely more than five months as a pro.
On the final day, however, Littler, who had been playing the same kind of effortless and consistently brilliant golf he had shown earlier in the year, brought home a magnificent 67 for a 72-hole total of 275—13 under par. Nicklaus, who finished two strokes behind Littler, took the runner-up check of $10,000 and Finsterwald finally tied for third with Wes Ellis Jr.
As a prelude to next week's Open championship at Oakmont, the Thunderbird brought speculation that Littler was in just the right shape to defend his title. Asked what he thought his chances were, he replied, "Nil." Asked why, he said in his self-deprecatory manner, "There's too much dog in me." But Sunday afternoon at Upper Montclair his fellow pros were calling him a wealthy dog.
There are two schools of thought among leading professional golfers on the wisdom of playing a tournament in the week before the U.S. Open. One believes the week should be religiously and rigorously devoted to practice rounds and a study of the contours of the course where the Open is going to be played. The other group holds that a final tune-up in competition whets the mind and muscles. But this year the two schools were united, cemented by the new Thunderbird's $100,000 prize purse—a sum so round it warmed the hearts and perhaps dampened the palms of all the touring pros. Even so rich a golfer as Arnold Palmer was not about to disregard a first prize of $25,000. "Who's going to pass up that kind of money?" he said some months ago when asked if he would enter the Thunderbird. As events turned out, he should have stayed at home. He got only $460 for finishing a sad 35th, and then he cut his hand unloading his baggage Sunday night, a three-stitch injury that could affect his play in the Open.
In the past only three golf tournaments have ever put up a prize equal to Thunderbird's hundred grand. One was the now defunct World Championship of Golf, a promotion by the late George S. May at his garish Tarn O'Shanter Country Club outside Chicago that lasted from 1954 to 1957. The others were the 1960 Palm Springs Desert Classic and this year's Masters.
When the idea for the Thunderbird was first seriously discussed a scant 10 months ago, there was agreement on the need for a powerful stimulus, such as a $100,000 purse. New Yorkers and their suburban neighbors are tough and jaded customers who like to believe they won't watch anything that's not first class. Sometimes, as it turned out, they won't watch even then. Craig Wood, a onetime Masters champion and one of the best pro golfers of the 1930s, knew this as well as anyone, since Craig is a New Yorker himself. Even so, it was the plan of Wood, by now a Ford dealer in Asbury Park, N.J., and his fellow Ford dealer, Eugene Kroll of Long Branch, to sponsor a golf tournament for the New York area in the name of all their fellow Ford dealers.
The going was a little heavy at first. A lot of the dealers in the vicinity of New York City—presumably the non-golfing tennis players, bowlers and TV watchers—were not convinced a golf tournament would sell cars. However, selling cars was not the main concern of Wood and Kroll. They were interested in prestige. Golf is a "prestige" game, they argued. Ergo, a high-class golf tournament would heighten the prestige of the Ford dealers, to say nothing of all car dealers, in the area. "Building the dealer image" was the theme they kept running up the flagpole.
The first problem involved in promoting a $100,000 golf tournament is where to get the $100,000. Wood and Kroll had the answer to that one. Each Ford dealer is normally required to put between $13 and $20 into an advertising kitty every time he gets a car from Detroit, the selling price of the car determining the amount. Usually this money is spent by the Ford dealers of a particular area on billboards, radio and TV spot commercials and newspaper ads. Wood and Kroll wanted to take $100,000 or more out of this budget and apply it to the golf tournament as a form of institutional advertising. They felt that in a community of 11 million people a lot of potential customers would respond favorably.
The dealers, in what Ford technically knows as its Newark District—where the advertising pool will total about $1.5 million this year—liked the idea, and the PGA granted last week's playing dates. Now it was only a matter of finding a suitable golf course and the right people to tangle with the surprisingly complicated details of a major golf promotion.
