The world of golf has been pretty much dominated by Lee Trevino, Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer this year, and last week proved no exception. Officially there were 144 pros entered in the $135,000 Sahara Invitational at Las Vegas, but what the rich tournament really came down to was Lee and Jack and Arnie, and Jack was there only as an ever-looming spirit. The flesh itself had flown off to play in the $22,400 Australian Open at Hobart, Tasmania, 8,000 miles away. With only three tournaments now remaining on the tour schedule, these three kings of golf have become embattled in a hunt for the only title of importance left, the leading money winner of 1971. So Nicklaus, with a $7,600 lead over Trevino and a $12,100 lead over Palmer, left the other two at home to play a lucrative game of catch-up. And did Trevino ever catch up. When the checks were handed out Sunday night, Lee had added the $27,000 first prize to his total to sweep past Nicklaus and go into the lead at $227,243, the most any golfer has ever won in a year. Palmer finished in a tie for 20th to collect only $1,269, leaving him a rather distant third.
For Nicklaus, who now thinks in terms of Grand Slams rather than trips to the bank each week, winning the money title has understandably lost some of its zest. "I'm still interested in being at the top of the money stakes, but only if it doesn't interfere with my competing in what I consider to be prestige events," he said in Tasmania. "I've won it three times so it's no longer a case of 'I've got to do it.' Besides, it's far more important to win a national title like this."
Nicklaus got what he was looking for in Australia, the Open title, shooting brilliant rounds of 68, 65, 66 and 70 to win by eight strokes. He also got some pocket money, $4,320, but not a penny of it counts in the PGA standings. Jack couldn't care less.
Both Trevino and Palmer agree that success in such events has its attractions, but the desire to win the money title is very much alive. "You're damned right it's important to me," Palmer stated before play began in Las Vegas. "While I wouldn't go to the same extremes as I did when I was younger, it still counts from a personal standpoint."
Palmer had settled down comfortably with a vodka and tonic in his immense Hotel Sahara penthouse suite, with its thick, apricot-colored carpeting and its view of the glittering Las Vegas strip far below. While he now commands this kind of luxury when he travels, the competitive instinct burns as brightly as it did when he rode the tour in a trailer. And it has been a long time since the last big triumph: no major championship since 1964, no money title since 1963.
"I feel I've probably made my mark in golf and shouldn't have to prove anything," he said, "but people who have followed me and watched me play all these years have become more and more excited about the money title. They keep reminding me. Here in the hotel a guy came up to me in the lobby. 'You've got to win this week,' he said. 'You'll be leading in the money if you do.' I think that's great. It makes the money race like the U.S. Open, another mark of distinction in golf."
For many months now Trevino has made no secret of the fact that he would like to be leading money winner for the second consecutive year. He sees it as the natural climax to a season in which he was won the U.S. and British Opens, the final achievement that will make him everybody's athlete of the year, the first Mexican-American to be so acclaimed.
"That would be a great thing, wouldn't it?" he said in Las Vegas. "So you can see why I want that money title so bad."
If Trevino does win it, much credit should go to the way he played in the first round of last week's tournament. It was a bitter day, overcast, cold and windy, with temperatures in the mid-40s and pockets of snow beginning to appear on the slopes of the nearby mountains. The site of the Sahara event, Paradise Valley, a name about as appropriate as calling Las Vegas the cradle of American culture, is a 7,143-yard-long course laid down in a stretch of scruffy desert wilderness 10 miles outside town. The wind does not merely blow through Paradise Valley, it howls, and there is no place to hide. Trevino may just possibly be the best wind player in golf, but he hates the cold and, as he climbed into a thick yellow sweater and a voluminous red rain suit prior to loosening up on the practice tee for his round, he predicted that he would be lucky to break 80.
"I can't play in all this gear," he said, "but I don't care if I shoot 85, I'm not going to get pneumonia."
Considering the troubles that have beset Trevino since July, pneumonia would be just part of the act. Immediately following his British Open triumph the usually gregarious fellow suffered a natural mental and physical letdown, but he kept on playing. He tied for 32nd in one tournament, then missed the 36-hole cutoff in the next two. This bad stretch was followed by an appendectomy that put him off the tour for five weeks. His return, prior to Sahara, was marked by two more missed cuts and the only hint of the real Trevino came at the Kaiser in California two weeks ago, where he tied for 15th. In the meantime his mother died after a long illness.
While these sad affairs were taking place Trevino was also losing ground in the stakes race. In the three months between the end of the British Open and the start of Sahara, Palmer had earned $80,449 in prize money, Nicklaus $45,868 and Tevino only $3,600.
But now, with a dark-green wool cap pulled down over the tops of his ears and his red rain suit snapping and crackling in the wind, Trevino was ready to make up for lost dollars. With a frost-nipped gallery of about 100 watching, he began his round at the 10th tee and after three routine pars he produced his first comeback thrust. On the par 5 fourth hole, faced with a five-wood second shot into a quartering wind, he hit the ball to the right edge of the green and sank a 25-foot putt for an eagle 3. He birdied the eighth hole with a chip and a 10-foot putt. He then made a classic birdie on the ninth, a long par 4 directly into a 30-mph wind, over a narrow, roller coaster fairway to a small green flanked on the right by a pond. From a hollow in the middle of the fairway, Trevino lashed a two-iron shot that bored like a tracer bullet toward the distant green. He raced up the sloping fairway after the shot, then did his own version of the Mexican hat dance when he saw that the ball had stopped only 15 feet short of the flagstick. When he sank the putt, Trevino had played nine holes in a magnificent four-under-par 32 despite conditions that would have done credit to Pebble Beach at its most ornery.
He slipped somewhat on the second nine, almost balancing two three-putt greens with another birdie, but during this cold, blustery day Trevino had hit all 18 greens in the regulation number of shots, needed 34 putts and scored a 69, one of the day's 10 subpar rounds. He trailed tournament leader Bob Dickson, who had one-putted 10 greens, by a single shot and, more importantly, led Palmer by five strokes.
This finely wrought opening round was the key to Trevino's success in Las Vegas, for it kept him in contention right through the tournament. His par 72 on Friday, another miserable day, gave him the halfway lead by a shot over Dickson and a seven-shot lead over Palmer, who posted another 74 and was back in an 11-way tie for 27th. On Saturday the weather turned sunny and benign. Palmer holed some putts, shot a 69, and moved into a 10-way tie for ninth with a one-over-par 217 for 54 holes.
"The weather was more like it, but the course didn't seem to play any easier," Palmer said. "I guess I'd really be back in business if I could have just gotten down to even par."
Trevino was right on target to 16 greens, but off target again with his putter and shot a poor 73, slipping into fourth place, four shots back of the leader, Dickson, who had another 68.
"I've forgotten about that 73 already," said Trevino later as he sipped a beer. "No one's going to take it off the board just because I groan and moan. Tomorrow I'm coming back, shoot a 66 and either win or finish second."
Which is precisely what he did, bagging his 66 and winning. "Now who's the leading money winner," he said to the gallery as he left the 18th green. "If they have to, those other two guys will go right down to that last tournament in the Bahamas to try and beat me, but I'll tell you something—I'll be right there beside them."
Lee: "Win the money race, and I'll have a good chance to become pro athlete of the year."
Arnie: "You're damn right I want to get it."
Jack: "Major titles are more important."