Sunday, February 15, 2009
Imagine that you were included, too, playing alongside your PGA Tour heros. Imagine yourself at the 19th hole, sitting around the clubhouse swapping stories with your new-found golf buds: "Hey Tiger, let me tell you about my birdie on 12..."
Sounds pretty far-fetched, doesn't it? Yet for five years in the mid-1960s (1962-66), many of the top pro golfers in the world did come to Lynn Haven's Panama Country Club for a two-day event known as the Little Tournament of Champions.
Of course, their names weren't Woods, Singh, Els, or Mickelson. Instead you had U.S. Open winner Tommy Bolt, Masters and U.S. Open champ Cary Middlecoff, and British Open champ "Champagne" Tony Lema. Even the great Slammin' Sammy Snead, the winningest pro in the history of the game, made an appearance.
And there were dozens of others, winners of prestigious tournaments and Ryder Cup veterans.
Three decades have passed since the final LTOC was held. Some of the participants are no longer with us. For others associated with the event, memories have begun to fade. Perhaps a trip back into time is in order, to Bay County in the 1960s, to a time when Panama Country Club became--for two brief days each year--the center of professional golf's universe.
Saturday, February 14, 2009
The two men, A.I. Christo and Gardner "Pop" Dickinson, began kicking around the idea of staging a local golf tournament in which the sport's biggest names would be invited to play. Better yet, local amateurs would have an opportunity to play alongside the pros during the tournament.
The idea was not as outlandish as it might have seemed. After all, Christo, owner of a local discount store as well as the popular Seven Seas Restaurant, had plenty of connections with local merchants, and was certain the money could be raised. And Pop Dickinson's son, Gardner Dickinson Jr, was a well-known tour professional himself. Perhaps he could persuade some of his tour friends to come to Bay County for a few days of golf in the Florida sun.
It didn't take long for other friends and merchants to warm to the idea. Panama Country Club Pro Woody Lafoon offered services of the club. Car dealer Bill Cook promised free transportation for the visiting pros. The Holiday Lodge Motel at the foot of Hathaway Bridge offered free accomodations. Local merchants Mack Lewis, and Henry Vickery and others contributed considerable time and personal funds.
Interested parties came together February 15, 1962, over lunch at the Seven Seas. The group called themselves the Panama City Sports Association, and articles of incorporation were drawn up. "The corporation's objective," Pop later recalled, "was the advertising of Bay County through promotion of the event."
Pop even had a name: the Little Tournament of Champions. A $6,000 purse was raised, and Gardner Jr was charged with the responsibility of lining up no fewer than ten touring pros for the event.
Within a week, Gardner had commitments from some of the top professionals in the nation, including past winners of golf's major tournaments. (There are four "majors" contested annually: the Masters, the U.S. Open, the British Open and the PGA Championship). Invitations were accepted from Tommy Bolt ('58 U.S. Open), Art Wall ('59 Masters), Bob Rosburg ('59 PGA), and Dow Finsterwald ('58 PGA). There were Ryder Cup players in the field as well: Johnny Pott, Dave Ragan, Doug Sanders, Gay Brewer, and Mike Souchak.
The pros, Gardner reported to the group, were "surprised and pleased. Surprised that a city the size of Panama City is offering a sizable $6,000 purse for the two-day, 36-hole affair, and pleased in that each pro is guaranteed a minimum $500 for participating."
To accomodate the pros, the event was scheduled for Monday, March 12, and Tuesday, March 13. "The tournament is sandwiched between a pair of PGA Tour events," reported the News-Herald, "the Pensacola Open the week before, and the St. Pete Open the week following."
Of course, the highlight for local golfers was the opportunity to play with the pros. On the first day of the tournament, a pro-am would be held: three local amateurs would be matched with each pro, in a best two-ball format. It would be an event, the newspaper promised, "the likes of which has never been equalled in stature in any professional sporting event in Panama City."
AT 11AM MONDAY, March 12, 1962, with a crowd estimated at 1,500 jamming the Panama Country Club fairways, Gay Brewer stepped to the tee box at the 450-yard par 4 opening hole. Brewer, a three-time tour winner who would win the Masters five years hence, ripped a monster drive that split the fairway. The Little Tournament of Champions was officially underway.
The gallery favorite was clearly Doug Sanders, the 28-year-old University of Florida was known for his colorful personality and his even more colorful--some would say outlandish--outfits. Just the day before, Sanders had won the tour's Pensacola Open, and it's first prize of $2,800. Sanders didn't disappoint, fashioning a three-under 69 that featured an eagle on the par-5 10th, after hitting his second shot to ten feet.
He further endeared himself to the crowd following an incident on the back nine. While preparing to hit a shot out of a greenside bunker, he heard someone in the gallery jingling pocket change. Another player might have blown up. Not Sanders. He stepped out of the bunker, and with a broad smile pulled a dollar bill out of his pocket, offering it to the spectator in exchange for the coins! The crowd loved it. At day's end, however, Sanders trailed the leaders by a shot: Tommy Bolt and Bob Rosburg had each carded 68 to tie for the first round lead. Tied with Sanders in second place was his UF teammate Dave Ragan.
TUESDAY'S FINAL ROUND was played under pristine skies and not a hint of wind, perfect conditions for someone to shoot lights out. Someone did. Dave Ragan, the strapping 28-year-old Daytona Beach pro, birdied ten holes, including eight of the last fourteen, and six of the last nine. The result was a course record 63, and a stunning five-shot victory over the field.
As dusk was approaching, the crowd gathered outside the clubhouse for the closing ceremony. A.I.'s brother John Christo Jr presented Ragan with a sterling silver trophy, and the winner's check for $1,000.
