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Original Issue

The low-key, high-stakes invitational

While Jack, Johnny and the boys were sampling La Costa's charms, Al Geiberger was bagging birdies

Jack Nicklaus was back doing off-the-course commerce and suffering a mild case of Masters Withdrawal; Johnny Miller was simply feeling "mellow" and trying to squeeze in some golf between baby-sitting chores; Tom Weiskopf had an infected ear, which may have been partly caused by leaving his two-iron at home; Gary Player was experimenting on the final round with a putter called Zebra; and Lee Trevino announced, "Anytime I can't miss the cut and I'm guaranteed money, I'm on vacation." All of which helped to characterize that annual week off on the pro tour known as the Tournament of Champions. For the man who outstaggers La Costa (in more ways than one) and wins the $40,000 first prize, it winds up being a momentous event, as it was for Al Geiberger, but for just about all of the others in the most select field there is, it becomes an occasion of fun in the sun and what's new in the buffet line besides creamed ham on French toast.

While Geiberger led most of the way, his victory was not easy. Just as it seemed he was about to wrap the tournament up on the final hole, he three-putted, and suddenly he was on his way back to 15 with Player for sudden death. But there he followed a beautiful approach with a birdie putt, and Geiberger had his win after all.

The T of C has always been a strange kind of tournament, unable to achieve the sort of status it probably deserves. Ever since it began in Las Vegas in 1953 everybody has agreed that it has the best format possible—players who have won a tournament over the past calendar year, and no one else. Last week there were only 30 competitors, for example. This alone contributes to the relaxed, almost intimate, atmosphere.

But there are other things. With a small field there is no 36-hole cut and the man who finishes last is guaranteed a check for something like $2,000. The players have always been given free rooms, free meals, free drinks and a white sports coat, and when the event moved from Vegas to the splendors of La Costa in 1969, the players' wives were afforded the added pleasure, if they wished, of getting free overhauls in the lavish La Costa Spa, just north of San Diego. Last week most of them took advantage of the facials, saunas, mineral baths, exercising, dance classes, pedicures, hair styling, makeup applications and massages.

La Costa's frills were available to the folks who were lucky enough to be in La Costa instead of Tallahassee, the tour's regular event, and grinding the golf ball was almost a secondary consideration. The Tournament of Champions is the one event of the year where the wives aren't required to go 18 every day in pursuit of their husbands. Nor do most of the players go through four "serious" 18s. Or as Lee Trevino put it: "I can't lose this week, man. You ain't gonna find me on the practice tee, even if I'm winning."

Even after Trevino fired a 65 in the second round and plunged himself right into the thick of things, he said, "You win this tournament by accident." He came close, finishing third.

Tom Weiskopf, still brooding over another narrow loss in the Masters, and having been hunting and fishing for a week while the mere mortals were in Pensacola, thought enough of the Tournament of Champions to go off and leave his two-iron and then laugh about it.

"You come here and kind of hope to play well because there's a lot of money to win," said Tom. "But if nothing happens in the first round or the second round, you just relax and have fun."

Weiskopf and his best pal, Ed Sneed, were on their way to get a facial.

"I'll tell you what kind of a place this is," said Weiskopf. "I got this earache, so I drove just down the road to a clinic. The doctor's name was Dr. Augusta. And somebody had a pet monkey in the office." Weiskopf laughed and quietly said to himself, "Oh boy, Southern California."

The other Masters loser, Johnny Miller, used most of the week to let his game languish. The Millers lived their usual quiet life at La Costa, being perfectly visible every day at breakfast in the main dining room trying to keep their children out of the creamed ham, but hardly wearing out the dance floor in the late afternoons or evenings to the strains of the Murray Arnold Trio. "Just because I wasn't cleaning or marking my ball doesn't mean I wasn't trying," said Miller, who finally got going on Sunday, shooting a 65 and finishing 15th.

Player's week was slightly different. As he expressed it, "This is an opportunity to work on your game."

Player had been in the country for four straight tournaments and, going into La Costa, had broken 70 only once. On Wednesday night he called his father-in-law in Johannesburg and asked what he was doing wrong. His father-in-law, Jock Verwey, told him: taking it back wrong. "That's it!" Gary said. He began hitting everything straight. On Saturday he had a 68, his best round of the year, and then, using Zebra, a putter given to him by old pro Bob Rosburg, he shot a 67 to get into the playoff against Geiberger. He left La Costa feeling it had been a profitable visit, $23,700 worth.

Jack Nicklaus was apparently in no mood to do anything spectacular at La Costa. People think of Jack as being the only player who goes to the Tournament of Champions with a real desire to win. They think this, possibly, because he has won it four times and he doesn't overstay his welcome at the cocktail parties and in the clubhouse bar where the players mingle with the Dodge dealers from Escondido and the dancing ladies.

Jack played consistently well but he kept saying, "Nothing is happening out there where I'm concerned. I can't think of a single interesting thing to say about the rounds I've been shooting here."

Nicklaus devoted much of his spare time to discussing business, and no doubt thinking ahead to the week when he will be infinitely more inspired, the week of the U.S. Open at Medinah, Ill.

Last week was also a good opportunity for the pros to dwell on some newly announced changes that will affect the 1976 tour. Two major things have happened. For one, starting next year, the tour will be divided into three segments—Winter, Spring and Summer—and champions of those segments will be awarded gold medals. They will also receive invitations to what is going to be a new World Series of Golf, which Commissioner Deane Beman hopes will become an event of considerable merit and attention as opposed to the four-man exhibition it has been.

The new World Series may have as many as 16 players and it will be rotated among a number of courses. The first eight invitees will be the winners of the Big Four, plus the winner of the new Tournament Players Championship, plus the Winter, Spring and Summer champions. The qualifications for the other spots remain a mystery.

Meanwhile, at La Costa, Weiskopf and Sneed, having nothing better to concern themselves with, sat in the bar one evening and came up with a formula. It is worth reporting to Deane Beman and it was of considerably more interest at the Tournament of Champions than how many aunts made peanut-butter sandwiches for Al Geiberger.

The other eight invitees to the World Series should be:

1. The first pro to get paired with Lon Nol in the Hawaiian Open Pro Am.

2. The man who hits the longest drive on the 8th hole at Inverrary.

3. Arnold Palmer.

4. Angelo Argea, Nicklaus' caddie.

5. Winner of the PGA's Qualifying School for Approved Tournament Players, providing he did not attend the University of Houston.

6. Ben Crenshaw, the leader in clothing ads.

7. Winner of the Masters' Par-3 Contest, providing he is not black.

8. A player to be selected by a special panel of Jack Nicklaus' business associates, if Nicklaus has not otherwise qualified.

But definitely not Al Geiberger. He might win.