As has been their custom since 1926, the once and future kings of professional golf assembled in all their alligator-shoe and cashmere-sweater splendor in Los Angeles last week to open another year on the pro golf tour. The king of kings, Arnold Palmer, was there, fresh from his duties as Grand Marshal of the Tournament of Roses, at which he dispensed smiles, fellowship, good will and an occasional Life Saver (having taken up Life Savers to help prevent a feared smoking relapse). So was not-so-portly Billy Casper, announcing that a new diet had helped him take strokes off his game as well as inches off his middle; lean and damaged Tony Lema, cured of the back ailment that had forced him to stop playing in November but now sporting an elastic bandage on a sore wrist; and that contented United States Open champion, Ken Venturi, who had to be asking himself: Now that you are a Comeback King, where do you go?
At immediate stake and of immediate interest to all the big money winners—only Jack Nicklaus (see page 49) was missing—was the $70,000 purse of the Los Angeles Open and the opportunity to get a fast start on what they assume will be their fair share of the numbing total of $3.25 million to be won on the PGA tour this year. This gargantuan sum is an increase of 18% over 1964 (and don't think about how large an increase it is over the wildest dreams of old John Wanamaker, the department store man who in 1916 announced he would put up prize money for a golf tournament open to professionals only and thus, in effect, launched the PGA. It is sufficient comment on the status of the pro golfers of that era that the fledgling PGA had to write Mr. Wanamaker a few months later "regarding the inability of members to get a supply of golf balls when needed, when at the same time a supply could be had at the store's retail department").
But if it was obvious at Los Angeles that the future of pro golf had never been brighter and the rewards never greater, it was also evident that the struggle to partake had never been tougher. When they thought about that $3.25 million figure, all the golfers from Moody Mountain, Me. to Dinkey Creek, Calif. who had ever broken 80 wondered if it might not pay to pack their mashies and head for the tour. As a result, an unprecedented number of rookies attempted to qualify for the L.A. Open, and the most interesting story there became the one of the rabbits, as the pros who have got it made call the pros who haven't.
The tour rookie has become a problem on several counts. The PGA has long felt that, once certain stipulations are met regarding financial backing and quality of play, the right to try to qualify for a pro tournament is as inalienable as the right to three-putt. So it has set no limit on the number of players it will approve for the tour. It has often discussed the possibility of a kind of minor league tour for rookies but is loth for many reasons to start one. Thus the pro golf rookie, playing a pressure-filled game, finds himself roughly in the position of a baseball amateur trying to break into the Yankee infield while watching countless other fellows attempt the same thing. Even to get into tournaments the rookie must week after week fight odds something like those at Los Angeles, where more than 200 rabbits competed for the 19 open spots that remained in the field. The list of the top 50 money winners in 1964 reveals a lot about the rookie's chances. The average age of the 50 most successful earners is a well-experienced 33. Only two rookies managed to make the list at all—Dick Sikes, who finished 23rd by winning $23,353, and Chuck Courtney, who was 38th, winning $19,668.
To tell the story of a typical rookie, one who seemed no better or worse than a host of others, SPORTS ILLUSTRATED decided early last week to follow the fate of the young man pictured at left. He is George C. Blocker Jr.—Chris to his friends—a rangy country boy from Jal, N. Mex. Now 25, he has four years of college and two years of the Army behind him, but none of this has removed the sagebrush from his speech or manner. He fits the mold of the modern pro, big and handsome and pleasant and ready to tug a forelock in front of a TV camera. ("They all look and talk like cowboy heroes," said a woman in the Los Angeles gallery who was seeing her first tournament.) He moves down the fairway with the long, bowlegged stride of a plainsman. His brow is furrowed, as befits a man of the Southwest. But he is also, in tour terms, a rabbit's rabbit, for until last week he had never played as a pro in a major tournament. "For five years," he says, "'this has been my ambition—to play pro golf on the tour. I might have made it earlier, but I wasn't ready. I hadn't had the experience. I wasn't mature enough. Now I think I'm ready. I can go out there and hit the ball without bein' scared to death. I didn't want to come out here and be a big old flop."