Afterwards, Pop Dickinson was ecstatic at the tournament's success. In his weekly golf column he wrote: "The generous hospitality displayed by our townsfolk, on and off the links, has been so genuinely warm that many friendships have been formed between the players and our folks." Many of the pros mentioned how much they enjoyed the tournament's relaxed atmosphere--"so vastly different," Pop wrote, "from their week-to-week battle of brain and brawn which takes such a toll of physical and mental strength."
Better yet, Pop wrote, "News wires carried to the far corners of the land stories about Panama City, and the array of the world's ranking golfers who were here." The event, Pop concluded, "was an attraction of which Panama City may, and definitely should be, justly proud."
By the time the post-tournament newsprint had dried, Pop and his son had already begun planning the 1963 event, for there were even bigger stars looming in the future for Bay County's Little Tournament of Champions.
1962: THE 19TH HOLE... BAY COUNTY, 1962
If you were from up north--a damn Yankee, for gosh sake--you might think you had stepped back into the 1930s. Granted, the state of Florida has never been a cultural hotbed, but Panama City in 1962 was--well, ridiculous.
Remote, isolated from even other, more culturally advanced areas of Florida, Panama City might as well have been Uranus. Segregated, rural, mostly unpaved, the populace largely uneducated. A backwoods outback with a million dollar view--the gulf.
Phone numbers had five digits. A 50' X 250' gulf front lot sold for $15,000. (Less if you paid cash). A three-bedroom bayfront home set you back $22,500. Hungry? The Edgewater Beach Restaurant served a salad, two veggies, hot rolls, deep fried bass, coffee and pineapple pudding--for ninety cents. Need your rock'n'roll fix? The Goodyear store on E. 6th Street sold the Chipmunk's latest 45rpm hit record for 22 cents. The newspaper cost five cents; you could read Dear Abby's advice to a concerned mom whose teenage daughter, while at a school dance, actually asked a boy to dance. Was that proper behavior?-- Concerned Mom wanted to know.
"It is no more proper today," Dear Abby responded, "for a girl to ask a boy to dance than it was years ago. This is where 'pushy' girls get their start."
And she was serious.
Welcome to 1962.
THE BIG NEWS in 1963 for fans of the Little Tournament of Champions concerned changes in the design of the the Panama Country Club's venerable 35-year-old layout.
The original design, dating to the mid-twenties, was the product of the legendary Donald Ross, considered America's finest course architect. Among Ross' creations was Pinehurst No. 2, a frequent U.S. Open site. Golf Digest Magazine recently called Ross' courses "the very heart and soul of American golf."
So it was with some surprise that club officials decided to tinker with the great
man's handiwork--after all, tweaking a Donald Ross design was akin to adding a mustache to the Mona Lisa. Club officials contacted Dick Wilson, himself one of the nation's top architects. His assignment: Make the course play tougher for the pros, without hampering playability for the members--that is, the average "duffer."
"Wilson's firm designed new sand traps," reported the Panama City Herald, "and eliminated previous traps which before hampered the play of the duffer and had no serious effect on the shots of the pros."Added PCC Head Pro Woody Lafoon: "Look out over the course. From here it looks almost the same as last year or even ten years ago. But that's where the similarity ends. Architect Joe Lee with Wilson's firm has re-trapped our greens and completely remade three greens. To a man, the pros playing here last year all complimented our greens as being the best they had played during the early winter segment of the tour. I think they'll again like our greens. They're all fairly large, many sloping slightly from back to front."
The result of Dick Wilson's face-lifting, according to the Herald, was "one of the most picturesque courses in the nation: Sky-reaching pines, moss-covered oaks, and open views of Lynn Haven's North Bay.
"The signature hole was the 165-yard par three sixteenth, featuring an elevated tee, a forced carry over a pond (known then as Lafoon's Lagoon), and a trap-guarded, back-to-front sloping green. The hole exists today--it's the seventh on the modern layout, and remains the club's signature hole.
THE 1963 EVENT began Saturday, February 23, and once again attracted some of the sport's biggest names. Major winners included Tommy Bolt ('58 U.S. Open) and Dow Finsterwald ('58 PGA). Ryder Cuppers included Johnny Pott, Dave Ragan, Bob Rosburg, and Mike Souchek.
In addition, making his first and only appearance in the LTOC, was a dashing, up-and-coming pro named Tony Lema. Lema lived in the fast lane, and although he had just recently become engaged--and in fact would marry the week following the
LTOC--he reveled in his nickname: "Champagne Tony."
With the temperature hovering around forty, the 1,000 brave souls in the gallery witnessed some spectacular golf. Johnny Pott's birdie at the eighteenth was his eighth of the day, and he shot 66. Earl Stewart, a 42-year-old club pro from Dallas, shocked the crowd with an eagle at the last; he too carded 66. But then, Stewart was used to pulling upsets: in 1961 he won the Dallas Open, becoming the only club pro in tour history to win his home event. Champagne Tony bogeyed three holes on the back nine en route to a disappointing 75.
SUNDAY'S FINAL ROUND would produce the most dramatic finish in the five year history of the LTOC. Johnny Pott, the 26-year-old Ryder Cupper, trailed Stewart by two shots for 17 holes. Pott arrived at the tee at the par five finishing hole and ripped a gargantuan drive. He went for the green in two, and boldly struck his approach twelve feet from the pin. When he calmly rolled in his eagle putt for a closing 70, the crowd went beserk.
Meanwhile, on the eighteenth tee, Earl Stewart heard the roar. Shaken, Stewart's drive and second shot both caught the trees lining the fairway. He put his third shot in a greenside trap, and, using his putter, rolled the ball to fifteen feet.
