Tom Purtzer won the Los Angeles Open last week, and thus joined Ben Hogan, Byron Nelson, Sam Snead and almost everyone else who has mattered in the history of the PGA tour. The crowds that carpeted the hillside of the natural amphitheater that is Riviera's celebrated 18th green had come to see the likes of Ben Crenshaw, Tom Weiskopf or Hale Irwin. But these stars faded early. By the time 25-year-old Purtzer, in pursuit of his first tour win, had shot a final-round 72, steadying himself every time he faltered, twice losing and then regaining his slim lead over Lanny Wadkins, the galleries had grown accustomed to his face. In fact, they rather liked it.
It was hard to say who wanted victory more, Wadkins, who has endured the torture of oblivion for three years, or Purtzer, a promising apprentice desperate for the breakthrough that would remove him from the rabbit category and set him on his life's way. Sunday's final round was a dramatic match from the first hole, where Wadkins grabbed off a quick, intimidating birdie, until the 18th, where Purtzer saved par and the win he has been waiting two years for. He did it with a wonderfully difficult chip and a heart-stopping 5-foot putt. Purtzer's winning score was 68-67-66-72-273, 11 under par.
With that last putt and the $40,000 it brought, Purtzer's apprenticeship came to an end and so did the PGA's Western swing, one of the strangest beginnings pro golf has experienced in quite a while. At the conclusion of seven events one could only look around and wonder where everybody had gone. Why wasn't Weiskopf or Irwin out there, under the eucalyptus trees, pocketing the check for $40,000? What happened to Crenshaw? By this time last year he had won two tournaments. How could Jack Nicklaus miss a cut in a place like Honolulu? Where was Raymond Floyd hiding? And what about Johnny Miller, the Desert Fox himself? Six of the brightest stars of the game, winners of two major championships and almost a million and a quarter dollars in prize money last year, seemed to be in total eclipse.
In 1976, the six of them—Weiskopf, Irwin, Crenshaw, Nicklaus, Floyd and Miller—had won five of the first seven tournaments and finished in the top ten 12 times. This year, after the same seven tournaments—Phoenix, Tucson, the Crosby, San Diego, Hawaii, the Hope and the L.A. Open—they had not won anything, and they had not even finished in the top ten. Not once, in 23 starts. In 1976 the big six averaged $9,600 a start for the entire year. So far this year they are averaging $1,375. Their total take for the first seven tournaments of 1977 is $31,635, which is only slightly more than Andy Bean has earned all by himself—and not much better than the top six caddies are doing.
Bruce Lietzke, the hero of the Winter Tour, has played five tournaments (he passed up L.A. because his father was ill) and won $123,350; Johnny Miller has played the same five tournaments and won $680. Last year by this time, Miller had made $84,000 and had won two tournaments. Miller skipped L.A. last week in favor of a trip to Australia, saying as he left, "You'll hear from me again." After three straight missed cuts, one withdrawal and a tie for 41st, Johnny is Down Under with no place to go but up.
As everyone knows, Nicklaus is a slow starter, but an 11th-place finish at the Crosby and a missed cut in Hawaii barely constitute ignition. Think of it this way. The greatest player of the age has missed the cut in two of his last four starts. From the Kaiser in 1970 through the World Series in 1976, in 105 tournaments, Jack never missed a cut. Finally, at the World Open in Pinehurst last September, it happened. He missed by a stroke. Since then he has played in three tournaments—the Ohio Kings Island Open and the Crosby, finishing in the money both times, and the Hawaiian Open, where he missed the cut by one stroke again.
Going into the L.A. Open, Irwin, the defending champion who last year brought Riviera to its august knees with a 12-under-par 272, was 48th on the PGA money list. Coming out he was exactly $533 richer, having finished tied for 46th. Crenshaw added an inglorious 34th to his earlier 50th, 63rd, 15th and 35th. When the weekly money list was posted in the Riviera locker room last Tuesday, showing Crenshaw with a mere $4,293, someone suggested in jest that perhaps it was not too early for Crenshaw to start thinking about his exemption for 1978. Weiskopf might have been startled to see himself in 60th position on the same list, had it not been for the fact that with $5,890 in winnings he was far out in front of Nicklaus at 69th, Crenshaw at 75th, Floyd at 89th and Miller at—good grief!—147th.
When one considers, further, that Gary Player has not won a tournament in the U.S. for more than two years and that Lee Trevino underwent back surgery in December and has yet to play this year, it seems possible that the time may be near for a major revision in the PGA script with a whole new cast of characters.
At Los Angeles, Tom Weiskopf was the only star within striking distance of the lead after 36 holes, and the attention of Saturday's enormous galleries was focused on him. As Tall Tom set off on his 7,029-yard trek, every fan trudging alongside knew that if anybody could take the tournament away from the nobodies, it was this particular somebody. Weiskopf inspires that sort of confidence, even though he has not won a tour event since the 1975 Canadian Open. His height, his elegant posture, his marvelous swing, the small smile that plays around his mouth when things are going well all contribute.
But Weiskopf finished the day at 74, 14 strokes behind Purtzer. The third day really belonged to Purtzer, whose swing is as esthetically pleasing as Weiskopf's. Purtzer and Wadkins had started the third round in a tie at seven-under with a two-stroke lead over Roger Maltbie and Craig Stadler. But while Wadkins had to struggle for his 69, saving himself with his putting on several occasions, Purtzer, by his own description, had "one of those days you dream about." His 66 came from hitting well, driving well and "making more putts today than I made all last year."
Purtzer's front-side 33 was a steady, two-birdie affair, but the back-side 33 was a wild mélange of four birdies, an eagle, three bogeys and a single par. The eagle was scored on Riviera's par-5 11th, a 559-yard straightaway crossed by a meandering barranca and bordered by towering eucalyptus and twisted sycamores. Purtzer hit a perfect drive and a perfect three-wood to reach the green, and then sank his 25-foot putt. He was tired at the end of the day, but he was having fun.
Purtzer had led. a tour event only once before. At Philadelphia last June he led or was tied for the lead for three rounds before his final 75 hurled him back into an eight-way tie for 12th. "Every time you're there it gets easier." he said late Saturday with a three-stroke lead over Wadkins and five over Bob Gilder, who had come on with a 68. "It's just a matter of time."
Tom Purtzer's time came Sunday. Mark it down, alongside Rik Massengale and Lietzke, because the nobodies are somebodies now. They are the new tour, and it looks as though they are going to be around for a while.
After conquering the field and some last-minute jitters, Purtzer got to nibble at a $40,000 salad.
Crenshaw, Weiskopf and Irwin all hoped to end their early-season slumps, but on Sunday evening none of their names was posted on the leaderboard.