He has been a long time trying to insure that he will not flop. The son of a wholesale gasoline jobber, he has played tournament golf since high school. When he was 17, he reached the finals of the New Mexico Amateur and was good enough to get a golf scholarship to Texas Tech. In 1958 he won the New Mexico Open as an amateur, and he reached the third round of the U.S. Amateur in 1959. This was followed by other nice, if not startling, achievements. In 1962 he went into the Army, and he spent a lot of time driving colonels around Italy. Fortunately, some of the colonels liked to play golf and were broad-minded enough on occasion to include a specialist 4th class in their foursome, particularly one who could break par. During this period Blocker played in two British Amateur championships and did fairly well, going as far as the fourth round in 1963.
By last August, Blocker was out of uniform and, after a brief attempt at trying college again, he turned pro. In November he decided to fill out his application for Approved Tournament Player status, the first step toward going on the tour. This ATP status is the one under which about 125 of the 200 touring pros play. They must keep their cards active for five years before they can become full members of the PGA. This is not necessarily easy, for their performance is reviewed twice a year and the card can be taken away. In 1964 the PGA revoked the cards of 56 players, thus barring them from the tour.
When it comes to inquisitiveness about the private lives of potential members, the PGA has much in common with the CIA. After years of complaints from choleric sponsors and irate hotelkeepers about fast-moving golfers whose checks bounced farther than their drives, the PGA has started investigating applicants thoroughly. It wants to know about their education, their family background, their personal habits, the size of their bank accounts and, almost incidentally, how they hit a golf ball.
After filling out the required form, Chris Blocker had to play test rounds with two PGA club pros, who submitted the required letters of recommendation. His bank wrote another letter swearing he had the funds to carry him through at least six months of the tour, estimating that a single man can get by on $250 a week. The money Blocker had saved while in the Army plus what his father guaranteed was actually enough to last him a year. All this paperwork was sent to the PGA Headquarters in Dunedin, Fla., where copies were made and mailed to the members of a nine-man screening committee.
This committee consists of five full-time PGA officials and four players, who at this time arc Dave Marr, Johnny Pott, Tommy Jacobs and Casper. Each examines his copy of the application separately and casts his vote of approval or disapproval without consulting the others. If there is one no vote the application is returned to the committee with the reasons for the blackball. A second try is made, in which six aye votes will pass the man, but that is the last chance. The vote in Chris Blocker's favor was unanimous, and he got the good news on December 20.
Meanwhile, Jay McClure, a pro for whom Chris had been working in Lubbock, Texas, let the local Spalding representative know that Chris, who had been using Spalding equipment for some years, would probably join the tour in January. Spalding signed him up as a staff member—which means free golf clubs, a free bag and an ample supply of balls (important, even as it was in Wanamaker's day, since the average pro uses 750 a year). The local Foot-Joy man in West Texas got the word, too, and came through with a couple of pairs of shoes. Blocker phoned Fred Hawkins, a veteran playing pro who lives in El Paso and is on the staff of Izod, and Hawkins said he would see what he could do about getting some shirts and sweaters for the rookie. Finally, Chris bought himself a new Dodge four-door sedan capable of carrying all his equipment—which was plenty. When he set out for Los Angeles, he had the car loaded with his golf bag, six dozen new balls, two dozen sport shirts, 20 pairs of slacks, five pairs of golf shoes, two business suits, three sport jackets and 10 dress shirts. He arrived in Los Angeles on January 2, two days before he had to try to qualify for the L.A. Open, and went straight to a cousin's house where he stayed several nights.
Neither a Class A membership in the PGA nor an ATP card guarantees a golfer one of the 144 starting places in the normal tour tournament. To begin with, something like 90 or 100 of the 144 places belong to those with various kinds of exemptions, such as being one of the top 50 money winners of the previous year. In addition, anyone who "made the cut" in the preceding PGA tournament—i.e., was among the 70 golfers whose scores on the first two days were low enough to qualify them for the final 36 holes—is automatically eligible. The rest must play an 18-hole qualifying round on the Monday prior to the tournament to obtain the positions available after all of the exemptions have been taken care of. Sometimes as many as 50 places are open, but at Los Angeles there were just 19.
