The professional golf tour of 1972 is a little more than one-third completed, and there seems to be some question as to whether there is anybody at all out there besides Jack Nicklaus. Come in, anybody. Hello, hello.
Oh, of course. There's one. Bobby Mitchell. The guy with the toupee and Sam Sausage hat who, almost unnoticed, tied for second in the Masters and last year won a tournament, but what else can you expect? Go ahead, Jack, and lose one for a change, even though it does sound like they named the tournament just for you.
It happens now and then. A Bobby Mitchell, suddenly looking untouchable, goes out to La Costa and in glorious weather takes a Jack Nicklaus in the Tournament of Champions, just to let everybody know that things don't always go right for Jack.
Jack might have known that it was bound to happen. After what occurred on the 16th tee during the final round Sunday, it became a question only of how many putts Nicklaus would miss and how many Mitchell would almost unconsciously make. At the 16th Jack broke his driver—in his hand, on the ball, and on his head—and it was inevitable then that Mitchell would be the man to stagger in a 25-foot birdie putt that practically fought to stay out of the cup on the first and only sudden-death extra hole.
Nicklaus, who finds it hard to chat about anything other than major championships these days—being consumed as he is with a number of immortal goals—had good reason for wanting to play well at La Costa. "Because I think I'm supposed to," he said.
Before Mitchell momentarily halted him, Nicklaus had left such a wake with his performances it had become nearly impossible to find challengers. He had won just about everything he had gone after: the Masters, the Crosby, Doral, and last week, after the T of C, it all added up to a lot of money, about $150,000 already. Projected to the end of the tour, that means $450,000. Silly.
But since a Nicklaus loss had become so rare, the tournament was less of a time to think about a Mitchell, however deserving, than it was an occasion to figure out who besides Nicklaus was shooting consistently good golf. Week in and week out, the only steady challengers have been Tom Weiskopf, George Archer, Bruce Crampton and Jerry Heard. It might be well to say something about them before they disappear.
TOM WEISKOPF: He is not so easy to understand. Tall, strong, boyishly handsome, he goes around with what everybody agrees is a tremendous talent and yet he has never been able to pull off a major championship. He wins a lot of money and he comes close to winning a lot more tournaments than he can list, but the game remains a mystery to him. He has won when he didn't expect to, and he has lost when he felt he was certainly about to win. He gets mad at himself and nods in agreement when friends tell him he has to control his temper and act more mature. Through last week Weiskopf was third on the year's money list with $86,000, largely because he won the richest event of the year, the Gleason at Inverrary, worth $52,000.
"For three years out here, I didn't appreciate anything. I was a dumb, selfish kid," Tom admitted last week. "I think I'm improving. I've learned to write thank-you notes to sponsors, or get my wife to do it. I think I'm capable of being a great player. I want to be and I think I will be. There's no doubt in my mind that I'm going to win several major championships. One of these days it's going to start happening."
GEORGE ARCHER: It is generally felt that Archer couldn't win a charisma race if he kept Jill St. John in his golf bag. What George can do, however, is play golf. And if one were to take a vote among the pros of who the most underrated player on the tour is, it would be Archer. Other than Nicklaus, he's the only player so far in 1972 to win more than one event. Archer opened the year with a victory at Los Angeles and later added Greensboro. In between, he lost a playoff at Tucson. He's quietly hanging in there at second on the money list with more than $100,000. In fact, he's always there.
There are players who swear Archer can't do anything but putt, and everyone seems to agree that no one putts as well. George doesn't try to argue about it. "I'm a good putter," he says. "But most everybody out here is or they wouldn't be here."
He contends that he doesn't feel any pressure on the tour, which might account for the fact that he seems to lack any sort of flamboyance.
"Pressure," he says, "is when you've got to putt for money and the only money you've got is your ball marker."
Underground, George is known as Super Scrambler, a man who gets it up and down, as the pros say. At 6'6" he can't very well look picturesque when he swings, and it's true he sprays his tee shots, but he gets it up and down, around the greens.
BRUCE CRAMPTON: There is such a thing as earning a negative fame, and Crampton has done it over the years. Much like Archer, Bruce wins money quietly, minds his business and is not the type to have great hordes of fans rooting for him. He's a machine player with a fine swing who has never voiced any ambitions of trying to become a heavy celebrity. One finds him dining alone frequently, and not worrying about making up funny jokes for the press, which has a name for him: Claude Rains, or The Invisible Man. When his name goes up on the leader board, some wit will say, "You ready for a story on Claude?"
Relentless is a good word for this Australian. Look at 1972. He has crept into the top five seven times and he has popped up in the top 10 nine times, and, like the pros say, anytime you're in the first 10, you could have won.
Behind Gary Player, Crampton is the leading money winner among foreigners who have ever played the tour, and he is proud of that. "Every check I win in America," Bruce says, "I feel a sense of achievement because I'm playing against the best."
Crampton doesn't worry about winning a tournament. "That's ordained," he says, with a bit of mystery. "I believe you have to play well to win, of course, that you have to have nerves and be able to produce good shots under pressure. But you must be lucky. When I feel I'm going to win is when I go out and hit the ball into the trees, and then hole out some putts. When the putts begin to fall, I know my week has come again."
JERRY HEARD: It hardly seems possible that a young man named Heard has worked his way into golf's elite with a short swing, a semi-Brutus haircut and only 25 years of living. When he captured the American Golf Classic on the rugged Firestone course last summer—his first win—it should have been hint enough that he wasn't going to disappear. The fact was confirmed last month when he won again, at Orlando.
Off the course, he's a jittery fellow who seeks out any diversion to keep from thinking about the tournament at hand, or his own game. But then he changes. He calms down and whistles, usually Take Me Home, Country Roads, strolling down the fairways. And he doesn't think about anything but his golf.
"Before I get out there," he says, "I'm grinding. I'm up early. I can't eat. I don't know what to do with myself. When I have a late tee-off time, I really go crazy. There's nothing to do but wait. But then I get out there, and it's different. I don't think about money or who I'm paired with. I'm in my own world."
Fortunately for Jerry Heard, it has become a far richer world than he ever might have guessed. So far this year, it's worth more than $80,000. Take him home, country roads, indeed.
The tour has a lot of other stops to make, and before it all ends again, we shall probably hear more of those familiar stars, like Arnold Palmer, who's off to another bad start like 1969's, and Lee Trevino, who can't seem to decide whether he wants to play serious or celebrate, and Gary Player, who will come back. And perhaps even Billy Casper, wherever he is.
And then, for sure, there are always the Bobby Mitchells out there.