Oh, it was a shame," said Cherif el Sayed Cherif as he sipped coffee in the clubhouse grillroom late Saturday afternoon. "It was such a shame."
And when you finally got used to the idea that Cherif el Sayed Cherif of Cairo and Mohamed Said Moussa of Alexandria had come to Mexico City with every serious intention of defeating Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus—as well as two-man teams from 38 other countries—and winning the World Cup matches on behalf of Egypt, you more or less had to agree that it was a shame. After nine holes of leading the tournament and two days of optimistic developments, they had come apart on the 8th hole at formidable Club de Golf Mexico. And it hurt.
The pain of it tells something about what it is like for an obscure pair of golfers to travel 7,500 miles or so, their hopes flying in the breeze and visions of a triumphant homecoming dancing in their heads, only to come face to face with the reality of Palmer and Nicklaus.
These were not two dumdum players taking a free pass to some international goodwill gathering. They had learned their golf caddying for the British and their rich countrymen—Cherif at the Gezira Sporting Club in Cairo, Mohamed at the New Sports Club of Smouna in Alexandria—and learned it well.
They had seen all the best foreign golfers during the years when the Egyptian Open used to attract a pretty talented field, and each of them had played in the World Cup (which up to this year was the Canada Cup) nine times. Cherif had modeled his compact, classic swing after Sam Snead. Mohamed's more fluid action would grab a few ohs and ahs at Augusta.
The Egyptians looked like athletes, too. Both are close to six feet and stocky. Cherif's tightly cropped hair is just catching its first flecks of gray, and his dark face is rutted by all those winds off the Sahara. Mohamed, an inch or so taller, could make it as the leading man in an Yvonne de Carlo harem epic. Striding down the fairway on Saturday in their tasteful gray jerseys and slacks, their hopes still intact, they were a team you could pull for. The Arabian Knights ride again.
It is part of the nature of the World Cup that it brings together golfers from places like Czechoslovakia and Morocco and Paraguay and gives them a round-trip ticket from Pan-Am, a free room at the local Hilton, $500 in greenery and a sort of worm's-eye look at the world of such celebrities as Palmer, Nicklaus, Gary Player, Bob Charles and others who pass through the same hotel lobby or change shoes in the same locker room. A few of the bolder ones try to talk to Arnold. "I'd like to get a shipment of your clubs," they usually use as an icebreaker.
That, in fact, was exactly the conversation between Palmer and Mohamed Said Moussa on the afternoon of the second round at Mexico City, when things were still looking fairly rosy for the Egyptians. Mohamed pointed out that he himself was playing with Arnold Palmer clubs, the foreign variety manufactured by Dunlop in England. Palmer was delighted, of course.
Since there was nowhere farther to go on that topic, Mohamed asked, "You like to play with us tomorrow?"
"With pleasure," Palmer replied.
"We play with you, maybe we shoot 64," Mohamed said, feeling a bit more sure of himself. Arnold smiled politely.
Which is about as close as the world of Palmer and Nicklaus ever gets to that of Cherif and Moussa. While Arnold and Jack are cruising around from week to week in their private jets, the Egyptians are home trying to make a living out of the meager business of golf. When a new shipment of clubs and balls arrives from England, they and the pros from Egypt's other courses (including the nine-hole layout alongside the pyramids where goats graze on the fairways and the sphinx smiles as you slice) must go down to customs and haggle over the paperwork for hours.
Once the new equipment arrives at their pro shops, the government tells them how much they can charge, generally a markup of around 10%, as compared with anywhere from 40%; up in the U.S. Lessons are even less rewarding—$2.50 an hour, and the same for an 18-hole playing lesson.
Egypt's courses, for all their scenic wonder, lack the testing qualities that are so necessary if you are to learn to play championship golf. Rough is almost nonexistent, mainly because club members have an aversion to losing balls. Tournaments, except for the frequent pro-ams, are scarce.
