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Original Issue

A Playing Lesson

Club pro Tom Wargo showed the big boys a thing or two to win the Senior PGA

Who's minding the store? Try being fitted for clubs or scheduling a lesson at the local pro shop, and the kid behind the counter might say, "Sorry, Jim's in Detroit making a monkey of Trevino," or, "Larry's at Saucon Valley winning the Senior Open."

The latest wage slave to step out from behind the counter and into golf history is 50-year-old Tom Wargo—head pro, owner, grass mower and hamburger flipper at the Greenview Golf Club in Centralia, Ill. With his playoff victory over veteran Bruce Crampton at the PGA Seniors' Championship in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., Wargo joins Jim Albus (1991 Senior Players Championship) and Larry Laoretti ('92 U.S. Senior Open) as guys who have won major titles with minor credentials. "We're killing 'em!" said an exultant Laoretti on Sunday as he enveloped Wargo in a huge hug and a humongous cloud of cigar smoke. "This proves that a lot of club pros can really play golf."

Who needed proof? It has almost become a clichè: A club pro with a (pick one) cigar/belly/mustache storms into the third-round lead...tells rapt reporters about his life as a carpenter/moonshiner/bail bondsman...captures the hearts of millions of daily-fee golfers by playing the final round while wearing a funny hat/store-bought slacks/street shoes...and wins. But when Wargo emerged from obscurity last Saturday—the pivotal moment was an eye-popping one-iron second shot over water from the rough onto the 16th green—he seemed the creation of a particularly delirious scriptwriter. Wargo actually resembles Arnold Palmer: big forearms, slashing swing with a low follow-through and lots of pants-hitching. But the Wargo rèsumè is hardly Palmeresque—no major titles, unless you count the 1971 Vehicle City Open.

Wargo has been a dairy farmer ("I used to milk a dozen cows a day," he said), a salmon fisherman, an automobile-assembly-line worker and an ironworker ("mostly structural and ornamental, but I've worked at 400 feet, where there's nothing but air under you"). One suspects he wasn't listening on Career Day. "I'm pretty much self-taught," says Wargo of his golf game, and nobody doubts him.

He didn't take up the sport until he was 25, having invested most of his athletic fervor in bowling; he peaked at a 201 average. He gleaned the fundamentals of golf from magazine articles, but mostly he learned from watching others. Just whom Wargo has watched is hard to tell. Certainly not second-round leader Tom Weiskopf, whose swing was so admired on the PGA Tour that he was deemed deficient for winning "only" 15 tournaments and one major (1973 British Open). Certainly not the dolorous Crampton, winner of 14 PGA Tour and 19 Senior events, who shot a final-round 66 to catch Wargo at the end of regulation. And certainly not third-place finisher Isao Aoki of Japan, whose low hand position at address suggests that of a movie usher searching for gum under theater seats.

"It's my swing," said Wargo, "and I play with it."

Indeed, everything about Wargo seemed generic, particularly his logo-free straw hat. He arrived at the 1st tee last Thursday without a single endorsement, even though he was the 1992 Club Professional of the Year and had finished a respectable 28th as a qualifier at the 1992 PGA Championship in St. Louis. He had also won $72,000 in five Senior tour events this year, including a tie for fourth at Tampa. Armed with a 10th-place finish at last year's Senior tour Qualifying School, Wargo wanted to play 10 or 12 Senior tournaments in '93. He even sent off a sheaf of letters to tournament sponsors, begging for exemptions. There was no interest.

"Next week," said Laoretti jokingly, "he'll probably have five or six labels on that hat."

Do labels matter? Last week's host club must think so, judging from the weeklong hype about the Bear Trap. The Champion course—designed by George and Tom Fazio and redesigned in 1990 by Jack Nicklaus—at PGA National is the hardest course the Seniors play, other than whatever venue is chosen for the U.S. Senior Open. But the Champion has no instantly recognizable holes, and few golf fans can recall a single shot from the 10 previous PGA Seniors' Championships played there or from the 1987 PGA Championship, won by Larry Nelson. The '90s solution, of course, is p.r., and so last week holes 15 through 17 at the Champion were officially designated the Bear Trap. Voilà! Instant personality.

Nicklaus said he was "delighted" and "flattered" by the designation. He might have been more flattered had the name emerged, unsummoned, from the prose of some golf writer rather than from the fertile mind of PGA National president Colin Wright. (Augusta National's Amen Corner was named by golf historian Herbert Warren Wind.) But this Bear Trap, unlike the steel-jawed kind, was intended solely to attract attention. Publicists even distributed press kits touting the holes, Bear Trap videos, transcripts of the video and daily updates of what happened at the holes. The updates were entitled "Who Got Caught in the Bear Trap Today?" In a moment of undisguised puffery, Trevino said, "Forget Amen Corner. These last four holes, with the wind and water, are the real killers of golf."

However, if the Bear Trap campaign seemed contrived, the dangers of the actual holes could not be exaggerated. Numbers 15 and 17 are similar—with steep-banked par-3s over water, reeds and lily pads; double and triple bogeys were common. The Bear himself dropped out of contention on Saturday when he pushed a seven-iron into the reeds on 17. Minutes later Crampton drowned one in the same spot. J.C. Snead, who shot an opening-round 68, hit a ball into the frog condos on 15 Saturday for a double bogey. Weiskopf, who would self-destruct with a Sunday double bogey on 15, tossed the marketing folks a freebie. "Those are four finishing holes as fine as I've ever played," he said. "You could make four double bogeys without blinking an eye."

Long before they reached the Bear Trap on Sunday, Wargo and Crampton showed that if anyone blinked, it would not be they. The surging Crampton, who Started the day three shots behind Wargo, holed out from a bunker for a birdie on 8, but Wargo coolly sank a 12-footer for a birdie of his own to maintain a two-shot margin. Crampton, playing with the easy rhythm of a man with a full trophy case, birdied 17 and 18 to force the playoff.

The players walked to the long, difficult 16th for sudden death. Crampton seemed to have won when Wargo chunked a one-iron approach into the front bunker. But Wargo exploded to within four feet of the pin and saved par. It ended instead on 17, where Crampton hit his tee shot into the reeds short of the green. "I just didn't execute." said Crampton, writing a sad epitaph to a day of near flawless execution.

Practically all Wargo had to do to guarantee victory was hit the green, and that he did, fading a seven-iron—after a last-minute switch from a six-iron—to the fat part of the green. Two putts later he no longer was merely a club pro, he was a titled club pro. He immediately celebrated by clutching his wife, Irene, in an embrace that lasted so long there was concern that Bernhard Langer might play through.

When asked later whether he would join the Seniors full-time or continue to operate his course, he said, "I don't know. We'll have to sit down and think about it. I still consider myself a club pro."

Fair enough. But with his $110,000 first-place prize, with his newly earned one-year Senior tour exemption and with his name engraved on a trophy next to those of Nicklaus, Palmer, Trevino and Player, Tom Wargo will soon learn one thing: It's a different club now.



A former farmer, fisherman, auto and ironworker, Wargo didn't take up golf until age 25.