Saturday, February 14, 2009


IT WAS THE first of February, 1964, and an announcement from A.I. Christo, president of the Panama City Sports Association, had all Bay County buzzing. Frank Sinatra was coming to town for the pro-am of the annual Little Tournament of Champions--and he was bringing a buddy named Dean with him!

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."

1964: THE 19TH HOLE...

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.

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