"We can practice plenty," Cherif explains, "but we lazy a bit. What we need to find is a good game. The most we need is competition. First time I play in England in front of a lot of people I hit my first tee shot 50 yards, straight up in the air high. I sweat."
Last week in Mexico City it was not exactly a case of no sweat. What happened to the Egyptians—and what happened to Palmer and Nicklaus—epitomized the World Cup. Like the Chinese (Hsieh Yung-yo was catching Palmer on Friday) and the Puerto Ricans (David Jiménez was tied with Nicklaus), the Egyptians enjoyed their moments of glory. At the end of the first day they had posted an even-par 144, a significant accomplishment on a 7,250-yard course whose fairways are lined by 400,000 trees. "What time will the news of our score get back to Cairo?" Cherif asked the following morning. After all, they were only four strokes behind the Americans. The next day was not so good—a 75 for Cherif and a 74 for Mohamed—but still, they were tied for ninth and only 12 strokes back.
Then came Saturday and, oh, it was a shame.
"We start good, very good," said Cherif, which was certainly true, for they quickly went three under par. "Every shot, it is right for the pin. Then all of a sudden, bad luck."
The bad luck first took the form of a drive that Mohamed hit into the trees on the 8th hole. Then he hit another tree, and got a bad bounce as well. It added up to a triple bogey. On the back nine it was Cherif, who is 43, nine years older than Mohamed, who bowed to the pressure after the misfortune of having an excellently hit iron shot fall short by inches and bury itself hopelessly in the face of a bunker, causing his first of three double bogeys. The day ended with the Egyptians 28 strokes behind Palmer and Nicklaus, and Sunday merely left them 17 more strokes back and in a tie for 16th place. But they had, after all, gotten some of the competition they wanted, and they had gotten to talk to Arnold Palmer.
By the time Palmer had reached Mexico City to play in his version of the World Cup about the only person he was talking to was himself. He felt as though he had traveled more than all the rest of the international field put together. He had, in fact, covered 47,000 miles since late September—New York, Tokyo, London, Houston, Las Vegas, Hawaii, Mexico City—and played a tournament each week. "I can hardly drag one foot after the other," he said before the competition began. "But I'll get myself cranked up somehow."
Palmer likes the World Cup. He is pleased to represent the U.S. and he is proud that he has been on six winning cup teams in the past. There was not much doubt about him getting cranked up somehow, and he did. In spite of frustratingly slow play, an annoying ear infection that he picked up in Hawaii and an eyeful of sand that he threw into his own face with a bunker shot. Palmer prevailed right from the beginning. His opening round of 68 tied him for the individual lead, and combined with Nicklaus' even-par 72 gave the Americans the team advantage by one stroke over Argentina. On the next day, Friday, Palmer tied for the low round again with a 70, and a Nicklaus 71 put the U.S. six strokes up. On Saturday, Nicklaus—who had been doing things that stunned the excitable Mexican gallery, such as reaching the 573-yard 11th hole with a drive and a five-iron—took up the leadership of the U.S. cause with a 69 to Palmer's 71. The U.S. was now nine strokes ahead of second-place Argentina, and 73 strokes in front of Morocco, in case Rabat wants to know.
Sunday concluded the formalities. Palmer, not quite so care-worn now that he sensed the opportunity not only to join Nicklaus in a U.S. victory but to beat Jack in the individual scoring, played masterful golf. He hit his approaches four feet from the hole at the 7th, two feet away at the 8th, and a foot away at the 9th as he played the first nine in 32 and came back in 35 for a 67 that made him the tournament low scorer by five strokes with a record-breaking 276. Nicklaus, meanwhile, had a 69 as the U.S. won the World Cup by 13 strokes over New Zealand.
There was a brief presentation ceremony, and moments later the pros were hurrying to planes for places like Latrobe, Pa., Columbus, Ohio and Cairo. "Too bad, too bad," said a subdued Cherif as he left. "But maybe someday we do better."
Leader Palmer can afford an unstifled yawn.
Worried Mohamed recovers from under a tree.
Tense Cherif agonizes while putts still matter.