Every now and then, proof is furnished that golf is the most curious of games. A player will come along with a name out of an old Cary Grant movie—Nick Price, for example—and with no credentials whatsoever will go out there in a big professional tournament and beat up on a group of stars whose reputations should make him hug the trunk of the nearest tree and pray for darkness. South Africa's Price did just that at the Firestone Country Club in Akron, winning the World Series of Golf on Sunday by an easy four strokes over runner-up Jack Nicklaus, and by more than that over Johnny Miller, Tom Watson, Raymond Floyd, Hale Irwin, Isao Aoki and the rest of the field of 41. At the finish, the scoreboard listed a group that might have convened to discuss endorsement fees—until you got to the top. You had the feeling that if Price had had time to look that board over, he would have reached for his autograph book.
That the championship Price ran off with Sunday afternoon is in danger of losing its significance was clearly beside the point to the 26-year-old stylist from Johannesburg by way of Zimbabwe. In one week in Ohio he won $100,000, almost four times as much as he had banked all year on the PGA Tour. Price came into the event not as a tournament winner but as the leader of the South African Order of Merit standings, a suspect honor at best. He had finished second three times on the South African tour last winter, after which he came to the U.S., where his best finish in 17 events was a tie for ninth at the Kemper Open.
What made his Firestone rounds of 66, 68. 69 and 67 even more impressive were two things: the company he kept while doing it, and, no doubt, his memories of the fainting spell he had experienced the last time he had been in the real spotlight. Golf fans may recall the only previous occasion when they had been aware of Price. It was at Troon, in Scotland, in the summer of '82, when he led the British Open by three strokes with only six holes to play, and then did what Nick Prices are expected to do. He blew the title to Tom Watson, going four over par on those last six holes, Troon regrettably lacking a windmill par 3.
But Price, a tall, sturdy, good-looking bachelor, did nothing of the sort at Firestone, despite the pairings which put him in such fast company. When he shot that 66 to lead on Thursday, he did it in the presence of Floyd and Miller. When he holed out an eight-iron for an eagle 2 at the 470-yard 9th hole on Friday, he did it with Jack Nicklaus and Bobby Clampett watching. On Saturday, as Floyd and Australia's Graham Marsh tagged along, he kept playing "to the fat part of the greens"—his game plan, he said—to shoot the 69 and hold a two-stroke lead. And then on Sunday he birdied the 2nd, 7th and 10th holes under the watchful eyes of Irwin and Aoki and strolled unwaveringly to his 67 and a 72-hole total of 270. There was nothing anyone could do but play for second, and Nicklaus' 65 settled that issue.
There was only one fleeting moment Sunday when Price resembled the guy back at Troon. He let his tee shot at the par-3 15th veer off into a bunker, and was faced with a long sand shot, not the easiest kind. The thought occurred to many that this could be the start of something bizarre, but such thoughts disappeared when Price nearly holed the bunker shot.
"All I wanted to do was prove I could play golf without choking," Price said later. "I've thought about that British Open a lot. I don't think I choked, but I don't know what else you can call a couple of bad tee shots." Price confessed that he hadn't come to Akron to win a golf tournament. "I came to work on my game for the tournaments that remain this year," he said.
With that simple statement, Price touched on some things about the troubled World Series of Golf, an event that may or may not have a future.
Maybe our touring pros and the golfing public have just been over-Akroned and over-Firestoned through the years, but it certainly seems that each time the competitors show up for the World Series they have to dig deeper to display any enthusiasm for the event, which was designed to represent something exclusively wonderful.
"I know it's supposed to be important, but I think most of us tell ourselves that instead of feeling it," Ben Crenshaw said. "Maybe we're all a little tired by the time it comes around."
Lanny Wadkins, a former champion, came a little closer to the problem when he said, "I was happy to win it, but I've never really known what I won."
To which Tom Watson, another former champion, said, "We've tampered with the qualifying system too much. You ought to have to win something to get here."
"Here" was still Akron and still Firestone, whose water tower has been on television more times than Mary Tyler Moore. And once again the championship didn't signify the end of anything on the tour. The World Series is supposed to represent the statistical and emotional end of the season, but it doesn't do any such thing, because the pros keep on playing those Pensacola Opens right up to Christmas. There are eight more tournaments in 1983.
Tour Commissioner Deane Beman hoped that the World Series would "transcend the major championships," and he's labored hard to make the event special. First prize is worth $100,000, and the winner receives a 10-year exemption on the tour. But fat purses have become almost commonplace—the Tournament Players Championship in Ponte Vedra, Fla., a Beman extravaganza that has succeeded, paid Hal Sutton $126,000 last March, and Sutton took home $100,000 for winning the PGA earlier this month. A new event scheduled for Las Vegas in two weeks will weigh the winner down with $135,000.
"If I didn't acknowledge that we have a problem, you'd want to put me away," Beman said in Akron. "Our original plan was to make it very select, make it the biggest purse, and conclude the season with it. We can still do that, and we're going to work on it."
The pity is that the tournaments at Akron have all been fascinating, if not downright thrilling, though played more or less in secrecy. Many of the game's marquee names have done their part to keep it from looking like a rerun. Last year Craig Stadler nipped Floyd in a sudden-death playoff. Competitively, at least, the World Series hasn't exactly been a Sammy Davis, Jr.-Danny Thomas Condo Classic.
But so what? The tournament still comes across like the old four-man World Series of Golf exhibition, which lasted 14 years, and reminds TV fans of the old CBS Golf Classic, which, four months a year, from '67 through '74, also filled your screens with the Firestone water tower. Maybe people think this is still the American Golf Classic, played at Firestone off and on from 1961 through 1976.
The '83 World Series unfolded with what does set it off from other tournaments—its usual hilarious opening ceremony. A high school band marched down the 1st fairway and later offered a few national anthems that sounded like the music piped into Oriental restaurants. Strange flags were raised, momentarily giving the crowd a feeling that Akron had undergone a coup.
The image of the World Series was not enhanced when Masters winner Seve Ballesteros, along with Great Britain's Nick Faldo and Sandy Lyle, chose to skip it in favor of action on the European tour. A World Series of Golf without Ballesteros? That's like a Taiwan Open without Hsieh Yu-Shu.
Crowds were sparse at Firestone, and one CBS executive was already complaining that the telecast was going to cost the network about $300,000 because the commercial spots sold for less than expected. With one thing and another, the series seemed to generate about as much excitement as the Akron Beacon Journal's Great Vegetable Cook-Off, in which Green Beans Supreme went up against Milk and Honey Carrots.
When last seen, Beman was bent into the Ohio humidity, a man determined to "fix" the event. Assuming he wasn't going to suggest a new format in which the golfers played through the streets of downtown Akron, twice circling the Quaker Oats Hilton and the United Rubber, Cork, Linoleum and Plastic Workers building, Beman's serious options appeared to be as follows:
•Give this thing a golf name instead of a baseball name—the International Tournament of Champions, let's say, or The Winner's World.
•Make a player win something or other to qualify—even a Scandinavian Open—instead of coming in off a money list or out of an order of merit.
•Up the purse to $1 million and give the winner $200,000, at least more than any other event, and more than he could earn in two dozen corporate outings.
•Move the championship to some exotic locale where the competition could turn up in prime time on American television as the genuine grand final event of the calendar year. This would have the advantage of a course where the water tower over the clubhouse wouldn't look as if it were seeking a dogfight with the Goodyear blimp—again.
In Akron, Price put Troon far behind him.
High school bands on the fairway are something, but in the case of the series, not enough.