The leading money-winner commands the most respect in golf," Jack Nicklaus was saying the other day. "It may not be right—making the leading money-winner the year's foremost golfer—but it's the way we evaluate ourselves. It is what the public is looking at, and it is the only yardstick we have that is printed in the newspapers every week. So it must be what the public is interested in."
Indeed it is; so much so, in fact, that last week the race to be the top money-winner of 1966 threatened to overshadow the best new professional golf tournament to come along in years. The event was the Houston Champions International, a tournament that has replaced the old Houston Classic and has moved some 20 miles out of town to the velvety fairways of Jimmy Demaret and Jackie Burke's new Champions Golf Club. Originally the event was scheduled for early May, but when a Texas-size deluge washed it out it was rescheduled for one of the final weeks of this dying season. With its enormous prizes—$21,000 to the winner, $13,000 for runner-up, $8,000 for third and then a gradually declining scale beyond the fourth-place money of $5,150—Houston seemed almost certain to determine whether Jack Nicklaus, who had won $110,221, could overtake Billy Casper, who had earned $120,747, in the golf tour's financial sweepstakes.
Fighting his game, and a swing that had suddenly deserted him, Nicklaus did not even come close. After four rounds of indifferent scoring by both men, they emerged at even-par 284 and in an inglorious tie for 19th place, which merely added $1,197 to their previous totals and left Casper with undisputed possession of golf's money crown.
As it turned out, the most interesting money move of the week was the one made by Arnold Palmer, who shook off the last-round jinx that has plagued him all year and won the Champions' $21,000 first prize. He did it in his last-gasp fashion of yore, sinking a 12-foot birdie putt on the final hole to overtake Gardner Dickinson. It had been so long since Arnold had made that kind of putt that not only he but his army had forgotten what it felt like. They all knew, however, what the rest of the back nine felt like—Palmer in a deep ravine at 13 and escaping with a par, Palmer bunkered at 14 and saving a par, Palmer bogeying 15 to lose his lead. And then came the must birdie at 18 that tied Dickinson, who minutes later bogeyed the same hole to lose by one stroke.
Palmer not only won, he showed some of his best golf in years and continued a hot streak that started in Australia and lasted more than a month, the Champions being his fourth fine tournament in a row. On Friday night, after a second-round 68, he casually asked if there was any way he could catch Casper in the money race. Told that there was not, he said, "Well, maybe I'll set an alltime record next year...more than $150,000." And he laughed—sort of.
His Champions win did, in fact, enable Palmer nearly to catch Nicklaus in the cash race. It raised Arnold's 1966 earnings to $110,467, a somehow unexpected total when you consider how many people have been assuming his career is in eclipse. But Casper was the uncatchable man at Houston, and, without a doubt, the 1966 golf season belongs to him.
Casper's ascension to the top rung of professional golf should come as no surprise to anyone who has followed his progress through the past decade. Only once in the last nine years has he finished out of the top four on the money list. That was in 1963, when an injury kept him out of action for the three lucrative summer months and he dropped to eleventh. In 1958, his fourth year as a playing pro, he was second to Arnold Palmer with the then plush total of more than $41,000 in winnings. In each of the last two years he has won more than $90,000 and finished third, once behind Nicklaus and Palmer and once behind Nicklaus and Tony Lema.
These impressive figures notwithstanding, the golfing public has appeared to regard Casper with an indifference rivaling the boredom with which they greet, say, Winchester Cathedral. Were it not for such offstage irrelevancies as his anti-allergy diet of buffalo hamburgers and hippopotamus steak and his recent conversion to Mormonism, Casper might still be a relatively obscure figure in a sport that belongs to the more flamboyant personalities of Palmer, Nicklaus and Gary Player. Yet, in his quiet, workaday way, Casper is the only one of the four who has twice won the ultimate prize of American golf, the USGA Open championship. And his lifetime winnings of just under $600,000 are second only to Palmer's three-quarters of a million.
