Saturday, February 14, 2009


THE 1965 LITTLE Tournament of Champions, scheduled for September 11-12, began under a cloud...literally. The howling winds and blinding rain of Hurricane Betty hovered just off the gulf coast, threatening the event.

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.



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."

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