In the 1970s the game of golf at all levels—from the professional to the amateur ranks—had never been healthier. Americans in 1971 watched on television as astronaut Alan B. Shepard sent a six-iron shot sailing in the moon’s thin atmosphere; millions shared an enthusiasm for the sport with Shepard. In the previous decade Arnold Palmer in swashbuckling, go-for-broke style had popularized the game and had opened country-club gates to legions of middle-class fans. Although he played a sport perceived by many Americans to be snobbish, Palmer was seen as an everyman on the golf course, his untrained-looking swing wildly hooking the ball into the woods then slashing it back into play.
“The King,” as he was called by his fans, sweated and chain-smoked his way through a round with a determined walk and stare. As millions of Americans headed out to the public links to emulate their new hero Palmer, a pudgy-faced, long-hitting Ohioan named Jack Nicklaus began challenging Palmer’s rule. By the 1970s “the Golden Bear” was seemingly winning everything in sight and had claimed all four major titles. Nicklaus was Palmer’s successor—just as Palmer had succeeded Ben Hogan. But as the decade progressed many became convinced that Nicklaus had surpassed all of his predecessors and had become golf’s greatest player ever.
A Mass Sport
More and more public courses were being built in the 1970s, and important equipment changes were keeping pace with the golfing boom. In 1968 Spalding had begun selling a Surlyn-covered two-piece ball, the Top-Flite. The new ball flew farther and was more durable. Although many in the pro ranks shunned the new ball because it was difficult to impart spin on the hard cover, thus making it harder to control, the two-piece, hard-covered ball meant more distance and lower cost for the average golfer.
Golf clubs also became less expensive during the decade. Mass-produced, investment-cast clubs came into the market, and many new companies sought to cash in on inexpensive club making. As a result middle-class Americans could afford equipment once reserved for the upper class. Expanded television coverage of men’s and women’s PGA Tour events also helped in bringing greater attention to golf during the decade. Some of the difficulties and expenses of golf coverage were solved with the addition of handheld cameras and on-course commentators following groups of players.
The PGA Tour
Television and a broader fan base meant big money for the American PGA Tour during the 1970s. By the end of the decade, total tour purse money exceeded $10 million, and the beginnings of a Senior PGA Tour—extraordinarily popular and lucrative in the 1980s—could be found in the Liberty Mutual Legends of Golf tournament played at Onion Creek in Austin, Texas, an event which debuted in 1978. An expanded tour schedule, more television coverage, and larger purses—due largely to the PGA having aggressively courted corporate sponsors—fit the vision of Deane Beman, the once-great amateur golfer who became the tour’s commissioner in 1974.
Beman’s critics snidely suggested that his goal was to assure the tour journeyman that, like Nicklaus and Palmer, he too could become a millionaire playing golf. Indeed, the efforts Beman made to fatten tour purses meant that pro golf could provide a fine living for men other than the game’s elite. The days spent on the road grinding from one event to the next were, for the average tour pro, coming to an end and would be replaced by first-class air travel and decent hotels.
The Women’s Tour
In 1973 Kathy Whitworth, the leading money winner of the LPGA Tour during much of the late 1960sand early 1970s, led pro women in year’s earnings with $87,000. In that year Jack Nicklaus led the men’s tour with $320,000. Fewer events, less television coverage and fan support, and fewer corporate sponsors meant that the LPGA Tour players lagged well behind their male counterparts in wealth and recognition. The LPGA, however, had no shortage of talent. Great and charismatic players such as JoAnne Carner, Donna Caponi Young, Sandra Haynie, and Judy Rankin dueled week after week for prize money that was a fraction of the purses for which the men played. In 1976 Rankin became the first woman golfer to win more than $100,000 in one year, and by the end of the decade purses for women’s events were averaging over $100,000.
The LPGA was beginning to profit from increased corporate sponsorship and television coverage—and the patronage of Dinah Shore. In 1972 the popular entertainer became involved with one of the tour’s major tournaments, which became known as the Colgate-Dinah Shore Winners Circle. Shore soon became addicted to the game of golf, and her association with the tournament—and her play in the tournament’s celebrity proam event—meant expanded coverage by NBC, greater corporate interest, and, most important, greater fan interest in women’s golf. Shore succeeded in doing for the LPGA what Bing Crosby and his association with the Pebble Beach tour stop had done for PGA popularity.
