Professional golfers hate distractions, but last week they made their annual pilgrimage to that biggest distraction of all, Las Vegas. There the girls beside the swimming pools peered at all the Palmers, while the Palmers tried not to peer back; the galleries cheered with that special kind of enthusiasm a crowd works up when it is backing its favorites with both hot spirits and cold cash; and the bookies, doping out the morning line, worked manfully to find out which champion had been up how late in whose casino playing what games. By Sunday evening, when golf's Tournament of Champions was over, every player in the field would have been relaxed, delighted and carefree had it not been for his thoughts about the one man who is both undistractable and almost unbeatable, Jack Nicklaus. On opening day Nicklaus had shot a 64 that broke the course record at the Desert Inn Country Club. By Saturday he was such a prohibitive favorite that it was hard to place a sensible bet on him in bet-mad Vegas. And by Sunday he was in with a 273, had beaten the field by five strokes (and par by 15) and had won himself (ho-hum) 13,000 more dollars. Still, it was the kind of formful performance that bookmakers appreciate, even if Palmer, Player, Casper, Lema, etc. do not, and this is the one golf tournament where it is quite fitting not to upset the bookies.
Although the Tournament of Champions, born in an era when golf purses were penny ante by today's lush standards, is far from the tournament of the year, it is still a treat for the pros. The $13,000 first prize makes nice walking-around money for chaps like Nicklaus and Palmer, but the main attraction is a pleasant weekend of golf on the cuff, so to speak. The Desert Inn provides free room and board for the contestants and their wives and, to qualify, a player merely has to win one of the 47 tournaments recognized as official by the PGA. The minimum prize of $1,000 is a unique and attractive distinction that adds, somewhat more than subtly, to the pleasure of the occasion, too—even for today's Cadillac-oriented athletes.
This year's field numbered only 27 players, largely because Palmer had won seven of the tournaments over the past year and Nicklaus five. (Jack Burke Jr., winner of the Lucky International, sent the only regrets. He doesn't believe in mixing gambling and golf.) With such a small field, it is possible to play each round rapidly with twosomes. Thus first pairings don't tee off until after lunch, leaving the golfers ample opportunity to catch the nightly shows along the Vegas Strip and dally afterward at the gaming tables. One of the big attractions during the past two years has been the sight of Palmer dealing blackjack in the Desert Inn Casino, and other lively spirits, less well oriented than Palmer, are inclined to leave at least part of their winnings in the Vegas vaults.
All this is so foreign to the usual pressures of a golf tournament that Dave Ragan and his wife, Joan, found themselves standing idly around the Desert Inn lounge one midnight with Dave complaining, "This is the funniest feeling. I don't have to tee off for 14 hours. I don't know what to do with myself." The fact that Dave shot himself out of contention the next afternoon with a 77 demonstrates the hazard of upsetting old habits.
Las Vegas takes a justifiable smalltown pride in its tournament, which is the major tourist attraction of the year for the city. It dresses each of its contestants in a well-tailored white jacket with the Tournament of Champions emblem on the pocket. This alone makes the healthy young golfers a conspicuous sight in the casinos, where most visitors dress in one of two ways: either as if they were about to go to bed, or as if they planned to spend the day rummaging through the junk in the attic.
What really separates Vegas from other tournaments, however, is the gambling. During its first seven years the Tournament of Champions operated what probably was the largest golf Calcutta in history, with the pot running as high as $380,000. But after Mike Souchak's victory in 1959, the PGA began to frown on the publicity that all this activity was attracting, so the word went out to muffle the big action or lose the tournament. The Calcutta went underground, where only the guys and dolls in the know could find it. In addition, the "oddsmakers" who operate the local sports books were advised to confine their business activities to their stores on the Strip and in downtown Vegas. During the last four years these gentlemen have been more and more circumspect, to the point where Jimmie (The Greek) Snyder was able to say last week: "This is the cleanest tournament they've ever had." On the course betting was nil.
