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A big victory for little Ben

For years Gardner Dickinson has been Ben Hogan's protégé, so it was fitting that last week he should win the Colonial in Hogan's home town

The Colonial National Invitation is one of the oldest tournaments on the professional golf tour, and through its 23 years it has earned a lot of fascinating labels. One is The Open Track, because it has usually been a good warm-up for the U.S. Open; another is Hogan's Alley, because Ben Hogan has won it five times; a third is The Masters of the Southwest, because it is a huge week-long social event for Texans. Finally, it sometimes is called Hold-it Headquarters, because a hold-it—as in stop, look and look again—is a pretty girl in Texan talk, and no place on the pro tour, according to the sport's widely traveled authorities, turns out as many All-Star hold-its in the gallery as Colonial in Fort Worth.

All of these elements combined last week to produce one of the finest events of the season. The hold-its were out in swarms in their hip-huggers, and sometimes they were in—such as the Friday when Arnold Palmer was astonished to be sitting on a bench in the men's locker room only to have a lady dash past a guard at the door and land, momentarily, in his lap. When this sort of thing wasn't happening certain players discovered notes in their lockers from a variety of Suzys and Bettys inviting them to parties. Las Vegas used to be the tournament that all of the touring pros' wives tried to attend for obvious reasons. But Colonial is gradually becoming a no-cut.

The tough old Colonial Country Club course was its bestial self again. It is tight, tricky, long, watered, bunkered and well forested, a course that staged the 1941 U.S. Open and has survived some alterations to remain as difficult a par-70 as there is. It is the kind of course that ruins a chance-taker. ("I think there's something subconsciously wrong with me," said Palmer. "I'm trying to hit the ball too close to the hole.") For example, Arnold Palmer's last three rounds were 68, 80, 69. Tom Weiskopf shot a 68 on Saturday and followed it with an 82, for a reason he simply couldn't explain. Bert Yancey tied the course record of 65 one day and shot a 77 the next, using the same clubs and the same swing.

Colonial has nearly always demanded experience and patience. Except for Dave Stockton in 1967, no brash, young intruder has ever won. The list of former Colonial champions has reflected age and wisdom. It was no coincidence that Hogan won it five times or that Billy Casper and Julius Boros won it twice. These three, Colonial's only repeaters, have managed to capture almost as many U.S. Opens.

"It's a thinking, managing type of course," Casper said. "And that's what most Open courses are. That's why Hogan was always good here." Always held about a month before the Open, the Colonial has been a fairly nifty gauge for what to expect in the big one later on. Time and again players who have finished well at the Colonial have done the same at the Open, and in some instances the Colonial winner or runner-up has gone ahead to win the Open. If the trend holds this year Gardner Dickinson will be the 1969 Open champion—if he qualifies at Memphis.

Dickinson brought it all together at Colonial in the last round Sunday—14 years of experience in the tournament and a lot of knowledge about his game and the course from his old friend Ben Hogan, who sat in the gallery in a straw hat like 30,000 other people.

Dickinson ripped off a four-under 66 in the last round for his winning total of 278 to beat his jet chauffeur, Jack Nicklaus, and several other experienced contenders, among them Gary Player, just back from South Africa, Don January, Bob Charles, Bruce Crampton and George Knudson. "I frequently bum a ride with Jack on his plane because we live near each other in Palm Beach, so give him a plug," Gardner joked.

With just nine holes to play, Dickinson was tied with four other players for the lead, and it seemed that a sudden-death playoff would be a certainty. But the 41-year-old veteran, who still wears the old white cap like Hogan and at times even walks with a Hogan limp, had his best golf ahead of him. He kept pouring three-irons and four-irons into the greens for good birdie putts. Three of them dropped, and he pulled away to win his biggest purse ever, $25,000, by one stroke.

"I never looked at the scoreboard because I'm color blind," said Gardner. "I can't tell red from green. I just kept playing.

"I can't tell you how nice it is to win on this golf course," Dickinson continued, "and not just because of Ben. This place has eaten me alive. I always think I'll play well at Colonial because it's not a wedge course and I'm not a good wedge player. Par is a good score and that peps you up."

Hogan's presence is always felt at Colonial, and this time it was especially so. On Thursday evening out at Shady Oaks, another country club across town, Hogan had worked with Dickinson for over an hour as Gardner practiced. On putting? "No," Dickinson said slowly. "I let Ben tell me how to get to the greens, but not what to do on 'em." He said Hogan gave him a couple of pointers about the way he was addressing the ball—the kind of thing you can't see yourself, the kind of thing another old friend, Toney Penna, has helped him with. "You can subconsciously work yourself into a bad habit and only somebody watching you who knows as much about the golf swing as a Hogan or a Penna can get you out of it," Dickinson said.

Nicklaus played much better than he has in recent weeks, and there were times when it looked as if he might win. He led the tournament briefly on Saturday, but four bogeys on the last five holes put him behind. On Sunday, playing with Dickinson, he was only one stroke behind him as the two finished the 14th, but again Nicklaus faltered on the closing holes. He bogeyed the 15th and 16th and had to hole a 30-foot putt to save his par on the 18th to finish in a tie for fourth.

Nicklaus has never liked playing at Colonial because it is not his type of course. Too often he has to hit a three-wood off the tee instead of banging away with his driver as he can at, say, Augusta, where the fairways are wide. He has skipped Colonial three of the last four years, but now, with his game shaky, he felt he needed the work before the U.S. Open. Maybe he got it. We'll see in a fortnight or so.

It has been a nutty year in golf, and Colonial took care of a lot of the strange tour winners and gave the game a strong look of order at the finish. Tough course, name players do well. It made sense. Lost in the creeks most of the time were the Bunky Henrys and Jim Colberts who have won tournaments earlier—a situation that prompted Jackie Burke to say a while back, "I'm gonna make a comeback and rescue the game from the cowboys and extra-point kickers."

The victory was particularly rewarding for Dickinson, who has been a player who just scratches along, as he puts it, for years. "It's tough when you know you can play golf and you don't come up with much, and the years keep going by," he said. "I almost quit this year. I had a friend who wanted me to go into another business, but when I said I was ready he said he wasn't. So I'm still out here. Now I guess I got to stay a while longer."

As Dickinson came strolling down the last fairway with an adequate cushion to outlast a closing birdie by Gary Player, the longtime follower of Colonial tournaments had an odd impression. From a distance Dickinson looked like Hogan, the man he has tried to copy and a man who not only dominated this tournament for so many years but one who has dominated revisions of the course by reslopeing fairways, redesigning greens and chopping down more big oaks than some members have thought necessary, "I guess Ben finally cut down enough trees that you could win," someone kidded Dickinson later.

Gardner laughed and said, "Hey, I don't think I want to argue with that man about what a golf hole ought to look like. I believe he's seen a few and knows something about shot value." So in the end it seemed appropriate that Hogan's friend won on Hogan's Alley. And late Sunday Gardner Dickinson was safely aboard Jack Nicklaus' jet, leaving a lot of Texas hold-its to make do with their husbands or boy friends until the Masters of the Southwest comes around again.