Not many country clubs like to have the pros and their galleries tramping all over their premises for a week, so the only hope of finding a suitable private course for a tournament is to locate a club that is not averse to publicity, or to making a little money. Fortunately, Wood and. Kroll found just the golf course they needed in just the right spot—the Upper Montclair Country Club, located in Clifton, N.J., only 30 minutes of turnpike-type driving from mid-town Manhattan.
Since a pro golf tournament may make a profit for the host club of some $25,000 to $50,000 (it can lose money, too), a lot of Upper Montclair's members liked the idea. What's more, the Ford dealers agreed to cover any losses. When Jesse White, an enterprising and enthusiastic New Jersey chemical company owner, was elected club president last November he rallied the membership behind the idea. Thus the Ford dealers ended up with a fine Robert Trent Jones golf course, which easily ranked among the dozen or so best 18 holes that the pros would be likely to see all year.
The Ford dealers recognized that their golf tournament must be a very soft sell. Harold Galloway, the chairman of the Newark District Ford Dealers Association, put it this way: "We want people to think of us as good citizens, good business people in our community. We hope to let people know that auto dealers care about something besides automobiles. We are trying to make a better image in the community."
Gene Kroll added, "If people think more of us we'll sell more cars. You go to a store to buy a dress because the store has a good name. It's a name store. Our purpose in putting on this tournament is to build up our image as human beings. We have sunk low in the public's estimate. Once it was the thing to make cracks about minority groups, but that isn't allowed now. Now people make fun of us. If I meet a man on the street and he asks me what I do, I tell him I'm in real estate. I won't tell him I sell cars."
It was Kroll's idea to name the tournament after the Thunderbird car. "That's our prestige car," explains Galloway. "Golf since Eisenhower has developed as a participation sport and also as a tremendous spectator sport, and it's a sport that carries a lot of prestige. So we wanted to associate our tournament with the car that has the most prestige. Also, we figured the press would be more apt to use the word Thunderbird than the word Ford. It wouldn't sound quite so commercial." This ploy was not wholly successful. The Associated Press called the tournament rather abruptly the Classic and warned editors to leave Thunderbird out of the title or else delete the A.P. identification.
Inasmuch as the Thunderbird was strictly an advertising venture, the Ford dealers wanted to spend money, not make it. So they told the Upper Montclair CC to pick out a worthwhile charity with which to share the profits. The club chose MEND (Medicine to Eliminate Nerve and Muscle Disorders).
The club agreed that two-thirds of the net profits of the tournament would go to MEND, and the club could keep the remaining one-third for itself. And just in case there weren't any net profits, Club President White, who also became the tournament's general chairman, decided to stage a one-day pro-amateur event before the Thunderbird Classic began, all gate receipts to MEND.
Pro-am tournaments have grown into such a fad in recent years that some of them charge amateurs as much as $300 apiece for the privilege of playing golf in partnership with the name pros. In the case of the Thunderbird the amateur's fee was $100. Since 5,000 people paid $5 apiece to watch this rather ponderous event, the gate added up to a sizable contribution for MEND.
Because the Thunderbird Classic was the first major golf tournament to reach the New York area since the 1959 U.S. Open at Winged Foot, everyone anticipated that the golf-starved multitudes would swarm over the Upper Montclair course in unprecedented numbers. William Peto, the club member who chaired the admissions committee, at one point estimated that as many as 120,000 spectators might converge on Upper Montclair during the four-day period, with the Sunday crowd reaching as high as 45,000 to watch the finish. Although figures on golf attendance are elusive at best and imaginary at worst, it is unlikely that more than 22,000 people have ever watched a golf tournament on a single course on a single day. Nonetheless, the Thunderbird budget (see box) was predicated on a four-day crowd of 60,000—an average of 15,000 per day.