Stewart now had one putt to tie Pott. He left it a foot short. "On the tee, I thought I needed eagle to win," said a forlorn Stewart after the round. "I just had to try for it. It turns out a birdie would have won."
THUS, JOHNNY POTT took home the winner's check for $1,000. Stewart won $750 for his brave effort. Tony Lema finished with a 70, and collected $500. But Champagne Tony's career was just beginning to blossom. A year later he captured the British Open and the World Series of Golf. In 1965 he added the Carling World Open to his resume.
In July of 1966, however, Lema, 32, and his wife Betty, 28, chartered a twin-engine Beechcraft Bonanza in Akron. Tony was on his way to a golf outing in Joliet, Illinois, for a small tournament similar to the LTOC. Near the Indiana-Illinois border the plane suddenly sputtered, then stalled. The pilot frantically sought an open field in which to land. He found one, but upon impact the plane disintegrated. There were no survivors. The open field the pilot had spied was a fairway on a golf course just outside Joliet.
1963: THE 19TH HOLE...
REMEMBERING CHAMPAGNE TONY
Gardner Dickinson, Sr. authored a golf column entitled "Spiked Shoes," which appeared Sundays in the Panama City Herald. On July 31, 1966, Dickinson's wrote of the death of his friend Tony Lema. An excerpt:
It was a February night in 1963 when the telephone rang. "This is Tony Lema, Mr. D. I'm looking forward to playing in your Tournament of Champions next week and bringing my fiance. Will you kindly reserve a room for her where the players are staying?"
So Tony Lema came to our shores. He was cordial, had the knack of making friends, and his manner ingratiated himself with our people. He was appreciative of (our) hospitality and had the good manners to write us later and express this feeling.
Sid and Mrs. Stapleton took him and his pretty fiance Betty to the Yacht Club for dinner, which they appreciated greatly. The following week in New Orleans, Tony Lema and Betty became man and wife. It was the beginning of a fabulous career.
The game has lost a great player and a refreshing personality. He was ever jubilant and care-free, esteemed by fellow professionals as well as by the average golf bug who followed his career and sought his autograph.
All of us possess innate weaknesses and one of ours may be sentimentality.When news of the crash and the passing of these two nice people was relayed to us, we unashamedly wept.
Not that the tournament needed big name entertainers; the golfing talent lined up for the event was certainly impressive enough. As usual, the number of major winners seemed to outnumber the fox squirrels that scurried the course.
There was reigning U.S. Open champ Julius Boros, arriving from his home in Mid Pines, North Carolina. Two-time U.S.Open winner and Masters Champ Cary Middlecoff--the golfing dentist--flew in from Memphis. "Terrible" Tommy Bolt, 1955 U.S. Open winner, arrived from Crystal River (the nickname referred not to golfing ability, which was considerable, but rather to his frequent on-course temper tantrums and tour suspensions). From the Louisiana bayou came Jay and Lionel Hebert, the only brothers to win major titles (Lionel won the 1957 PGA, Jay the 1960 PGA). Two additional PGA Championship winners were on board: Dow Finsterwald (1958 ), and Bob Rosburg (1959). And there were Ryder Cuppers as well: Gardner Dickinson, Mason Rudolph, and former LTOC winners Dave Ragan and Johnny Pott.
But the impending arrival of two of Hollywood's biggest stars certainly didn't hurt ticket sales. Three dollars bought you a two-day pass, and fans flocked to Carswell's Barber Shop and the Seven Seas Restaurant for tickets. The News-Herald even reported large groups of fans arriving from Bainbridge, Georgia, Enterprise, Alabama, and all parts of the tri-state area.
So, you ask, how did Frank and Dean fare in Lynn Haven?
Um...don't ask. (Actually, we'll have more on that subject later).
THE TOURNAMENT OPENED Saturday, February 22, under a grey blanket of clouds. A chill wind off North Bay kept temperatures in the lower forties, and some in the gallery built fires along the course to keep warm. Middlecoff, who had undergone back surgery the previous summer and hadn't played competitively in six months, shot a 69 that included the day's only eagle. That occured on the par 5 tenth hole, when, according to the News-Herald, "Middlecoff followed a booming drive with a perfectly played two iron to within twelve feet of the cup."
But the good doctor wasn't the only player with a hot putter. Tommy Bolt's five birdie performance earned him a 69 as well, and a share of the lead, one stroke ahead of Dickinson, Ragan and Boros.
Sunday's final round was played under gorgeous, sunlit skies. But the sudden warmth was no balm to Middlecoff's aching back. Saturday's chill left him hurting and undecided whether to even finish the tourney. He did--shot a 74 and was never a factor. Afterwards, he refused to blame his back: "I just putted where the holes weren't," he explained.
Las Vegas pro Bo Wininger produced a rare feat: back-to-back eagles! They occured on holes nine and ten, the courses consecutive par 5's. Wininger shot 69 but finished sixth.
THE REAL ACTION Sunday was the battle at the top of the leaderboard. Defending champ Johnny Pott put together an impressive 68 that included a twisting 40-foot birdie putt at 17, and was in the clubhouse with a one shot lead over Tommy Bolt.
At the tee at eighteen, Bolt crushed a perfect drive down the middle. "The entire gallery watched Bolt stride down the eighteenth fairway," the Panama City News reported. "There was this proposition: an eagle to win, a birdie to tie." Bolt's second shot scattered the gallery that had surrounded the green. The crowd parted, and Bolt hit a perfectly executed wedge to three feet. He made the putt for birdie, and the tie.
