Madison, Miss., had to be the only place in the golfing world
last week where the mere mention of the British Open brought a
sneer, a so-what shrug or outright hostility. Because while all
of golf's glamour-pusses were across the Pond playing for
everlasting glory and fabulous riches, 143 has-beens, wannabes
and what-ifs were scrapping it out at the PGA Tour's Deposit
Guaranty Classic, a 72-hole consolation prize for those who
Saturday morning found Kirk Triplett, at 29th the highest
ranking player on the PGA Tour money list at the Classic,
watching the British Open on a clubhouse TV at the Annandale
Golf Club. He slouched in a chair like a schoolboy being held
inside during recess. Triplett is ordinarily a pleasant man, but
watching the British Open was making him a tad grumpy.
At one point the TV commentators remarked on John Daly's fine
play. "He's still got the worst haircut on Tour," Triplett
sniffed. Jack Whitaker then weighed in with a typically
saccharine essay, to which Triplett rolled his eyes and said,
"Man, I wish he would retire." Moments later, after viewing a
series of reverent images of St. Andrews and hearing more
pontificating, Triplett said, "If I hear 'em say 'grand
tradition' one more time, I might lose it."
Triplett's bad trip was understandable. He had already made
plans to attempt to qualify for the British Open when he found
out that his wife, Cathi, was pregnant with twins. Reluctant to
stray too far from home, Triplett bagged the British. "Sure,
it's painful to watch it," he said. "It's one of my favorite
events, and sometimes it's hard to believe I'm here and not
Triplett was not alone in his pining. Said Tour rookie Jay
Williamson, "Let's face it, we all dream about winning the
British Open, not the Deposit Guaranty Classic."
True enough, but the Classic left Ed Dougherty feeling rather
dreamy. Dougherty is a frumpy 47-year-old who looks like he
would be more comfortable with a socket wrench than a six-iron,
but he shot a smooth 68-68-70-66-272 to win his first PGA Tour
event. The victory brought a coveted two-year exemption,
$126,000 and, among other things, an invitation to the '96
Masters. "I went from being a washed-up old pro to something
kind of special in four days," said Dougherty, who had earned a
paltry $2,605 in '95. "I said earlier that I was mighty glad to
be in Mississippi, and nothing since has changed my mind."
The week was a triumph for the tournament as well as for
Dougherty. For its first 26 years the Classic was known
derisively as the Mississippi Masters, a podunk event held the
same weekend in April as the real Masters. Victories were
unofficial, course conditions were subpar, and Hattiesburg, the
host town, became a synonym for second-rate. But last year the
Classic moved to Annandale, a strong layout with swank
facilities, and, more significant, the tournament became a fully
sanctioned event with a $700,000 purse. It has found such a nice
niche opposite the British Open that even Triplett concedes its
charms. "Yeah, I'm glad to be here," he said, stoked by his
fourth-place tie, worth $27,563. "Last I checked, this money
spends the same as the stuff won at St. Andrews."
Money is what keeps these players away from the British Open:
the chance to earn it as well as the need to save it. Last year
Mark Calcavecchia was accused of being an Ugly American and a
tightwad when he complained about the cost of playing in the
British. But Calcavecchia had a point.
Those who are not exempt for the British Open must travel to the
U.K. a week early to qualify. This means skipping that week's
Tour event, paying a hefty airfare and being gouged for a few
extra days of meals and accommodations--all for the chance to
play in an event in which they are guaranteed about $1,000 if
they make the field. "I rolled the dice [in 1990] and lost
$7,000," said Bob Gilder. "I'm not going to get raped again."
Instead Gilder played in the Anheuser-Busch Classic in
Williamsburg, Va., earning $3,146. Then he tied for eighth at
the Classic and pocketed $20,300.
Elite U.S. golfers have been critical of their countrymen who
don't wade overseas, and the situation turned especially
acrimonious last year when Tom Watson, Brad Faxon and Fuzzy
Zoeller all sounded off.
The hardscrabble road to the Tour and the dire straits of many
of the players competing at the Classic tell a different story.
"It's easy for those guys to say crap like that because they're
not struggling to hold onto their jobs," said Gilder, a 20-year
veteran who is 131st on the money list. "If the roles were
reversed, they would be back here grinding too."
That's what the Classic provides: an opportunity for the grinders.
Brian Henninger was just a 30-year-old journeyman before he won
the '94 Classic. Though he was itching to test his mettle at the
British Open, he returned to Madison to support the event that
has meant so much to him. "I know from experience you are much
better off coming here and focusing and playing good golf than
going to St. Andrews to have a quote-unquote experience," said
Henninger. "This tournament can change your life forever."
Jonathan Kaye certainly hopes so. Kaye, a 24-year-old rookie,
came into the Classic having made only two of 14 cuts and
$15,300. "When you're young and struggling, you live week to
week out here," he said. "It's a hard life, and sometimes it
plain sucks." But Kaye shot a course-record 63 on Saturday,
propelling him to a tie for 11th and a $13,900 payday. "You
start to wonder if you're just wasting your life away on a golf
course," he said. "A tourney like this is so huge."
The Classic field was eclectic, to say the least. Retro stars
such as David Graham, Jerry Pate and John Mahaffey showed up
minus the bad plaids of their heydays and played with mixed
results. Mac O'Grady dropped in from Toon Town, made his second
cut in as many years and finished tied for 57th. "It's always
interesting to see who crawls out of the woodwork for this
tournament," said a bemused Gilder.
The caliber of player may have seemed mediocre, but the caliber
of play was outstanding. "The depth is deep out here," Mahaffey
said. Grinning sheepishly at his Yogi-ism, he added, "What I
mean is, there are an extraordinary number of fine players in
golf, and this tournament is proof."
For the 70,000 or so spectators who braved the oppressive heat,
the Classic offered more than just low scores. The tournament
radiates a down-home feeling. The marshals don't hold up the
quiet please placards but rather signs that read hush y'all.
There was no players--only chow area, meaning the proletariat of
Mississippi was free to (and often did) rub elbows with the pros
at the same dining table. "This tournament is fancier than a
Nike Tour event but not as buttoned-down as a regular PGA Tour
event," said Williamson. "It's right in the middle, and that
makes it a real nice place to be."
Indeed. But it goes without saying that this time next year
Williamson and his colleagues wouldn't mind being a certain
somewhere else, somewhere far, far away.
COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND Henninger dreams of playing in the British Open, but he still made a loyal pitch for the Classic. [Brian Henninger golfing near trees]
TWO COLOR PHOTOS: PHOTOGRAPHS BY JIM GUND The Classic remains a secret partly because of that big event televised from across the Pond. [woman holding "HUSH Y'ALL" sign; men watching television]