Jimmie Snyder is a big, swarthy gambler who migrated to Las Vegas in the mid-'50s and eventually became one of its fixtures in the high science of operating a sports book. A friendly fellow who means nobody any harm, Jimmie has been making book on the Tournament of Champions for the last seven years, and this year was no exception. The big difference is that since the tournament began scrubbing off the patina of gambling, Jimmie and the representatives of the five other sports books have had to take their betting action at the office each morning and spend their afternoons sitting in front of the Desert Inn clubhouse, following the golfing action as it is registered on the giant scoreboard alongside the 18th green.
Nonetheless, the oddsmakers still take their work very seriously and, as a result, the Tournament of Champions is the only major golf function throughout the year where a spectator can match his wits against the nonsentimentalists who try to make a living out of predicting the uncertainties of the game. As they sit in a little row of three or four and catalog the progress of each day's play, Jimmie and his colleagues confine their conversation strictly to business.
"That Ford," one of them will say as a bogey goes up on the board opposite Doug Ford's name. "Ford is dead. Jimmie, that Ford is no good."
Snyder and his rivals do most of their business in two ways. Before the tournament begins, they handicap everyone in the field—win, place and show. Then, after each day's play, they adjust the odds to the new circumstances.
Saturday morning, after Nicklaus had built up what appeared to be an insurmountable five-stroke lead during the first two rounds, the book on the tournament winner went as limp as a jellyfish. Arnold Palmer, who had been 2 to 1 on Friday, rose to 7 to 2, and he was the shortest price in the field next to Nicklaus, who was by then such an overwhelming favorite that some bookies would not even quote odds on him. Raymond Floyd, the young touring pro who had won the St. Petersburg Open but had scarcely figured in the money elsewhere during the year, had opened as the longest shot in the field at 50 to 1. By Saturday he was at 5,000 to 1, and Al Geiberger, a somewhat more seasoned young player, had soared to 8,000 to 1.
As interest in betting the tournament winner decreases, Vegas bettors incline more toward head-to-head action, picking one player against another in any of the day's twosomes. These bets are made on a five-to-six pick basis; you put up $6 to win $5, which is the professional gambler's equivalent of even money. On perhaps half of these matches, Snyder and his colleagues from the other books will handicap the pairings. For instance, on opening day Palmer was rated a stroke and a half better than Bobby Nichols, Nicklaus was a stroke and a half over Lionel Hebert, and Gary Player a half stroke over Bob Goalby despite the fact that Gary had just had four impacted wisdom teeth removed and was far from fit.
This head-to-head handicapping can be a precarious business, and the odds-makers are a long way from reducing it to an exact science. Before the tournament begins they try to evaluate the players' performances in the previous four tournaments, and the closest they have come to a formula is to give a player one point for a round under par, nothing for even par and one minus point for a round over par. Exceedingly low or exceedingly high rounds may get a bonus of a half point or more. "I figure if a guy has been playing well before he arrives here," Snyder explains, "he'll keep on playing well." Nothing in the long history of competitive golf bears out this seemingly plausible theory.
Another handicapping system used by Snyder and his friends once the tournament gets under way might be described as the rhythm method. Men who make book on sports are accustomed to watching a news ticker for results, and after years of practice they become familiar with the speed of the game. If an inning in a baseball game begins to drag—this is apparent when the score doesn't come on the ticker—they can pretty well predict the amount of trouble the pitcher is in. Watching the scoreboard at the Tournament of Champions, Snyder believes he can tell as much about the way a golfer is playing as if he were his caddie. If it is taking a long while between holes, and the scores come up as bogeys, Snyder presumes that the golfer is losing his touch. He keeps this in mind each night as he goes back to his office at the Vegas Turf and Sports club where he prepares the next day's odds and handicaps.