For the first time in the history of the Little Tournament of Champions, a sudden-death playoff would be necessary to determine the event's winner. And so back out to the first hole they went, the 46-year-old Bolt and the 27-year old Pott, with the gallery scrambling for position.
Off the tee, Pott's drive found the trees. Bolt played an iron safely down the fairway. On the green, Pott holed out for bogey. Now Bolt stood over a testing seven footer for par and the win. The ball rolled into the cup dead-center. The two men shook hands as the crowd roared. The win was particularly sweet for Bolt, who, despite 15 tour wins since turning pro in 1946, was clearly no longer competitive on the regular tour.
BUT ALL WAS not well for Bay County's Tournament of Champions. Despite the thrilling golf, there hung in the air a palpable feeling of disappointment.Frank and Dean were no-shows. Indeed, many in the crowd felt the entire Rat Pack episode was just an advertising gimmick to hype ticket sales. But the real story was much more complex.
Here, for the first time, is the inside story:
Sinatra and PGA Tour pro Gardner Dickinson Jr were long time friends and golf companions. Gardner's father, Lynn Haven resident "Pop" Dickinson Sr was a member of the Panama Country Club and one of the founders of the Little Tournament of Champions. "I told Frank about the...event in my hometown," recalled Dickinson Jr, "and asked him if he'd compete. He said 'Hell, yes!' I could scarcely believe my ears, but I knew he meant it. And he said he'd bring Dean Martin."
Just days before the event, tournament director A.I. Christo received a call from Sinatra. An obviously distressed Sinatra explained that he was up to his ol' blue eyes in legal entanglements. For one thing, according to Dickinson Jr, "He was involved in divorce proceedings, and said that the judge had forbidden him from leaving the state of California until the divorce was final."
And the Monday after the tournament, Sinatra was due in court to testify against the three men who had kidnapped his son. (Frank Jr. had been kidnapped in December of 1963, but returned safely). The legal obligations had legitimately kept Sinatra at home. In fact, to show his good faith in the matter, he immediately wired a gift to his pal Gardner. The day before the tournament, Dickinson recalled, "I received a money order from Frank to the tune of $5,000 with a message saying how sorry he was that he couldn't play, but he wanted to donate $5,000 to the purse for 'his boys.'"
"No sir," said Gardner Dickinson Jr, "don't say anything bad about Frank Sinatra around our boys."
The driving force behind Bay County's Little Tournament of Champions was a father/son team: Gardner "Pop" Dickinson, and Gardner, Junior.
The elder Dickinson came to Lynn Haven following World War II from Dothan to head the Panama City Housing Authority. By the early 1960s, Pop had established himself as a beloved and respected local personality. His true passion in life was golf. Pop wrote a weekly column on the game for the local paper and was a member of the Golf Writer's Association of America.
He could play a bit, too. Despite not learning the game until sometime after his graduation from Vanderbilt University (where, on the gridiron, he earned All-Southern honors at halfback), Pop was good enough to win the Augusta, Ga. City Championship, among several other amateur events in the south, before moving to Bay County. At Panama Country Club, Pop always made himself available for lessons to those wishing to learn the game. Dickinson died on February 14, 1974 at the age of 68.
Golf was woven into the Dickinson DNA, and Pop clearly passed it onto his son. By the time Gardner Jr was in high school, it was apparent he possessed a rare gift for the game. The youngster worked with Panama Country Club pro Woody Lafoon, honing the skills that would make him a standout golfer at Louisiana State University. Indeed, as a college student Dickinson won the Sherman Invitational--a prestigious local amateur tournament--three straight years, from 1950 to 1952.
After graduating with a degree in psychology, Gardner Jr accepted a job as assistant golf pro at Tamarisk Country Club in Palm Springs, California. Here Gardner Jr struck up an unlikely friendship with Ben Hogan. Unlikely because no one, it seemed, got close to Hogan: he wasn't called the Ice Man for nothing. Still, Dickinson learned at the master's feet, even taking to dressing like him--witness the Hoganesque cap in drawing at left.
The friendship paid off: Dickinson joined the pro tour and won seven times between 1956 and 1971. Although he won no major championships, Gardner Jr earned a reputation as a standout player, particularly under pressure.
As a member of the 1967 and 1971 Ryder Cup teams he posted a 9-1 mark, establishing the record for best winning percentage. Teamed both years with Arnold Palmer, the two boasted a 5-0 record.
When his tour career ended in the late '70s, Gardner Jr helped found the organization that created golf's fifty-and-over circuit. Gardner Dickinson Jr died on April 21, 1998, from complications following a stroke, at the age of seventy. He is survived by his five children and his wife Judy, a former star on golf's LPGA.
Jittery tournament officials waited anxiously. The first three Little Tournament of Champions had all been contested in early spring. But Gardner Dickinson Jr, the LTOC's liason to the tour, felt a fall date better accomodated the touring pro's schedule.
As 1962 LTOC winner Dave Ragan remarked: "The tour is heading out west now, and no one likes to travel out west all the time. A lot of the pros don't even play the tour in the fall. This time of year, you'll always get a lot of golfers here (in Florida)." Remember, this was nearly four decades ago: Travel "out west" for many pros meant a long, uncomfortable car trip, or a bumpy, anxious plane ride.
But now, with fall storms brewing just off-shore, LTOC officials must have been second-guessing their decision. Back at the Panama Country Club clubhouse, the participants sat, according to the Panama City News, "on pins and needles, hoping and praying, awaitng the next weather bulletin."
