Saturday, February 14, 2009


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
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...

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.

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