Here's to you, Mr. Robinson—the pros love you... - Sports Illustrated Vault |
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Here's to you, Mr. Robinson—the pros love you...

...more than you could know. For Dick Heath of Robinson, Ill. has made the PGA's smallest tournament a bonanza for the needy

There is no golf course on the PGA tour quite like the Crawford County Country Club (the 4Cs) in Robinson, Ill. Where else can you get to the locker room 30 minutes before you leave your motel room? Where else can you find a clubhouse doorman wearing an Episcopal minister's collar? Where else can you find slot machines in the clubhouse? And where else can you three-putt to the accompaniment of a high school pep band practicing for a football game?

Only at the 4Cs in Robinson. The touring pros discovered this last week during the $75,000 Robinson Open Golf Classic. Later, when Bob Goalby accepted the winner's check for $15,000 Sunday afternoon, they discovered one more thing: the check was signed, certified and bounceproof. Not all winners' checks on the tour are like that anymore, as the players learned at the Michigan Golf Classic three weeks ago.

As Goalby and his rivals also learned, the Robinson Open is the mystery tournament on the PGA schedule. Indeed, it offers the smallest purse for a so-called major championship on the tour, and for this reason all of the top 25 money-winners for 1969 naturally managed to occupy themselves elsewhere. Maybe some of them couldn't find the place because the tournament is played in the most remote geographical area on the tour.

Robinson is an industrial town of 8,000 located in southeast Illinois, some five hours by car from Chicago and three hours from both St. Louis and Indianapolis. During the tournament most players had to stay in motels at Vincennes, Ind., a half-hour drive, and they were unusually early for their starting times every day because a part of Indiana runs on Eastern time while Illinois is an hour behind on Central time.

There is no tourism to lure spectators to Robinson, although some people do stop occasionally to ask about Novelist James Jones, who grew up in the town. The townspeople always tell them that Jones was the first boy to jump through the skylight at the high school and that he liked to take off his clothes and run around shooting arrows at everyone.

The timing of the tournament is peculiar, too. The tour itself came to a halt two weeks before the Robinson, and in two more weeks it resumes in Las Vegas. Certainly a tournament played in Illinois the last week of September—football time—cannot make sense. And how can it possibly make money?

"That's what everybody asked us from the beginning," says Dick Heath, the tournament director. "But this year we will make about $50,000—grossing about $150,000. Now next year I'd like to schedule a $150,000 Robinson Open. That would really be something, wouldn't it? A $150,000 tournament in Robinson. They'd all be here for that one."

The Robinson is Dick Heath's tournament. Heath became a club official in 1962, when the 4Cs was a little nine-hole pasture that lost thousands of dollars every year. "The first thing I did was change the spending programs of the members," Heath said. "I installed a charge-only system in the clubhouse and the pro shop, and we made $6,800 the first year. No country club can make money doing a cash business."

Heath also realized that nine-hole golf courses were a nuisance, so he convinced Dr. Sam Allen, a general practitioner in Robinson, to give the club 100 acres of adjacent land. In return, Heath gave Dr. Allen a lifetime membership in the club. Heath raised $35,000 himself, borrowed $50,000 and talked townspeople into donating $35,000 of free services, then built the new nine holes on Dr. Allen's land.

The first Robinson Open was played in 1962 on the old nine-hole course. "We were losing so much money then," Heath said, "that the club couldn't put up the purse, so I sold $10 shares to 200 people. In the end we lost $1.26 per share." After that the Robinson became an annual event, and each year Heath increased the size of the purse. "We scared everybody when we went to $10,000 in 1967," he said, "and they about died when we went to $25,000 in 1968. When I convinced them that we could have a $75,000 tournament this year, they all thought I was nuts or something." To protect themselves against that $75,000, the club members immediately insured Heath's life for $150,000. "Any troubles," Heath says kiddingly, "and all they have to do is bump me off."

The $75,000 tournament, Heath decided, would be a community affair. He started an immediate promotion campaign. He mailed 12,000 brochures, distributed 10,000 automobile bumper stickers, placed 1,500 posters and arranged for 25 billboards. And he went to meetings to talk the tournament up. "I ought to be an honorary Rotarian by now," he said.

Money was the most pressing need. The Alcan corporation contributed $33,000 to the Robinson purse as part of an agreement with the PGA since 12 PGA pros would be playing opposite the Robinson in the Alcan championship at Portland, Ore. Heath somehow sold 95 gold sponsor badges at $500 each and gave each gold sponsor two places in the pre-tournament pro-am, a fistful of tickets, a man's blazer and a woman's sweater. He obtained the clothing at cost from his wife's dress shop.

Next, Heath sold more than 70 patron-sponsor badges at $100 each. He also sold advertising for the official tournament program and the daily pairing sheets. "We had to put a synthetic tee down at the 9th because the grass never grew there, and the Monsanto people charged me $700 for it," Heath says. "The day after that I sold them a pairing sheet ad for $600."

Heath had more than $90,000 in the bank long before the players arrived at Robinson last week. Expenses were always minimal. "I didn't mind begging, borrowing and stealing," he said. "And I hired only one employee—a part-time secretary. Everybody else volunteered."

The people around Robinson laugh when Heath mentions volunteers. "Dick thinks he's with the church," one lady said. "He's always asking you if you'd mind doing something for him." Heath even asked the town's Episcopalian minister, Father Paul Baker, to volunteer and all last week Father Baker was checking everyone's badges before he would let them into the clubhouse.

Bob Jones, the local Cadillac dealer, volunteered to handle all the picture-taking. Horace Maze, a volunteer fireman, worked the parking lot, taking time off to chase the fire engines if need be. And then there was this message on the desk in tournament headquarters, addressed to Mrs. Maxine Zwermann, the mayor's wife and Heath's volunteer assistant: "Maxine. If we need extra help on the phones, we are to contact Doris Prier and she will get Gladys Keeley. Gladys can't work on Tuesday. She may be available Wednesday afternoon."

With everything in order and almost all expenses practically guaranteed, the Robinson Open began last Thursday. During the four days of the tournament, Heath estimated that the club grossed $30,000 from daily ticket sales, $28,000 from the concessions, $7,000 from a special raffle with three different prizes (a trip to Hawaii, a new automobile and a color television set) and $2,500 from parking. He forgot to mention how much the 4Cs made from the six slot machines in the private room in the clubhouse.

Despite the financial success of the tournament, Heath became a disillusioned individual as the week progressed. "I'm learning that the players don't realize what the sponsors do to make a multimillion-dollar tour available to them," he said. "The things provided for them every week don't just happen. I'm not talking about the players who were here this week. I'm talking about all the others who became rich because of people like us."

Last week the only real name players in the Robinson field were Doug Sanders, Goalby and Dow Finsterwald. They all were there for the same reason: they were having poor seasons, were way down on the money lists and needed a victory to guarantee their exempt status for another year. The rest of the field was composed of the young players.

"We're glad they all came to see us," said Dick Heath. "Next year we hope there will be more of them, if you know what I mean." Well, Heath is learning about the pros, and the golf pros are learning about Heath. The Robinson Open may not be a big-money deal yet, but the money is real—the checks don't bounce.