The work and enthusiasm so many of Upper Montclair CC's members poured into the tournament was typical for such golf ventures—and prodigious. Chairman White virtually abandoned his chemical business during the three months preceding the event. Among the various committee members were five company presidents, two vice-presidents, a judge, a sportscaster, the treasurer of a pharmaceutical company, the vice-president and dean of English at New York University and a stockbroker. The only paid member of the executive staff was Fred Corcoran, a veteran golf promoter and former director of the PGA tour who was called in for advice several months ago. "Five million dollars couldn't pay for the amount of work that has been done by the members," said Tournament Chairman G. Norman Widmark, a Newark lawyer. "You have $75,000-and $100,000-a-year men showing pros the locker room and acting as greeters."
As in most sports events, one of the most lucrative sources of revenue was the program, a slick-paper book running to 142 pages and carrying 95 pages of advertising, mostly from friendly local merchants. The members themselves rang doorbells to sell the ads at $600 a page. The program sold for $1 a copy. Other income was to come from the car-parking concession, 15% to 30% of the net profits of the food-and-drink concession and the food and liquor sales inside the clubhouse itself.
It was agreed in advance that the TV rights for the final hour of Sunday's play would be given to NBC-TV without charge so that the Ford dealers could buy the advertising time at a minimum rate. NBC thereupon sold them the time for $90,000, of which the parent Ford Motor Company of Detroit paid $65,-000. In addition, the Newark-area dealers spent $50,000 for radio, newspaper, local TV and billboard promotion.
Playing the soft-sell theme at an absolute pianissimo, the club and the Ford dealers kept the Thunderbird name and product as inconspicuous as possible on the club premises. An exception was a creamy new T-Bird that sat on the lawn just off the 18th green. It was being raffled at $1 a chance by seven local hospitals who were permitted to keep all the proceeds from their ticket sales, which topped $35,000. Over the big official scoreboard a sign proclaimed that this was the Thunderbird Classic, and in the driveway outside the club 25 brand-new T-Birds sat at the ready with pretty lady club members at the steering wheels ready to drive the contestants to their destinations. In a slight show of class consciousness two golfers got to keep their T-Birds throughout their stay—Palmer and Gary Player. All cars, of course, were provided by the local dealers.
New York, New York!
It was, all told, an orderly and excellent promotion designed to take advantage of the surging national interest in professional golf—but it could hardly be considered an unqualified success. New York sportswriters are fond of telling their readers that they live in a wonderful sports town, but this is a myth. The sad fact is that only about 30,000 paid to see the Thunderbird Classic in its four days (though the announced figure was 40,000). Its biggest crowd, Saturday's, barely reached 10,000, less than half what Augusta, Ga. (pop. 70,626) produced on the Saturday of its 1962 tournament.
The disappointing box-office revenue—estimated at $130,000—seemed to limit any hope of balancing the club's tournament budget without Ford dealer help. After taking a fast look at Sunday's cozy gallery, Dealer Kroll observed wryly that the tournament officials were trying to decide whether to inscribe the winner's $25,000 check, "Do not deposit until Labor Day," or just, "Insufficient funds." "We are all," he said sadly, "in a hanging mood."
When the preliminary figures were reviewed on Monday after the final stroke was struck in the Thunderbird Classic, it appeared that MEND had little but its proceeds from Wednesday's pro-am, $25,000, that local hospitals had their raffle cut, that the Upper Montclair CC had a freshly fertilized, heavily trampled golf course and that the Newark District Ford Dealers Association had paid about a quarter of a million dollars to improve its image.
But what's so wrong with all that? The fans who came saw a fine golf tournament, there's talk of another $100,000 Classic next year and Gene Littler can happily defend his U.S. Open title while whistling that couplet from an apt wine commercial: "What's the word? Thunderbird!"
TOP PRIZE CHANGES HANDS as the strong fingers of Thunderbird winner Littler (left) firmly accept the first-place check from the grip of pleased tournament promoter. Auto Man Gene Kroll.
AUTO DEALER KROLL (LEFT) AND CLUB PRESIDENT WHITE MEET BEFORE ONLY COMMERCIAL DISPLAY ALLOWED ON THE COURSE