Casper, it might be said, plays Gielgud to Palmer's Olivier. The subtle perfection of his performance never sets a gallery on edge, as do the hair-raising escapades of a Palmer seeking salvation in the face of imminent disaster or a Nicklaus with his feats of nearly superhuman strength and power. Even when his game is off", as it most assuredly was in Houston last week, Casper will call on his deep reserves of technique and cozy the ball around a golf course so unobtrusively that you scarcely know whether he is breaking the course record or failing to break 100.
Casper arrived at Houston after a two-week layoff, following an exhibition tour of Australia and a second-place finish in the Hawaiian Open. At home in San Diego he scarcely touched a club. He started the tournament after only a couple of practice rounds on a terribly demanding course he had never seen before. "I just don't have much feel in my clubs," he said after his first three rounds of 69, 70 and 73—a total of one under par that left him in a tie for 19th. "I still don't feel comfortable when I stand over the ball, but that sort of thing always happens when you haven't been playing." Even so, during those 54 holes he reached all but eight greens in regulation figures. What was hurting him was his putter. He was averaging more than 33 putts a round.
A couple of years ago, an ordeal such as Casper was going through at Houston, with his entire year's achievement seemingly hanging in the balance, would have had cataclysmic repercussions. An enormous storm cloud would have formed over his head, and people wisely would have avoided him. As it was, he contemplated his performance, particularly that of the third round which was ragged enough to upset a deacon, with startling equanimity. This remarkable transformation in his personality and attitude he attributes entirely to the two key developments of his career—his new health and his new religion.
Until midsummer of 1964, Casper was a roly-poly fellow whom people often mistook for being jolly fat, though his spirit was moody thin. Then came the allergy tests and, eventually, the diet, and his weight dropped from 220 to 165. His health and his disposition improved in inverse proportion to his weight, but his stamina did not.
After about a year on the diet, Casper discovered that many of his allergies were beginning to disappear, and during the past eight months he has gradually started to eat a great many of the foods—eggs, wheat, various starches—that had been proscribed. "I have had to eat like mad," he says, "to get back the weight I needed." Some of his colleagues, who are unaware of what has recently been going on with the diet, still make little jokes when they catch Bill nibbling a salami sandwich or some other grubby object, but he has his weight back to 180, where he would like to keep it.
Meanwhile came the conversion to Mormonism on January 1st of this year. This rather extreme development put the finishing touches on the new Casper. When Bill attends a golf tournament these days, only part of his week is devoted to his profession. At Houston, for example, he spent Tuesday evening at the Brae Burn Country Club, where his old friend, literary collaborator and host, Don Collett, is the home pro, conducting a Mormon "fireside." The following evening he did the same thing at one of the local Mormon wards. Frequently Casper will arrange such meetings three or four times during the course of a tournament week.
"Before my wife, Shirley, and my two older children and I were baptized in the church," Casper explains, "I felt a void in my life. I kept wondering: What is the overall plan? Now I know that if I can devote myself to God and lead a godly life, I can eventually find a way back to the celestial kingdom with our Heavenly Father. By talking to other people about my experiences in life and how they relate to the Gospel, I have developed an inner strength and a peace of mind that I never felt I had before and doubt that I ever would have had. Now I feel that I have spiritual goals that are even more important than my materialistic goals, and that golf is not the most important thing in the world."
A completely uncontrived example of Casper's convictions is to be found in the schedule he arranged for himself for the week following Houston. Even if the tournament had ended with Nicklaus in a position to overtake Casper as the year's leading money-winner with a victory at this week's Cajun Classic, Bill intended to skip the Cajun. He had already made arrangements to appear at several church meetings, and he had no intention of canceling these commitments to achieve a materialistic goal, even one he wanted so badly.
