The excitement generated by Gary Player's rip-roaring raid through three consecutive golf tournaments ended yesterday in the final round of the $200,000 New Orleans Open.
Fuzzy Zoeller and gibby Gilbert took the play away from Player early and never let up, but it was Lon Hinkle whose long drives carried the day. Hinkle, winning for the first time on the PGA tour, sank a five-foot putt for a birdie on the last hole to defeat Zoeller and Gilbert by one stroke, at 17-under 271.
Hinkle shot a 66, six under par, on the heels of a 64 that tied the course record Saturday.
"I had a very mediocre round," Player declared. "It was breezy, and my clubbing wasn't sharp. But I've no excuses. You've got to be realistic. In this day and age, winning three in a row, against the great competition, is more than anyone can expect. There was a time, in the old days, you might win six straight. Not any more.
"But the Masters, the Tournament of Champions and Houston were a thrill. The streak was something I'll remember all my life."
Johnny Miller (1974) and Hubert Green (1976) are the only three-straight winners of recent times. Jack Burke took four straight in 1952. Byron Nelson, the host in Dallas at Player's tournament stop, captured 11 consecutively in 1945.
Player, Hinkle, Zoeller, Gilbert and Homero Blancas were tied for the lead at the start of yesterday's round, with 19 members of the field within four shots of the front five. The action continued to center on the last two threesomes, however.
Three putts from the fringe, 20 feet from the cup, cost Player a bogey on the first hole. He sank a 20-footer for a birdie on the second and was only two shots behind Zoeller when he hit an eight-iron to six feet of the flag for a possible bird on No. 5.
"That, in retrospect, was the big putt - and I misread it," the South African said. "I just never got it going after that, but I enjoyed watching Lon play the last hole. He knew he needed a birdie to win, and we all thought he hit the flag from the fairway."
Many persons in the gallery thought Hinkle's wedge shot to the green actually hit the stick. Officials said no.
"I thought it did," the 28-years-old victor said later. "I had driven the ball well and was 140 yards out. I knew the green was hard, so I hit a hard wedge. The ball hit about 20 feet short of the hole, but it had so much spin on it it danced around kinda crazy and we couldn't tell, looking up from the fairway, exactly what it had done."
Hinkle was left with a five-foot putt for $40,000.
"It could a been six to eight feet or five feet - like they say - or three feet," Hinkle said. "All I know was I stroked the putt perfectly, dead center, right in the back of the hole."
Hinkle, like Zoeller, is one of the longest drivers on the tour, and the Lakewood course here is a driver's delight. Only once had Hinkle come close to winning, losing the 1977 Tallahasse Open to Ed Sneed in a playoff. He was third this year in the Tournament Players Championship at Jacksonville. The 6-foot-2, 225-pound strongboy from San Diego joined the tour in 1972.
"The most surprising part, winning here, is that it happened after I had a 74 the first round," Hinkle noted. He was 19 under the next three days.
So Hinkle will be known, briefly, as the man who stopped Player's streak in the spring of '78. Player appeared ready to make it four in a row until the 14th hole Saturday when a twig behind his ball in the left rough cost him a stroke, and he three-putted for a double-bogey six.
The gentleman from Johannesburg was leading the field by a stroke at that point. He never really gain command again.
Player won here in 1972 with a nine-under-par total.