ONCE AGAIN, a first-class field had been assembled. Defending champ "Terrible " Tommy Bolt, whose fifteen tour victories included the 1955 U.S. Open, had even come a day early to get in a practice round. (Bolt's nickname, you may recall, was the result of his habit of throwing golf clubs impressive distances after a displeasing shot, and his frequent tour suspensions). Bolt had driven down from Birmingham, Alabama, where he had played a nine-hole exhibition with Charlie Boswell, America's National Blind Golfing champion.
There were other past--or future--major tournament winners in the field as well: Lionel Hebert (1960 PGA), Jay Hebert (1957 PGA), Don January (1967 PGA), and Chick Harbert (1955 PGA). Ryder Cup players included former Johnny Pott, Dave Ragan, Mason Rudolph, Gardner Dickinson Jr, and Frank Beard.
FINALLY, ON THE morning of the tournament's opening round, came the weather bulletin everyone had been waitng for: The storm was veering westward...and would miss the Panhandle completely! Hours before the tournament commenced, clouds receeded and sunhine returned.
But the uncertain weather had caused at least one major snafu: the Hebert Brothers arrived minus one essential little item: their golf clubs. The brothers' clubs were lost by the airlines when the boys had to switch planes, and it looked like they might not get to play at all. For Lionel the news was even more upsetting, for it seems his beloved trumpet was among the missing items. Lionel had been a mucis major at LSU, and never travelled anywhere without his instrument.
ON SATURDAY, September 11, 1965, under a brilliant sun, 26-year-old Louisville native Frank Beard hit the event's opening tee shot. Beard would later that season win the Texas Open, and in 1969 would lead the tour's money list. On this day, Beard hit all eighteen greens in regulation, one-putting four of them and two-putting the rest. His bogey-free round of 68--"the best golf I've played in the last few months"--stood up at the end of the day. He held a one shot lead over the field.
The shot of the day, wrote Panama City News reporter Jerome Earnest, came at the 215-yard par three eighth where Beard "socked a four wood over the cup to within ten feet, and knocked it in."
By the way, the Hebert Brothers' clubs--and Lionel's trumpet--were finally located and hastily flown in from New Orleans. Teeing off late, the boys finished their round "after darkness had fallen," according to Earnest, and Lionel double bogeyed the final hole in the gathering dusk.
SUNDAY'S WEATHER was perfect as well, and the final round was a birdie fest. Twelve pros broke par--Frank Beard not among them--and even local physician Jim Poyner scored an eagle!
But the star of the show was Johnny Pott. The 29 year-old Mississippi native simply overwhelmed the field. He chipped-in for birdies on both nine and ten, then reeled off consecutive birdies on twelve, thirteen and fourteen. It looked like he might stumble on the finishing hole: He chilli-dipped (mishit, to the uninformed) his pitch from just off the green, and he ball merely trickled on to the putting surface.
No problem. Pott canned the putt for a final round 66. That gave him a two day total of 135, and a two shot victory over local pro Howell Fraser. For local fans, the sight of Johnny Pott accepting the winner's check for $1,100--and sterling silver trophy--from tournament official Jimmy Christo was becoming a familiar sight. This was Pott's second LTOC victory in four years (and he had lost a playoff in 1964 to Tommy Bolt).
At the closing ceremony, News reporter Earnest asked Pott about his LTOC success. "I really enjoy coming here," Pott remarked. "There's not as much pressure in a tournament like this, and I can really visit with the people. And this is the kind of course I like."
"And," added Pott, "I'm a pretty good golfer." At Panama Country Club, at least, no one could argue with that.
1965: THE 19TH HOLE...LOCAL GOLFER MAKES PRO DEBUT AT LTOC
Panama City Beach resident Howell Fraser, 65, remembers the 1965 Little Tournament of Champions as well as anyone. It was the year he became a professional golfer.
Howell had played in previous LTOC events as an amateur. "At first I was intimidated playing against the top guys," Fraser remembers. "But I learned quite a bit. Plus I felt I had quite an advantage. This was the course (Panama Country Club) that I played almost every day, and I'd shot 64 two or three times.That gave me an edge on them.
In 1965 I played for the first time as a pro. I missed a three-footer on the last hole and finished second to Johnny Pott, which gave me a tremendous boost of confidence."After the closing round, a bogeyless 67, Fraser remarked to a reporter, "It's so tough to beat these guys." The reporter answered, "Well, you beat all of them but one."
Fraser credits PCC Pro Woody Lafoon with shaping both his swing and his career. "Woody gave me my first lesson and encouraged me early on. He taught Gardner (Dickinson, Jr.), too. Got us started."
Fraser played the PGA TOUR for about six years, his best finish a third place at the Azalea Open in Wilmington, N.C. By the early 1970s, however, Fraser had dropped off tour and returned to Bay County, where he began a ten-year stint as head pro at Bay Point.
Fraser currently owns a local gift business.Golf dreams, however, die hard.On June 14, 1999, Fraser tied for second at the U.S. Senior Open Qualifying Tournament in Sarasota, earning a spot in the 1999 U.S. Senior Open. At the Open, contested July 9-12 at the Des Moines (Iowa) Golf and Country Club, Fraser shot rounds of 78 and 79 and missed the cut. "I played well," Fraser said, "except for one or two bad holes. I'm not ready to give up just yet. There's always next year."
To be sure, the golf fan of the 1960s followed the careers of Cary Middlecoff, Tommy Bolt, Gardner Dickinson and the like. But these names paled in comparison to those of the sport's acknowledged legends: Palmer, Nicklaus, Hogan, Snead--golf's truly magic names.
As yet none had deemed the Little Tournament of Champions--and a trip to a sleepy Panhandle outback--worthy of their time.
