Right up until Sunday afternoon last week among the elegant shade trees of North Carolina, down there in that old golfing paradise known as Pinehurst, there was the ever-lurking possibility that this thing called the sport's "first doubleheader" might well be its last. All Jack Nicklaus had to do was slip up somewhere, anywhere, and the match-play portion of the proceedings would have fallen into the hands of the Sam Sausages and Joe Zilchs, which is where the stroke-play part of the event had been all along. That was the worry of the spectators, the sponsors, television, and everybody who was cheering for the unique format to succeed. Names make news, to quote that old low-handicapper Joseph Pulitzer, or whoever said it, and as the extravaganza unfolded, Nicklaus began to loom as the only man left who could arouse the interest of anyone other than Mrs. Lou Graham.
There were two tournaments in progress as professional golf attempted to stimulate interest in the ancient art of man-to-man combat and satisfy television as well. There was the U.S. Professional Match Play Championship, which Nicklaus showed the good sense and decency to win—eventually—and meanwhile there was the Liggett & Myers Open, a regular 72-hole medal-play event such as the pros play every week.
What finally happened, after the sponsors did all that worrying, was that they got what they wanted—Nicklaus, the name, the man, winning—although they got him doing it with no suspense as he casually dusted off Frank Beard 2 and 1 in the final. At which point CBS, having run out of scheduled network time, said so long, gang, and went off the air without showing the only serious drama of the week, a playoff among four stroke-play competitors.
Well, such are the things that occur when a sport goes overly commercial. To get the tournament on TV in the first place, the sponsors created the doubleheader and nobody even blinked when CBS assured L&M and the Country Club of North Carolina that it was going off the air at 6 p.m. Eastern time even if Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer were having a fistfight.
What the telecast wound up missing was the tour's first four-way tie in well over a year, after Lou Graham, Hale Irwin, Larry Ziegler and David Graham all wound up tied for the medal tournament at 285, a score that testified to the toughness of the big, watery, well-prepared course. The TV audience missed seeing David Graham and Ziegler get in trouble on the first extra hole and fall out of the competition with bogeys. It missed seeing Irwin and Lou Graham halve the next hole with pars, and it missed seeing Lou Graham wind up the winner after Irwin hit into the lake on the 17th hole and staggered to a losing bogey.
Maybe this didn't matter to anybody since few spectators raced out on the course to watch the playoff. Jack Nicklaus, after all, was finished, having taken another $40,000 for two days' work against the likes of Deane Beman, Lanny Wadkins, Don Bies and Beard. He was under par all the way, just waltzing; taking his sixth title of the year, amassing some $280,000 in official earnings, a new record, and moving toward what could conceivably be a $400,000 season.
This bothered Jack a little. "That sounds like greed," he said. "It isn't. It's a record. I regard it as a record."
While the tournament format was a bit confusing, one really should not fault the PGA's Joe Dey for trying to keep a match-play tournament on the schedule and yet produce something more stimulating to watch than last year's DeWitt Weaver-Phil Rodgers final. It was primarily Dey who toiled and doodled and concentrated and finally arrived at a solution. There would be match play for 16 players, eight of whom would be exempt—among them Nicklaus, Trevino and Palmer—and eight of whom would qualify as the leaders of the medal-play competition after 36 holes. Thus, with the first eight medal players suddenly promoted, the No. 9 player would find himself No. 1 on Friday night.
On Saturday and Sunday, therefore, the match-play guys would go head to head, while the others would continue playing the regular tournament. That winner would get $20,000 and all of the fringe benefits of a regular tour victory, and the match-play champion would get $40,000. So there would be two winners crowned in the North Carolina pines and sand hills. And TV would have plenty of action to show.
Ideally, the sponsors hoped that the eight match-play qualifiers would be known quantities, Casper, Sanders and such. Not so, of course. Right away on Thursday a guy named Richie Karl, whose only claim to fame had been in the Alaska Amateur, of all things, shot a 65 and led. He disappeared Friday, but some others did not. Into the match play came the likes of Len Thompson, Paul Moran, Bob Barbarossa, Babe Hiskey and Don Bies, along with three "acceptables"—Wadkins, Beman and Dave Stockton.
Meanwhile, the exempt players—the stars—were rarely seen. Trevino was living and practicing way off at a place called Foxfire. Nicklaus was tending to business. Frank Beard lounged by a swimming pool over in Pinehurst proper. And Palmer was everywhere.
On Tuesday, Palmer and Nicklaus played an exhibition in Baltimore and on Tuesday night Arnold turned up in President Nixon's box at the Republican National Convention in Miami Beach. On Wednesday he appeared for a Pro-Am on the North Carolina premises but on Thursday he was in Indianapolis having his jet looked over. He returned on Friday, late in the day, to play five practice holes just as Bies and Moran were winning spots in the match play in a playoff with Jerry McGee.
Some of the match-play entrants—Beard, George Archer and Jerry Heard—managed to squeeze in practice rounds during the medal competition by leaping onto the course between pairings at midday. This answered the question of how they would practice. The tournament's public-relations director, Bob Drum, had predicted they would be able to do so by being "very nimble."
At the start of the week there had been some speculation that a player might be tempted to make an intentional bogey—or worse—on the 36th hole of medal play and thereby fail to make the match play, which would, in fact, leave him leading the stroke play. But everybody said they wouldn't want to do this. A certain status was at stake, to get into the match play. Plus, a match-play competitor was guaranteed $5,000, whereas he would have to finish as high as fourth in the other tournament to make that much.
Anyhow, it was all debunked when McGee and Moran went four extra holes, right into Friday's darkness, to settle the last qualifying spot for the match play. Nobody was shaving points, in other words.
And when McGee came limping into the hotel, carrying his clubs over his shoulder, he couldn't really be consoled by the fact that, even though he had lost a playoff, he was actually leading another tournament.
"I don't know what I'm supposed to feel," Jerry said.
What it all really amounted to was that the tournament that mattered, the U.S. Match Play Championship, finally got started on Saturday morning with the deck stacked for the good players, the crowd-pleasers. If the stars could just muddle through against the nobodies, everybody would have a good time and everybody would be happy.
But right away, everybody was reminded that match-play golf doesn't always accommodate the wishes of sponsors or fans. Even before lunch on Saturday, four of the exempt players—Palmer, Archer, Miller Barber and Heard—were beaten and by nightfall Trevino was gone, too. This left the sponsors huddled in the pines, praying for Nicklaus. They were asking deliverance from a Bies-Hiskey final that might bury match play forever—and L&M along with it. Nicklaus did his part to save the match play, but TV buried the rest.
With his latest victory, Nicklaus is virtually certain of becoming the first $300,000 golfer.