Publish date:


In a suspenseful finish, T.C. Chen beat Ben Crenshaw to win the Los Angeles Open

Barring late phone-in changes from you viewers at home, T.C. (Two Chip) Chen appears to have won the L.A. Open by mastering the notion of one whack of the ball per golf swing. Not so good at the new math was Ben Crenshaw, who forgot that taking more than one swing of the putter to navigate four feet often equals second place.

And so Crenshaw becomes further burdened as the worst playoff player in history (0-6), while Tze-Chung finally unburdens himself from his ignominious nickname, acquired in 1985 when he blew a four-stroke lead on the final day of the U.S. Open by, among other things, hitting the ball twice in one pass of the sand wedge, a neat trick mostly used at Jaycee exhibitions.

How about Too Cool as a new nickname? After all, hadn't Chen taken the lead with a hole in one on Saturday? And hadn't he given us the thrill ride of the golf year by matching Crenshaw's three-pointer of a putt on the 72nd hole with his own ought-to-be-an-L.A.-law sidehill 14-footer? And doesn't he have a Boston Blackie mustache? He's Much Too Cool.

And when Crenshaw walloped his four-foot putt left and past the cup on the first playoff hole at historic Riviera Country Club, Chen, after four years and too few close calls, finally became a True Champion—the first Taiwanese to win on the Tour.

"Well," someone asked him, "will you be able to sleep tonight?"

"I don't think so," said Chen in slightly tortured English. "I'm too exciting."

You got that right. Ditto for the whole PGA Tour lately. Remember a year ago, when the Tour was notable mainly for who's-he winners—three first-timers in the first 10 tournaments—and the bickering triumvirate of Deane Beman, Seve Ballesteros and Mac O'Grady?

Since then, it has been like one giant Dr. Leo Buscaglia hug. Greg Norman emerged as the new Arnie. Bob Tway became the Great American Hope. Ballesteros is only mumbling his gripes instead of shouting them. Mac the Quote is (relatively) silent ("My goal is to get through the entire year without being fined," he says). And the golf has been perfectly splendid.

Of the first seven tournaments this year, two have gone to playoffs and four have been decided by one shot. Better yet, some great names, once thought put away in the deep freeze until cures could be found—Craig Stadler, Johnny Miller, and Crenshaw—have gotten a good dose of I-think-I-cans. Not only did Johnny come lately to his first Tour win in four years, at Pebble Beach, but Stadler already has two, oops, make that one (see page 85) second-place finish. George Burns won at La Jolla, and now Crenshaw comes to L.A. to prove that last year's two-win comeback was no chimera.

Everybody seems to be getting his kicks. "The players have been so nice to me about it," says Miller. "Hale Irwin was crazy over it. He said to me, 'That was fantastic! Maybe this means I can win, too.' "

Feel-good golf is in. Three times already in do-or-done-for dilemmas, the two combatants have made like an est weekend. In both of Corey Pavin's two close wins, he came down the final fairway laughing and smiling with the man whom he was about to separate from tens of thousands of dollars. At the Bob Hope Classic it was Bernhard Langer, with whom he actually held hands. In Hawaii it was Stadler. "Craig and I were laughing about the flights we were missing," Pavin says. "Why not have fun? What am I gonna do, trip the guy?"

This makes therapists beam, but you can't help but feel that as Palmer and Nicklaus were going head-to-head on the last hole at Oakmont 25 years ago, neither of them felt like discussing frequent-flier or any other news.

Perhaps in order to ensure the new domestic tranquillity, the pros are legislating against high scores. In L.A. they voted to ax from their schedule the PGA West Stadium Course, the wicked, wonderful earth sculpture of a track in La Quinta. Why America's best players don't want Americans to watch them play the PGA's hardest course is a mystery, but even this bit of bonehead public relations went down without a wince. "Doesn't make any difference to us," PGA West president Joe Walser Jr. told The Los Angeles Times. "I can't beat the people off with a stick who want to play the Stadium Course."

And even when mega-agent Mark (Arnold Palmer, Norman, What They Don't Teach You at Harvard Business School) McCormack came out in the February issue of Golf magazine and called the players "fat cats" who are more concerned with "being comfortable and buying fast cars" than with winning, the Tour just shrugged. McCormack made some sense, but then again, McCormack worrying about the players making too much money is like Famous Amos worrying about people eating too many cookies. "Mark McCormack was the man who created the situation we have today," says Peter Jacobsen, "and he opens his big mouth and says we have things too cushy? He ought to be ashamed of himself." Jacobsen's agent, by the way, is McCormack.

Anyway, nobody and no thing could keep the Tour from its hot streak, and when Sunday dawned cold and foreboding, you knew even the weather didn't stand a chance. By noon a record 46,100 people would be in shirtsleeves on Hogan's Alley—with or without a great field. Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Andy Bean, Payne Stewart, Tom Kite, Fuzzy Zoeller, Ray Floyd, Norman and Langer all left early for the eastern swing, but it didn't matter. Players who favor great courses over great airline schedules were out in force, and there were more than enough of those guys.

Mostly it was a brother act, and by Saturday night, one half of a brother combo peopled the leader board: T.C. (not T.M.) Chen, Danny (not David) Edwards, and Bobby (not Lanny) Wadkins. Chen got your attention first when he took the lead for the first time Saturday, slam-dunking a six-iron shot on the par-3, 171-yard 6th hole, the one with a bunker in the middle of the green, for a hole in one. "I was thinking five-iron, but my caddie, he want six-iron," Chen said. "I have good caddie." Chen's 67 left him a shot up on Dny. Edwards, two up on B. Wadkins and Crenshaw and four up on Ballesteros.

