Saturday, February 14, 2009


BAY COUNTY'S Little Tournament of Champions entered its fifth year in 1966. And while the four previous years' fields were impressive, filled with major winners and Ryder Cuppers, there had always been one critical ingredient missing from the event: one of America's Big Four.

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.

Until now.

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.



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.



>>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
Bo Winniger,72-68...$500
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
M.Rudolph, 74-66...$866
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
J.McGowan, 73-68...$600
Dan Sikes, 72-69...$600
Pete Cooper, 71-71...$600
*Tied competitive course record


WINNERS (1962 - 1966)

Johnny Pott...$5,750
Dave Ragan...$3,500
Tommy Bolt....$3,150
Lionel Hebert... $1,900
Jay Hebert...$1600

1 comment: