Like a tax refund or a wife who sleeps late on weekends, golf can be a soothing affair when your head feels as if it should be covered with an Argyle sock and stowed away in a closet. As a curative, a mashie niblick ranks right up there with carrot juice. Golf helps tan your skin and keeps you thin, numbs those clusters of raw ganglia and eliminates the overbite in an acidic stomach. What is it doctors say? "Take two aspirin, play nine holes and call me in the morning."
Thus the professional golf tour last week wended its way to Southern California, a place where it never rains on your inorganic asparagus, all the way down to San Diego and Rancho La Costa—a luxurious drying-out place for reformed hedonists. There golf's elite mixed their crushed-mink head covers with their adoring fans' sable wraps in the Tournament of Champions.
It was a gathering spot for fat cats, and Jack Nicklaus and Lee Trevino found the surroundings more familiar than surreal. They especially liked the golf course, a bristling layout that snapped back when it was wronged. Its small greens, tight fairways and championship rough weeded out the shaky backswings and nervous leaders and produced another in those classic battles between Nicklaus and Trevino. Nicklaus won with a final round of 68 for a 276 total, and Trevino finished second, one stroke behind. The $23,404 boosted Trevino's career earnings to $985,138, which, Lee reasoned, "is a bunch of hot sauce to a dumb Mex." Nicklaus' career earnings are being tabulated by five IBM vice-presidents who have thus far worn out three computers.
This was the 21st T of C event and in an age when the Blazer Open is here one year and a memory the next, that is a pretty good record for longevity. The tournament forms a collage of the tour winners from the previous 12 months and it is the only one that carries a mere one-year exemption to the winner. This time Billy Casper missed the event after 16 straight appearances but 31 other players showed up, with convalescing Gary Player declining an invitation. Each man was guaranteed at least $2,000 in prize money, admittedly a long way from the first-place check of $40,000, but then again one did not have to play in any of those bothersome pro-ams.
One participant, however, left La Costa feeling a little more dejected than when he first entered the gates. Tommy Aaron, winner of the Masters two weeks before, had shed that embarrassing reputation of having a tight collar, but he suffered through a sorry week of tinkering vainly with his swing every day as he groped to regain the touch that had favored him at Augusta. Finally Tommy finished tied for 27th, which in view of the distractions he endured as the newest man to wear Masters green, might have been expected.
Many of the players spent the week donning togas and visiting the sumptuous spa where they were bathed, massaged, baked, basted, kneaded and generally rejuvenated by everything from saunas and 28 different flavors of whirlpools to something called an Oriental back walk. Even Nicklaus and Trevino joined in the get-well-quick schemes. Jack arrived at the tournament determined to lose a few pounds after irregular eating habits had dented his diet and puffed his middle. Following the Masters he jumped on a jet plane and spent 23 hours airborne in five days, visiting golf courses he is constructing in the neighboring cities of Cincinnati, Columbus, and Madrid. And Trevino was hurting. He went fishing in Mexico several weeks ago and since then his left shoulder had ached—from pulling in fish, he says. At La Costa the spa experts told Supermex the best remedy was massage and rest, so Lee visited the practice tee only after the second round. "It could cost me the tournament," he fretted, "because I'm just not sharp with the irons. That's not me out there."
After the opening day's play on Thursday Jim Colbert held the lead with a 66 as more than half the field matched or bettered par. "It's the first round," explained Tommy Jacobs, the host pro. "They're going to make putts in the first round." But Aaron had a 75 that included seven trips into the six-inch-high rough.
Colbert slumped to a 76 on Friday as Trevino went to the front with a 71 for a total of 139, a shot up on Nicklaus and J. C. Snead. Arnold Palmer, like Nicklaus and Gene Littler a three-time winner of the T of C, was tied at 141 with Bruce Crampton.
But neither Nicklaus nor Trevino was happy with his game and they both hied to the practice area. On Saturday they were scheduled to be paired together.
"Hey there, One-Putt," Jack called to Lee. "We got each other tomorrow."
"That's why I'm practicing," answered Trevino.
"Well," said Nicklaus, "if you're hitting it as bad as you say you are, we ought to get Spiro Agnew and make it a threesome."
"I'll tell ya," snorted Trevino, "if they could bale all that hay I cut out there today, the price of beef would be a lot lower. But now I got me an Arnold Palmer putter that I make everything with."
Meanwhile, Aaron was plugging away at practice, too. "I haven't won a lot of tournaments," he said, "but I've won a lot of money because I haven't given up. Some guys have bad tournaments and pack it in. But I keep going, maybe because I've never had a sponsor. I've always felt like every dollar I won would be mine."
Since Aaron and his wife Jimmye set out on the tour in a two-year-old Chevrolet in 1961, he has won over $600,000 and he is one of the few players ever to make the Walker Cup team as an amateur and the Ryder Cup team as a professional, about the same thing as making All-America and then All-Pro as a football player.
Actually Tommy and Jimmye were feeling pretty good about the week. A few months ago Jimmye underwent three abdominal operations within seven days and this was her return to the tour. She missed being on hand for Tommy's victory at Augusta, fidgeting at home in Gainesville, Ga. while Tommy went through the ritual of a roast beef dinner with Masters Chairman Clifford Roberts and several other tournament officials on that Sunday evening.
The Masters victory—his first win this year and his third ever—qualified Aaron for the T of C. Originally he planned to spend the week in Callaway Gardens, Ga., a resort he represents, and his change in schedule was the only visible result of his big championship although Tommy was plugging away and hoping for much more. Many of his hopes lay with his business manager, Mark McCormack, a Cleveland lawyer who shepherds many top professional athletes. Aaron met him when Tommy played barefooted and beat him in the consolation flight of the Southeastern Amateur. Aaron was 16 years old. "He kept telling me the last few years that if I won a major championship he'd get all of these things for me, so now I want him to produce," Tommy said with a smile.
Aaron is a tall, thin man whose lanky frame is topped with graying, curly hair. He is not an imposing figure and his soft-spoken manner, billed cap and unobtrusive game lend all the accouterments of anonymity. He has finished second 14 times in his career, a statistic he finds an accomplishment rather than demeaning. He likes to point out that Nicklaus has finished second 34 times, and nobody calls him a choker. Still, for years some people have insinuated that Aaron's nerves turn to puree when he finds himself breathing near the lead. His only other victories were the 1969 Canadian Open and the 1970 Atlanta Golf Classic. Probably his biggest disappointment came in the 1967 PGA Championship in Denver when he led for the first two days and then sailed higher than the Goodyear blimp. "My game just wouldn't hold together," said Aaron. "The swing wouldn't work. People see me swing and they say, 'Oh, you've got a beautiful golf swing.' And I feel like saying, 'Yeah, but why doesn't it work better?' "
Aaron started refining his swing after that PGA in Denver, firming it up and shortening it. Last year he won $118,924 and came close in one major championship, sinking a 10-foot putt on the 72nd hole to finish in an eventual tie for second in the PGA. This year at Augusta he played the final seven holes in two under par. "I felt like I had the confidence to hit all the shots," he recalled. "Right now I don't have it."
Arnold Palmer had somewhat the same feeling on Saturday as he played like a man who needs glasses. He went five over par on the first seven holes to blow himself out of the tournament. For the second straight day, Palmer's legions felt like burying their sorrows in the bottom of hot fudge sundaes as their leader went into the water on the par-3 7th hole, causing Palmer to comment after the round: "I'm lining the bottom of that lake with Arnold Palmer golf balls."
Meanwhile, Nicklaus' evening practice the day before was paying off. Jack rolled in five birdies, including a 30-foot gulper at the 17th hole, shot a 68 and jumped a pair of strokes up on Trevino and three ahead of Bruce Crampton. Then again he retired to the practice tee. True, he had made a 4 o'clock tennis date for Sunday afternoon but first he had to win a golf tournament. No sweat.
Jack Nicklaus rode again, with Supermex Lee Trevino right behind him, but Tommy Aaron (wearing cap) lost his masterful touch.