It seemed hard to believe at first, but yes, Samuel Jackson Snead--Slammin' Sammy himself--had given his commitment to Gardner Dickinson Jr for the event. As the tournament date approached--the event had been moved to July 9 and 10--the local press fairly tripped over itself in anticipation of the great man's arrival. "Snead Arrives Here Thursday," headlined the Panama City Herald on Tuesday.
Sports Editor Frank Pericola informed fans that "the immortal Slammin' Sammy, the professional game's 'Mr. Golf,' will fly here from White Sulpher Springs, W. Va., his home club. Golfdom's most famous hillbilly, whose professional career spans 32 years, has won nearly everything in sight."
Indeed, Slammin' Sammy was quite a catch for any tournament, the holder of the all-time record for most career wins on the PGA Tour--an astounding total of 81! It's a record that still stands. By comparison, Nicklaus has won 70 times, Hogan 63, Palmer 60. (Oh, by the way, Tiger Woods isn't even close!). Included among Snead's victories were three Masters, three PGA Championships, and a British Open.
And while The Slammer was 54 years old in 1966, he had won on tour as recently as 1965--the Greater Greensboro Open, for the eighth time. So this was no ceremonial appearance by an aging golf legend. Snead was the living, breathing, sweet-swingin' Real Thing...and the sport's most colorful character to boot: a reknowned high-stakes gambler and unsurpassed teller of tall tales and blue jokes.
Small wonder Snead's first steps onto Bay County soil--on Thursday, July 7, 1966--were recorded for posterity by a Panama City News photographer...and the exact time of his arrival duly noted--5:59pm. Not 6pm, mind you.
IN ANY CASE, it was too late in the afternoon for a practice round. Snead's first look at the Panama Country Club came Friday afternoon, the day before the event, in an informal match with a group of locals: businessmen Jimmy and John Christo, and physician Jim Poyner.
PCC member Frank Mize was out on the course that day. "Jimmy was a pretty long hitter back then," Mize remembers, "and he'd been knocking it by Snead on every tee. Finally, when they got to the twelfth hole, Christo couldn't resist: 'Hey, 'ol man--I thought you were supposed to be long!' Well, you can imagine that got Snead's attention.
" 'OK, son,' Snead told him, 'give it your best shot.'Christo just killed one down the fairway. Snead teed one up, reared back, and knocked his ball sixty yards past Christo's shot. He walked over to Jimmy, got nose to nose with him, and said, 'Don't ever insult me like that again!'
Christo remembers receiving some valuable advice from the man as well. "I was always one of those guys who just whaled away at the ball, always trying to hit it as far as I could," Christo recalls. "On the eighteenth hole, I hit a nine iron real hard and my ball landed on the green. I was pretty pleased, but Snead just shook his head."
'Lookahere, Jimmy,' he said. He dropped a ball down on the spot where I'd hit my shot, and pulled a six iron out of his bag. He took that smooth swing of his and the ball just feathered up there close to the flag. He said, 'Just look at how much less effort it took to hit the six iron. That, son, is how you play winning golf.'
Dr. Poyner, 76, has his own memories of the round. "We all had our little side bets going with Snead," recalls Dr. Poyner. "Of course, he had that beautiful, fluid swing, shot 68, and we all lost. But we had to pay up right there, on the eighteenth green. None of that 'Let's square up at the clubhouse.' He was strictly a money man."
Afterwards, at the 19th hole, Snead pocketed a few more local greenbacks with another wager. Snead, it seems, claimed he could jump up and kick the clubhouse ceiling. "We went down to the basement of the old Panama Country Club, which had a low ceiling," Poyner recalls, "and sure enough, he kicked that leg up like a chorus girl. He actually kicked the ceiling--I saw him do it."
MEANWHILE tournament officials--hopeful that Snead's appearance would attract record crowds--increased the purse to nearly $10,000. The tournament opened Saturday, July 9. Television station WJHG was on hand to televise the action, with sports director Earl Hutto conducting on-course interviews.
But the star of Saturday's opening round was not Sam Snead. To the gallery's dismay, the Slammer--plagued by a bout of three-putting--shot a pedestrian 72: two birdies, two bogeys. He walked off the course complaining that he'd spent the day "putting for birdies and winding up with bogeys."
Saturday's top-billing definitely went to Louisiana's Hebert Brothers. Jay Hebert holed his approach shot on eighteen for an eagle to shoot 63, tying the competitive course record set by Dave Ragan in the 1962 LTOC. Minutes before, younger brother Lionel had lipped out a birdie putt on the same hole, and had to settle for a measly 64. A couple of strokes back lurked two-time LTOC winner (and defending champ) Johnny Pott.
The final round of the tourney was played Sunday, July 10. No one knew it at the time, but it would be the final round ever in the LTOC's short history. At least Sam Snead didn't disappoint his fans. Slashing gorgeous drives and crisp irons, with his putting stroke suddenly rejuvinated, Snead's sweet swing produced seven birdies en route to a 65.
But it wasn't enough to overtake the brilliant 66 carded by--who else?--Johnny Pott, whose two day total of 130 was two strokes clear of the field. For Pott, the 30-year-old Missourian, it was his third LTOC win. And it seemed almost easy: he eagled the first hole, then birdied five holes coming home--including the last three.
At tournament's end, a crowd assembled in front of the clubhouse for the closing ceremonies. Bay County businessman Mack Lewis (who three decades hence would build Lynn Haven's Nature Walk Golf Course) presented Pott with the winner's check for $2,000. Miss Panama City Margaret West presented Pott with a sterling silver Revere trophy.
Pott addressed the crowd. "I wish I could take this course home with me," he said. "I like everything about it, the tournament and the people." His speech was punctuated by a sudden, ominous crack of thunder. A late afternoon storm was moving overhead. Pott cut his remarks short as the heavens opened and the crowd scrambled for cover.
