Skip to main content
Original Issue

Greening Tucson's green

With the help of artificial dyes, an infusion of new money and some persuasive talk by Dean Martin, the tour is shining in sun country

Ask the average touring pro to list his 10 favorite tournaments, the four major ones aside, and he would probably name, oh, Akron because Firestone is an outstanding course and the motels are inexpensive; Colonial because you get treated well there; Los Angeles because it leads off the tour; and the Crosby because the wife likes to shop in Carmel. There would also be a bunch of Dorals, Orlandos, Greensboros and Westerns on the list, all for a variety of charms.

Chances are that the Tucson Open would not make anyone's list of top 10. Or even 20. In fact, just five years ago there was a good chance there wouldn't be a Tucson. The tournament had little appeal. The money was minor, the course a joke, the crowds skimpy, the accommodations scarce and the treatment courteous but lacking the grandeur of other tournaments. Meaning that there were few cars to transport players from their motels to the course, no gifts from local merchants, no free food, no free entertainment. These are the little things that pro golfers have come to expect. Spoiled, perhaps, but that's the way it is and the Tucson of other years was hardly in a position to compete.

Worst of all, Tucson's traditional date on the tour calendar, linked in back-to-back weeks with Phoenix to the north, made both Arizona tournaments extremely easy to skip. The winter tour would begin in California with four tournaments, maybe five. Then would come Phoenix and Tucson, followed by the swing through Florida. Too many name pros would simply leave California, fly home for a rest and a visit with the family, then pick up in Florida. Arizona was becoming a haven for rabbits, those poor souls who usually cannot qualify with the bigger pros for the more popular tournaments.

That was five years ago. Last week at the Tucson National Golf Club almost every name player on the tour was present and, while Tucson may still not be their favorite tournament, they were finding it a lot easier to swallow. True, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer and Billy Casper were not there, which is a bit like saying the body looked fine but the head was missing, but by Tucson's standards the field, including 15 of last year's top 20 money-winners, was glittering. No longer were the pros competing in the little old Tucson Open but in the—pause for trumpets—Dean Martin-Tucson Open and for $150,000, more than at the Los Angeles Open, the Crosby and the Hope, local folks were quick to point out. The tournament was the third of the year, wedged between the Crosby and the Andy Williams, certainly a more favorable spot. The crowds were large, the weather beautiful and one golfer at least, Miller Barber, would now be willing to consider Tucson among his list of favorites. He won the $30,000 first prize, beating George Archer on the 3rd hole of sudden death after they had tied on Sunday and finished even in their 18-hole playoff Monday.

Most of the credit for this dramatic change in the Tucson Open belongs to a group of civic do-gooders called The Tucson Conquistadores. Three years ago Joe Dey, then newly appointed commissioner of golf, contacted Tucson and mentioned a dreaded word—satellite. "He didn't come right out and say our tournament might be better off as a satellite," one of the Conquistadores says. "He just tossed around his ideas for an A tour and a B tour, and we definitely got the impression that we were headed for the B."

"There was no doubt about it," says Buck Markley, the tournament director. "We were not rich. Our purse had only recently been increased from $60,000 to $100,000 and we just couldn't afford things like courtesy cars for all the golfers. We tried to be friendly to the pros and do our best to make them feel welcome. We thought that was better than having someone hand them a fifth of Scotch after a round."

Faced with minor league status, the Conquistadores decided to do all they could to keep Tucson afloat. Each of 50 Conquistadores pledged to sell $1,200 worth of tickets. If he failed, he wrote a check for the difference. "Our problem is that we are not a large population area," says Fred Boice, a prominent Conquistadore. "Tucson is about 400,000 now and the nearest town with more than 50,000 people is Phoenix, and that's 120 miles away."

Meanwhile Dey, certainly sympathetic to the plight of both Arizona tournaments, helped out by splitting Tucson and Phoenix on the schedule, giving one, then the other the third spot on alternate years. Few pros like to skip a tournament that early.

Although the Conquistadores had managed to raise the level of Tucson's purse to $100,000, comparable to that of many other tournaments, they felt the Tucson Open needed something else, like a sponsor maybe. For a while they tried to coax a large copper company to back it—"Do you know that 50% of the nation's copper is mined within 100 miles of Tucson?" a man asked eagerly—but the company said no. Just as well, as it turned out. The Copper-Tucson Open docs not carry much ring. So the Conquistadores looked around for another co-sponsor, perhaps someone with a touch of glamour.