The LPGA’s Superstar
In 1978 junior golfing sensation Nancy Lopez burst onto the LPGA Tour and became what women’sgolf most needed—the game’s greatest star since Mildred (“Babe”) Zaharias. Her unusual swing, endearing smile and personality, and winning ways attracted millions to women’s golf, as she dominated the tour in her rookie year with nine victories—including the LPGA championship, which she won by six strokes—and a record single-season total of $189,813 in prize money.
In one remarkable stretch during that 1978 campaign, Lopez won five consecutive times, stunning thesports world. She took Player of the Year honors for 1978, as well as Rookie of the Year—a feat unheard-of until then. She repeated as Player of the Year in 1979, having won eight more tournaments. In that year she also won her second Vare Trophy, awarded to the player with the lowest scoring average. Lopez’s dominating presence on the golf course further revolutionized golfduring the next decade, as purses became richer and fans and the media began to pay greater attention to the LPGA Tour.
Although Palmer and his municipal-course swing were being overshadowed by Nicklaus, with his cool demeanor and mechanical efficiency during the 1970s, golf fans had other everymen to follow, most notably Lee Trevino. Known to fans as the “Merry Mex,” Trevino was born in Dallas, Texas, where he eked out a living as a $30-a-week assistant pro at a driving range hustling bets on the side. A great storyteller, Trevino claims to have beaten opponents in money games using a Coke bottle.
Trevino exploded onto the big-time golfing scene in the late 1960s, winning the 1968 U. S. Open and becoming a permanent fixture at or near the top of the tour money list through much of the 1970s. He replaced Palmer in golf’s Big Three, joining Nicklaus and South Africa’s Gary Player, when in 1971 Trevino pulled off a phenomenal triple, winning the U.S., Canadian, and British Opens in a space of four weeks. Although the Merry Mex and his constant chatter were big hits with the gallery and television audiences, Trevino was beginning to give the Golden Bear fits by often squeaking ahead of Nicklaus in the final round. Such was the case in the 1974 PGA Championship, and in that year Trevino also captured the Vardon Trophy, awarded to the PGA Tour player with the lowest scoring average.
Despite the presence of such tradition-defying players as Palmer and Trevino and the game’s increased affordability and popularity among the middle class, professional golf largely remained lily-white in its racial attitudes, as many of the tour’s venues remained discriminatory in their policies. Nevertheless, the 1970s saw the continuing success of Charles Sifford, whose emergence on the PGA Tour in the late 1950s helped overturn the tour’s “all-white” rule in 1960. In 1975 Sifford won the PGA Seniors title, capping off a career in which he won over $340,000. The tour’s first nationally prominent black star, however, was Robert Lee Elder.
A product of the black United Golf Association tour, Elder qualified for PGA Tour play for the 1968 season, and in that year faced off against Nicklaus in a thrilling televised sudden-death play-off at the American Golf Classic. Elder lost on the fifth hole, but the play-off had placed him in the national limelight. He captured his first PGA title in 1974 at the Monsanto Open. He won twice in 1978, and in 1979 at the age of forty-five he became the first black to play for America’s Ryder Cup team. Both Sifford and Elder became fixtures on the Senior Tour during the 1980s.
Throughout the decade young, talented players challenged Nicklaus’s primacy on the golf course, and in the act of doing so some even became superstars, such as Tom Weiskopf, Texans Ben Crenshaw and Tom Kite, and Californian Johnny Miller, who shot an incredible 63 on the lightning-fast greens of Pittsburgh’s Oakmont Country Club to win the 1973 U.S. Open.
In 1974 Miller had one of professional golf’s greatest years, winning eight tournaments. By 1976, however, Miller’s star was fading, and Nicklaus remained on top of the heap. The Golden Bear had won a record fifth Masters in 1975, and in 1978 he won another British Open, giving him at least three victories in all four majors. In 1980 he won his fourth U.S. Open at famed Baltusrol, shooting a record 272 for seventy-two holes.
One player emerged in the late 1970s whom many felt would succeed Nicklaus as golf’s greatest. Tom Watson, a midwesterner with a Huck Finn face, served notice to the golfing world in 1975, when he won the British Open at Carnoustie and finished in the top ten in the other three majors that year. In one of the finest head-to-head golfing contests ever witnessed, Watson outplayed Nicklaus in the fourth round to win the 1977 British Open. The contest played over the links layout in Turnberry, Scotland, was soon being called “The Duel in the Sun” and served as a preview of other spectacular Watson-Nicklaus duels in which the play of the two men would rise well above that of the rest of the field. From 1977 to 1979 Watson owned the Vardon Trophy and Player of the Year honors, and his best year, 1980, was yet to come.