But by the fifth hole Sunday, anyone would have told you Ballesteros was going to win it. Chen had bogeyed the 3rd hole not long after Ballesteros had birdied the 4th, so Seve lay only one menacing tick back of Chen, Wadkins and Crenshaw. But then Ballesteros came to the odd 6th, and though he hit it on the green, he landed on the wrong side of the bunker. Unwilling to chip over the bunker, Ballesteros tried something of a slice-putt around it, but the putt failed to slice. He took a bogey and, until they made out the ninth-place check, his name was never heard again.

When Wadkins took two to get out of a bunker at 14 and made double bogey, it became clear that the winner was going to come from the final threesome of Chen, Crenshaw and Edwards, a neat-as-you-please tournament rolled conveniently into one handy container.

Breaking out initially was Edwards, who was trying to become the first man ever to win the same tournament on the same course as his brother (1984). He was up two shots when the group came to 15, but he reeled himself in when he slapped his drive into a tree and watched it fall sickeningly to the ground about 150 yards from the tee. By the time he got the ball from there to the cup, he had made bogey, and his lead was one.

It was zero when the group finished 17, Edwards having bludgeoned a chip from the fringe seven feet past the hole, then missing the comebacker. Chen could have taken the lead then and there with a five-foot birdie putt, but he never touched the hole. Everybody was tied with $108,000 in first-place money on the table and one hole to play.

At the hellacious 18th, where only four birdies had been made all day, Crenshaw drove first and bisected the fairway. Chen Xeroxed that drive to put his ball within 10 inches of Crenshaw's. Edwards, slightly off the target, put his drive 15 feet to the right of theirs. Also equidistant were the approaches to the green, all three of them within 15 feet of the cup: Crenshaw and Edwards pin-high from opposite sides, and Chen from above. This was a threesome to end all threesomes.

"That was an incredible feeling," Crenshaw recalled. "All three of us walking down the fairway with a chance to win. Everybody fighting for one last birdie."

Crenshaw's chances seemed as good as anybody's. Things were both hunky and dory. Before the week began, he learned he and his new wife. Julie, were about to be parents of a coming attraction. Golfwise, he had played without a bogey since the 18th on Friday. And he had made 16 straight pars since birdieing No. 1 on Sunday. Not only that, but he got to putt first.

"I had the line right on the button," he said, and when it went in, he threw his hat, picked it up, staggered to the fringe, sat down Indian style, put his hat on sideways, stood back up and soaked it all in. Cue the crying wife. Cue the instant interview. Cue the bank.

Edwards, heartsick, putted next and left it very short and right, which left Chen to stare at a seemingly unmakable putt and think up something nice to say about Ben. "I thought Ben had won," Chen admitted. "My putt was sidehill and fast. Very hard." If he missed, and it seemed he would, what would they call him now, having led such a big tournament and then blowing it. Two Choke?

As Chen stood over the ball, he said something strange and bold to himself. "I said, 'Don't leave it short. Even a three-putt is better than leaving it short....' To me, second or third makes no difference. I just want to win so bad."

Two Chip hit it once, and once was enough. Gentle Ben had just been Tai'd.

Stuffed into cars for the drive to the 15th tee, Chen rode shotgun in his, while Crenshaw and Julie rode in the back of theirs, staring straight down. Their postures spoke encyclopedias. "I didn't want to look at her, and she didn't want to look at me," said Ben.

Uh-oh, another dreaded playoff. Ben Crenshaw may go down as the most loved player yet most pathetic playoff performer in history. He is 0 for career in the hideous things. "My playoff record is pitiful," he said, "and I have no idea why that is."

Chen had his own history of throat blockage. Besides his miseries in the Open, he had led by two shots with three holes remaining at the 1983 Kemper before losing to Fred Couples.

But now Too Cool had the advantage. "For T.C. to make that putt on 18," Crenshaw recalled, "to hole it right on top of mine, was...devastating."

Chen drove first in the playoff and pushed it safely to the right on the par-4, 449-yard 15th. Crenshaw, taking more time than usual, hit a high, ungainly hook that came to rest on a cart path. Choosing not to take a free drop because the grass "seemed too thick," and because the drop would have left him with a sidehill lie, Crenshaw chose to hit off the road. "I probably should have dropped," he said later. He missed his three-iron to the right, putting it in the bunker. Chen hit a magnificent four-iron to within 12 feet. Said Crenshaw, "Good Lord, what a shot."

Now it was Crenshaw's turn to smoke or choke. He tucked his sand shot to within four feet. Chen missed his birdie putt right and tapped in.

With 15,000 people watching, Crenshaw looked at that four-footer from every angle but underneath. "It's a tough putt I've had so many times on that hole," he said. "It was sidehill, and the one thing I didn't want to do was leave it below the hole." So he left it above—two inches above—the cup. "I hit it right through the break."

As he saw it burn by, Crenshaw, stunned, prepared to putt it again, as though some 15,000 people might forget he already lay four. When he realized it was useless, he tried to squirt it into the hole from above. That didn't go, either.

"I just feel wonderful," said Chen. "I have been looking for this title for a long, long time.... This will help my confidence very much."

Unfortunately, while T.C. was winning gloriously in Los Angeles, brother T.M. was losing cataclysmically in the Philippines, making double bogey on the final hole to lose by one shot.

Which is too bad. If T.M. could have hung on, Sunday would have gone down in history as the first time ever that Hollywood celebrated a double Chen.



After forcing a playoff, Tze-Chung followed through with his first tournament victory.



Crenshaw sank a heart-stopper on the 18th green (right), but his errant drive on the first extra hole landed him on the beaten path.



Danny Edwards was trying to win an event his younger brother Dave had won in 1984.



Don't write in—Stadler wasn't standing on a towel when he blasted out of this sand trap.