Enter Dean Martin. Dino happened to be scouting around for a golf tournament to attach his name to. After all, Bing had his and so did Bob, Andy and Glen. Even Jackie (Gleason) was getting one and everyone knows Dino can spot Jackie six a side. Besides, the publicity value of having your name attached to a tournament is enormous, even if that tournament happens to be out among the cactus. Not that Tucson was Martin's first choice. A year or so ago a Martin man phoned the offices of the USGA in New York and wondered how it would be if Dino sponsored the U.S. Open. The USGA said thanks for the thought, but decided the Open could go it alone.

So Martin turned his attention elsewhere and there was that poor old wallflower, Tucson. Martin had made a couple of film epics near there and liked the area, so the courtship began. Finally, just before last year's tournament, the Conquistadores announced that the following year it would be the Dean Martin-Tucson Open. Martin would have no financial interest in the tournament, but that was nothing new. He would not be the first celebrity who decided not to take a bath for the sake of the tour.

What Martin did do was talk, urge and bulldoze NBC into covering the tournament both Saturday and Sunday, the first time Tucson had ever been televised nationally during the last two rounds. NBC was not particularly enthusiastic, what with camera crews in Japan for the Winter Olympics and another in Los Angeles for the Pro Bowl. But Dino has that highly rated show on NBC and nobody at the network wanted to ruffle his hair. So it was, even if it meant that the final round had to begin at dawn so that it could be over by 1:30, just before the Pro Bowl kickoff.

The value of the Martin name was obvious even before play began. He winged into Tucson with a golf bag over his shoulder and a pretty girl on his arm, a picture that made the front page of the local morning paper. The next day an enormous crowd, by far the largest in Tucson Open history, turned out to watch the Pro-Am, or at least the amateur part—Martin, Glen Campbell and all the others in that crowd that can almost be called professional Pro-Am players. There was even a two-mile traffic jam on the road leading to the club, which may have been the first traffic jam in the history of the state. "You don't know how good that looked," said Dave Stockton the next day. "Golfers love to play in front of crowds. It's one of the things we haven't liked about this tournament in the past."

That night at a dinner for some 1,600 tournament sponsors and guests in Tucson's new community center, Martin thanked the "Concuspidors" for their work, told the crowd they were "beautiful people, which is why I picked the Tucson Open," said his golf game wasn't much "but then have you heard Nicklaus and Palmer sing?" and promised that next year both Jack and Arnold would play.

One thing that neither Dino nor the Conquistadores could do anything about was the Tucson National golf course. "One of the best of its kind" is what pros are encouraged to tell inquiring club members. Privately, they call it awful, about the worst they play on all year. It is certainly the longest, 7,305 yards (compared with Augusta's 6,850), with greens so large that if you miss one you must be in Mexico. There are only a few trees, none much taller than the 6'6" Archer, so that you can stand on the clubhouse porch and see most of the 18 holes. There are traps, but not many come into play. Furthermore, at this time of year the grass is brown and matted, very much like a living-room rug; the fairways as a result must be dyed green. This way the players know which path to follow. There is no real rough. When the ground is tinted green, it is fairway. When it is brown, it is rough.

What this means is that Tucson is a putter's course. Drive the ball anywhere, knock it on the green and putt. The trick is to get it to the huge green so that you are not 100 feet or more from the pin, a common occurrence. "What you do here," said Lee Trevino, "is hit your first putt, then line up your second."

There were moments on Saturday when it looked as though a 12-way tie was possible as names like Montgomery, Zender, Morley, Mengert and Graham battled the more established ones—Archer, Nichols, Murphy, Douglass and Hill—for position on the scoreboard. But by late Sunday the tournament had narrowed to three men—Archer, Bobby Nichols, the third-round leader, and Barber, whose 31 on the front nine had vaulted him into serious contention. With three holes left, Nichols had a one stroke lead, but he missed a short putt at 16 for a bogey, then drove into the water at 18 to eliminate himself, thus leaving Archer and Barber to play it off the next day. It was the tour's third straight playoff and it proved that in this respect at least, Tucson was every bit as good as the L.A. Open and the Crosby.