The Rancho Golf Course, the public course where the Open is played, is closed to all but contestants during the tournament week, so Chris Blocker found that his first pro golf test, the Monday qualifying round, would not even get him to a PGA tournament site. He and a thicketful of other rabbits assembled at another course, Hillcrest Country Club, and there Blocker started his touring career by shooting an excellent 69. It was the second lowest qualifying score of the day, and at last he was officially in the L.A. Open.
He accepted his small success casually enough, and seemed self-possessed at the Rancho course two days later when he was asked what it felt like to be strolling through a clubhouse beside a Palmer, Casper or Venturi.
"Oh, this is purty nice out here," he said. "You see a lot of class people, like over there is Jim Garner, the fella on television. We don't have much in the way of that kind of people down home. Of course, I've got plenty to learn about playing on courses like this. Those courses down where I live, they's jest a lot of grass spread out across the plains and jest nothing but flat land and a few sand traps and maybe 50 trees. I'll be lucky if I can jest pick up a little change until I get used to all this." It all sounded pretty folksy and certainly was sincere, and you might have found yourself wanting to suggest to this poor young rookie that he get back to New Mexico before somebody hurt his feelings. And then you remembered that he had tramped his way through some very big amateur tournaments at some very posh places—Saint-Nom-La-Bret√®che in France, St. Andrews in Scotland, Broad-moor in Colorado Springs and Canterbury in Cleveland—and you decided he probably could find his way around a Los Angeles municipal course, even if Arnold Palmer and his buddies were playing it at the same time. This proved to be sound reasoning.
At 8:28 on Friday morning, Blocker teed off. It was cold, damp and bleak. He was playing with another rabbit and an amateur, and before a gallery of zero. His dress looked professional enough—and why not, with that carload of pants and shirts?—but every time he followed through he exposed a section of bare midriff that somehow said rookie country boy. He was not exactly nervous, but for the first six holes he was afraid to let out on his drives and kept steering them. Then he told himself, "I've got to get back to hitting the ball, get my timing back." His drives began traveling anywhere from 250 to more than 300 yards. Unlike most green young pros who hit the ball from a closed stance to see how far it will go (but know not where), Blocker swings from an open stance and moves the ball from left to right. That is where the control is, something that can take years to learn.
Before he settled down, Blocker bogeyed the 2nd and 6th holes to go two over par, but he birdied 8 and 9 to make the turn in even par 36, and he finished with a respectable one-over-par 72. He could look at the board where names were listed under scores, and there under 72 was Chris Blocker right along with Arnold Palmer, who had shot the same. It was something to think about.
On Saturday, in the tournament's second round, Blocker started with a birdie 3, and right away, as he said afterward, "I began to feel good." Three birdies and three bogeys later, he stood on the 18th green and sank a tricky putt that gave him a 69, two under par for the day. By that time he had acquired an enthusiastic gallery of at least 10 people.
But he had also accomplished considerably more, for he had gotten off to about as good a start as any rookie could hope for: his 141 total put him just three strokes behind the leaders, Bill Casper and Dan Sikes, and four strokes ahead of Arnold Palmer; he had made the cut, thus automatically qualifying for next week's tour tournament, the $34,500 San Diego Open; and he had a chance to win some money.
On Sunday he found himself playing with Tony Lema, decidedly a nonrabbit. There was a real gallery, even if it was not exactly an Army and not precisely there to watch Chris Blocker, and he now had a shirt that covered his midriff. Undaunted by the company, he shot a 71, one stroke lower than Lema, and tied for sixth. By now he was not a typical rookie at all. "Who is this Blocker?" asked Bruce Devlin. "I don't think there are any weak spots in the kid's game," said Lema. If there are, Blocker hid them pretty well on the last day, too. At one point he was threatening the leaders, and when he finally came in with a 73 he was tied for 13th and only nine strokes behind winner Paul Harney. He received a check for $1,400, which is $1,400 that Chris Blocker will never forget, and off he went to San Diego, a mighty fast rabbit on a $3.25 million run.
MEETING PALMER in Rancho pro shop, Rabbit Blocker is relaxed but impressed, while King Arnold—working on a club grip—is cordial.
MEETING PALMER on the scoreboard can be even more important. Blocker did it on his very first round on the PGA tour by shooting a 72.