PERHAPS IT WAS prophetic, for a dark cloud of sorts was threatening the very future of the Bay County's LTOC. Expenses were up. Attendance was down. While a fairly sizeable crowd had followed Snead hole-to-hole, overall the galleries were alarmingly slim.
Pop Dickinson, one of the event's founders, reported glumly that "less that $2,300 was paid in admissions, and a tremendous loss is faced when considering player guarantees, prize money and promotional expenses." Perhaps, Pop speculated, it was simply the weather. The previous years' LTOCs had been contested in early spring. The switch to mid-summer meant sizzling, breezeless, near-100 temperatures.
In reality, the LTOC's problems were much more serious. By the mid-1960s, network television had discovered the sport of golf. Thanks mostly to the charismatic personality and bold play of Arnold Palmer, golf's television ratings were taking the sport into the big-time. Purses were increasing exponentially. The PGA tournament schedule was beginning to fill in its "off weeks" with lucrative, full-field events. Larger cities were beckoning the pros, with promises of ever-increasing purses. The average PGA touring pro no longer needed to drive long hours to a small town for a $500 guarantee.
In the fall of 1967 Pop Dickinson made one last attempt to organize the event, contacting dozens of the tour's top players. When few of the professionals even bothered to respond, Bay County's Little Tournament of Champions passed irretrievably into history.
1966: THE 19TH HOLE...THE LEGEND OF SLAMMIN' SAMMY
No question about it: "Slammin' Sammy" Snead was the biggest star in the history of Bay County's Little Tournament Of Champions.
As a young'un in the backwoods of Ashwood, Virginia--a town so small it's not on any map--Snead had no money for golf equipment. For that matter, there was no money for shoes. With a carving knife he fashioned a club out of hickory, the hitting surface a big old knot at the end. Still, Snead could hit pebbles and stones vast distances.
He eventually caught the eye of some country club types and a legend was born. Snead hit the tour full-time in 1936 and quickly became a national media sensation as "the Golfing Hillbilly." Snead delighted in playing the part, at times donning backwoods garb and acting the rube.
But Snead was as smart as they come, and as witty, charming, arrogant and salty-tongued, too.He was--and remained to the day he died in May 2002 at 89--an authentic American folk hero.
Snead's visit to Bay County was recalled recently by Panama City businessman Charles Whitehead:
Jimmy Christo (a local businessman) and I played a practice round with Sam. Snead wanted to play a $10 nassau (a type of golf bet). I said, "How many strokes do we get?" He said, "Strokes? You get as many times as you hit that ball!" Meaning he wasn't going to give us any strokes at all!
He said, "If it's not worth $10 to you to play with me, then look over there." Snead pointed to the crowd that was watching us play. "There are about two hundred people standing over there that'll gladly pay to play with me." So you might say we paid for the privilege to play with him. And it was worth it!
I remember we got over to the fourteenth hole, where there was a giant magnolia tree blocking the dogleg. Snead asked Jimmy how to play the hole. "Well," Jimmy told him, "you have to play a fade around that tree."
"Oh, you don't go over the tree?" Snead asked him.
"There's no way. It's too tall."
Well, Sam gets up and hits a drive that clears the top of that tree by at least thirty feet. The ball rolls up three feet in front of the green. This was a par four hole!
That night we picked him up at the motel to take him to dinner. He was just getting out of the shower. Snead said, "Wait just a minute."He pulled out this hand-made exerciser: six strips of truck inner tubes with a wooden handle at each end. He took that thing, put it in the middle of his chest, and stretched his arms out all the way: one hundred pulls in about ten minutes.
When Snead was done, Jimmy Christo, who was a young, strong guy, picked it up. Jimmy had trouble stretching it out even once--that's how strong Snead was!
There are some other stories I could tell you, about Snead's visit here, after hours.But I won't.
Suffice to say, there are any number of other local golfers we spoke to with equally vivid recollections of Snead and his indulgences in the local nightlife.
Slammin' Sammy, it seems, was legendary in that category, too.
* * *
"You can't tell the golfers without a scorecard..."
A complete list of PGA Stars who competed in the LTOC, 1962 to 1966. (Name, years participating in LTOC, career highlights)...
>>Bolt, Tommy. 1962-63-64-65. One of the truly great players of the 1950s. Winner of 15 tour events including the '58 U.S. Open. Played on two Ryder Cup teams. Best LTOC finish: Won, 1964.
>>Boros, Julius. 1964. Boros' motto "Swing easy, hit hard" produced 18 wins, including '52 and '63 U.S. Opens, and four Ryder Cup appearances. Best LTOC finish:T-2nd, 1964.
>>Brewer, Gay. 1962. Ten tour wins, including two Pensacola Opens, and the '67 Masters. Two-time Ryder Cupper. Over 100 top-tens in 25-year career. Best LTOC finish: T-2nd, 1962.
>>Dickinson, Gardner Jr. 1962-63-64-65-65. Won seven times on tour, played on two Ryder Cup teams, and recorded 105 top tens in a 25-year pro career. At 5'10, 130 pounds, was nicknamed "The Thin Man." Best LTOC finish: T-2nd, 1964.
>>Finsterwald, Dow. 1963-64. Twenty-five year tour career produced 11 wins, including '58 PGA Championship. Four-time Ryder Cup player; captained U.S. team in '77. Best LTOC finish: T-3rd, 1963.
>>Hebert, Jay. 1965-66. Seven-time tour winner, two-time Ryder Cupper, and '60 PGA Champ. Jay and Lionel remain golf's only brother combination to win professional majors. Best LTOC finish: 2nd, 1966.