There are pitfalls to handicapping which, much as he tries, Snyder has trouble avoiding. One is the average tournament golfer's tendency to complain about his aches and pains. "Those aches and pains," Snyder protested bitterly on Saturday. "I wish I could forget them. Take this Casper. He comes out here saying he's got a bad back, and he's been sick, and he's hurt his hand. So he shoots a 70 the first day and falls six strokes back of Nicklaus, and I raise him from 8 to 20. Then he goes out and shoots a couple of 69s, and now he's back in the tournament, and I've got to move him back to 12 to 1. If he hadn't missed a couple of little putts today, he'd only be a couple strokes behind. That kind of thing can kill you." (It killed Casper, too. Only two strokes back of Nicklaus, he had to quit on the 9th hole Sunday when his hand became badly swollen.)
Nor is it possible to make allowances for the kind of thing that can happen to a golfer's concentration in Las Vegas. Johnny Pott was walking down the third fairway Thursday when Singer Keely Smith appeared in the front yard of her home—it adjoins the course—wearing the briefest of bikinis.
Rumors are another of the occupational hazards of Jimmie Snyder's profession, and in a compact atmosphere like the Vegas Strip rumors are as plentiful as $5 chips. Among those that kept Snyder off balance last week was one that Raymond Floyd was having too good a time on his first trip to Vegas. Snyder thereupon handicapped Bobby Nichols, who was playing poorly, by half a stroke in his match with Floyd. So young Raymond tottered out to the course the next day and shot a 68. Then there was the report that Palmer and a friend had pushed each other into the Desert Inn swimming pool the night before. There was the worry, too, over how the honeymooning Tony Lema would react to marriage, and the talk of Bill Collins' bad back, and the fact that Jack Nicklaus' wife, Barbara, had arrived on the scene after her recent accouchement. All these items had to be processed through Snyder's own personal and very human Univac.
Fortunately, there are occasional compensations for the rumors. "You take Gary Player," Snyder says. "I've talked to him several times here, and he strikes me as a very frank and reliable fellow. I guess it's something to do with the British in him. But if you ask him something, he'll always try to give you an honest answer. I like that."
Although an oddsmaker has to be careful not to let his sentiments interfere with his business judgment, Snyder has a particular affection for 47-year-old Jerry Barber. As a long shot, Barber won the 1960 Tournament of Champions and thereby produced a very profitable week for the books. Sitting in front of the hedge at the Desert Inn one afternoon last week ("I always like to keep the hedge behind me, then nobody can sneak up"), Snyder said to one of his fellow board-watchers: "The old man played the course beautifully. I'll tell you one thing, if the rough is short, the old man will do just fine. The only thing is, he's not quite strong enough to make the big shot out of long grass."
When Nicklaus sank the winning putt on Sunday afternoon, it was, in a sense the end of an era, for Jimmie Snyder had made his last book on the Tournament of Champions. Caught in the crossfire of Bobby Kennedy's war against Jimmy Hoffa, Snyder recently was indicted by the Federal Government for some offenses involving interstate operations, and he plans to retire to a more pedestrian career on the first of June. It's not that Jimmie could seriously be considered to be undermining the moral fiber of the nation, but the Attorney General of the U.S. has had agents by the hundreds sifting through every piece of paper in Las Vegas in his efforts to pin the donkey's tail on Hoffa, who has been pouring Teamster funds into the area. Snyder was just a minnow that happened to be boated during the Department of Justice's angling expedition.
Sitting in his chair in front of the hedge and watching the scoreboard last weekend, Snyder listened patiently and sadly while a friend gurgled over the dozens of comely young ladies traipsing past in their dazzling skintight Vegas finery.
"There must be more tasty dishes trotting around this golf course right now than anywhere else in the world," said the man.
"Yeah," Jimmie answered dourly. "Almost as many as there are FBI men and revenue agents." And then he picked up a small piece of cardboard that was lying on the grass alongside his chair. "When I leave here after the tournament," he said, "this is the sign I'm going to put where I've always sat."
Printed on the sign in large-letters were the words: "Gone fishin'."
Arnold Palmer stands on the tee and, for a few seconds at least, all eyes are on only him.
Fiddlers provide soft music at the Desert inn, where bettors must also face the hard facts.
Jimmie the Greek notes a player's performance at the last golf event he will ever book.