Nicklaus, in his own way, approached the Houston championship with an almost equally rigid set of standards. Last month he bypassed the $57,000 Hawaiian Open even though he was in the area that week en route from Australia to the Canada Cup matches in Tokyo. "The way I look at it," Jack reasoned as the Houston event began, "if you can't be the leading money-winner by following the schedule you have set for yourself, you shouldn't make it at all. I figured I needed a week off at the time of Honolulu, and I wasn't going to rush frantically from tournament to tournament at the last minute just to be leading money-winner. However, I might go to Lafayette next week, if I'm just a few thousand dollars behind Casper. I figure if you're that close, you ought at least to take a shot at it." "Listen, Jack," joked Gardner Dickinson. "What you ought to do is contribute $100,000 or so to the Cajun purse, and then go win it."
The incentive to win the title might not have been quite as great for Nicklaus as it was for Casper, because Nicklaus had already owned the honor for the past two years, and, as he has indicated, he does not think that earnings should be the only basis for determining the year's leading golfer. "I feel," he said at Houston, "that the difference between official and unofficial money is confusing, and most people don't understand it. Also I would prefer it if we were on some kind of a point basis, more or less like the Ryder Cup points or the Masters points—so many points for winning and on down the line, with all tournaments counting the same no matter how big the purse."
Like Casper, Nicklaus was having his difficulties with the Champions course during the week when so much was at stake. Laboring away on the practice tee late Saturday afternoon following a third-round 70 that left him in a tie for 13th and only two unhelpful strokes ahead of Casper, Jack ruminated on his problems. "I don't know what happened to my swing," he said. "I just suddenly got positioning myself wrong and swinging terrible. Part of it might have been the small ball that we were playing in Australia and Tokyo, but suddenly, on the last few holes at the Canada Cup, I started making some really horrible swings. The problem has stayed with me all through the three rounds that I have played here, and I've just been trying to keep the ball in the fairway any way I can. The funny thing is I haven't been missing many fairways. But my swing is awful."
Driver in hand, Nicklaus then proceeded to hit some lovely shots with the help of a few suggestions from Butch Baird, one of the younger pros on the tour. "Boy," said Jack, "I wish I'd had that swing out there today. Well, maybe it will stay with me tomorrow. I'll need it." But the next day the good swing had vanished once more.
In the long run, the Casper-Nicklaus contest should turn out to be nothing more than a lagniappe to a tournament that may someday rival the Masters itself in prestige and pleasure. The event's beginnings, not incidentally, own a certain similarity to the founding of the Masters, if you take into consideration how the times and the atmosphere of golf have changed in a quarter of a century. Like the Masters, Houston has started out as a player's tournament run by players. In much the same way that Bob Jones's presence and participation made the players feel they were among their own at the Masters, so does that of Burke and Demaret at Houston.
Champions is a golf club without irrelevant frills. The modern, single-story clubhouse has one large and airy common room for drinking and dining, and a huge, L-shaped locker room so comfortably appointed that members are in danger of forgetting hearth, home and office. Throughout the week, touring pros, who normally flee a golf course at the conclusion of a round as if the place were under napalm attack, were lounging around the locker room until well into the evening, replaying their shots and listening to Demaret explain how the AFL was going to humiliate the NFL in the Supergame.
Burke and Demaret have created a course among the oaks and pines of southeastern Texas that easily ranks as the outstanding achievement in golfing architecture since World War II. It is a tight-driving course with enormous, softly undulating greens that can be nerve-racking to read. Its flexibility is such that it can be stretched from 6,231 to 7,118 yards. That it yielded as many sub-par rounds as it did last week was due in part to its flawless condition, and in part to the leniency of PGA officials in the placement of the tees and pins.
"If every tournament were like this one," observed Bob Rosburg, a crusty veteran of the circuit who is somewhat frugal with his approbation, "I would never leave the tour." Especially, one might add, when $111,419 isn't enough to make you golf's leading money-winner.
Winner Palmer comes out of the woods, a place he has spent much time in this year.
TIMES IN TOP 10
STROKES PER ROUND
EARNINGS PER START