>>Hebert, Lionel. 1963-64-65-66. Won '57 PGA Championship. An accomplished jazz musician as well: "We'd go out at night after the tournament," recalls local businessman Charles Whitehead, "and he'd get on stage and play trumpet with the band." Best LTOC finish: T-3rd, 1966.
>>January, Don. 1965. Lanky, slow-drawling Texan was 10-time tour winner, two-time Ryder Cupper. Won '67 PGA Championship. Best LTOC finish: T-8th, 1965.
>>Lema, Tony. 1963. Eight tour victories including the '64 British Open. Died July, '66 t age 32 in plane crash. Best LTOC finish: 11th, 1963.
>>Laffoon, Woody. 1963. Oklahoma native was head pro at Panama Country Club for nearly 20 years. Woody and brother Ky played the PGA Tour in the 1930s. "Woody didn't get to play that much--he was always teaching--but he had the sweetest swing," remembers local pro Howell Fraser, Best LTOC finish: 15th, 1963.
>>Middlecoff, Cary. 1964. Golfing dentist from Tennessee, perhaps the most underrated great player of all-time. Among 39 wins: '55 Masters and '49 and '56 U.S. Opens. Veteran of three Ryder Cup teams. Best LTOC finish: T-8th, 1964.
>>Pott, Johnny. 1962-63-64-65-66. Winner of five PGA events, including Pebble Beach in '68. Veteran of three Ryder Cup teams. Best LTOC finish: Won three times, 1963-65-66.
>>Ragan, Dave. 1962-63-64-65-66. Winner of three tour events and a member of '63 Ryder Cup. Best LTOC finish: Won, 1962.
>>Rosburg, Bob. 1962-63-64. Six tour wins include '59 PGA Championship. One Ryder Cup appearance. Currently network TV analyst. Best LTOC finish: T-6th, 1964.
>>Sanders, Doug. 1962. Personable Georgia pro recorded 20 wins, 154 top-tens and one Ryder Cup showing in 20-year career. Known for his outrageously colored outfits...and matching shoes! Best LTOC finish: 4th, 1962.
>>Snead, Sam. 1966. Set all-time record total of 81 wins on tour. Victories include: Masters in '49, '52 and '54. PGA Championship in '42, '49 and '51. British Open in '46. Eight-time Ryder Cup participant. Best LTOC finish: 9th, 1966.
>>Souchak, Mike. 1962, 1966. Fifteen tour wins and two Ryder Cup appearances. In 1955 Texas Open he set the tour's 72-hole scoring record (257), a mark that stood for 35 years. Best LTOC finish: T-5th, 1962.
>>Wall, Art. 1962. Winner of 14 tour titles including Masters in '59, the year he led the tour in earnings and scoring average. Three-time Ryder Cupper. Best LTOC finish: T-2nd, 1962.
LTOC STATS, YEAR-BY-YEAR
>>1962 (March 12-13)
Dave Ragan, 69-63*...$1000
Art Wall, 69-68...$700
Gay Brewer, 70-67...$700
Doug Sanders, 69-69...$575
G. Dickinson Jr, 71-68...$512
Mike Souchak, 70-69...$512
Tommy Bolt, 68-73...$500
Bob Rosburg, 68-74...$500
Johnny Pott, 71-74...$500
Dow Finsterwald, 73-73...$500
*Set competitive course record
>>1963 (Feb. 23-24)
Johnny Pott, 66-70...$1000
Earl Stewart, 66-71...$750
Tommy Bolt, 70-68...$550
Dow Finsterwald, 70-68...$550
Fred Haas, 69-72...$500
Lionel Hebert, 73-68...$500
Dave Ragan, 73-70... $500
Bob Rosburg, 71-72...$500
Tony Lema, 75-70...$500
G.Dickinson Jr, 70-76...$500
Ted Kroll, 73-73...$500
Woody Lafoon,78-81 (amateur)
>>1964 (Feb. 22-23)
(Bolt defeated Pott on first playoff hole)
Tommy Bolt, 69-69...$1500
Johnny Pott, 70-68...$1150
G.D'kinson Jr, 70-70...$866
Julius Boros, 70-70...$866
Dave Ragan, 70-72...$800
Bob Rosburg, 71-71...$800
Lionel Hebert, 69-74...$800
Cary Middlecoff, 69-74...$800
Dow Finsterwald, 75-69...$800
Don Cherry, 72-74...$500
>>1965 (Sept. 11-12)
Johnny Pott, 69-66...$1100
Howell Fraser, 70-67...$850
Bert Weaver, 69-69...$750
Lionel Hebert, 74-65...$600
Jay Hebert, 70-69...$600
J. McGowan, 69-70... $600
Mason Rudolph, 70-69...$600
Frank Beard, 68-72...$600
Don January, 72-68...$600
Dave Ragan, 71-70...$600
Tommy Bolt, 70-72...$600
G. Dickinson Jr. 72-72...$600
Chick Harbert, 74-70... $600
Bob Toski, 75-69... $600
>>1966 (July 9-10)
J. Pott, 64-66...$2000
Jay Hebert, 63*-69...$1000
Lionel Hebert, 64-70...$675
Tommy Aaron, 68-66...$675
G. D'kinson Jr, 67-69...$600
Bob Toski, 68-68...$600
Dave Ragan, 70-66...$600
Bert Weaver, 71-65...$600
Sam Snead, 72-65...$600
Mike Souchak, 68-72...$600
Dan Sikes, 72-69...$600
Pete Cooper, 71-71...$600
*Tied competitive course record
LTOC LEADING MONEY
WINNERS (1962 - 1966)
Lionel Hebert... $1,900