Sending this year's humble collection of pro golfers out to do battle with fabled Oakland Hills, the course Ben Hogan dubbed the monster of 'em all, is like sending a boy scout troop on a grizzly golf bear hunt.
Any student of golf history, reflecting on the 61st PGA Championship that begins today at Oakland Hills in Birmingham, Mich., is struck by one thought: "No one will win."
Perhaps Seve Ballesteros, the highly suspect British Open champion who hit exactly seven fairways in his 72 championship holes at Royal Lytham last month, had the best idea.
"I'm not coming. My doctor said it might be bad for my health," said Ballesteros.
Oakland Hills is probably staying up late at night crying itself to sleep, wetting its fairways with tears, at the thought of missing its chance to inflict a "WD" (withdrew) or Did Not Finish on Balesteros.
This is the course for the pure of heart and the straight of tee shot. It has long been maintained that golf was a game you played against your worst enemy -- yourself. Oakland Hills is the ultimate exception to that rule. No man could do unto himself what Oakland Hills can dream up for him.
Conceived by Donald Ross in 1916 and refined over the last 30 years by Robert Trent Jones, Oakland Hills has brought the assembly-line techniques of neighboring Detroit to the mass production of bogeys.
The U.S. Open has been played on the 7,014-yard track four times, and the PGA once previously, in 1972. Over those 2,100 competitive rounds, only 49 scores have been under the par of 70.
"Oakland Hills is the greatest test of championship golf in the world," Hogan said after his closing 67 won the '51 Open. "I'm glad I bought this monster to her knees."
Praise from Caesar.
It is doubtful whether another Oakland Hills ruler will step forward this year. In a season in which Fuzzy Zoeller, Hale Irwin and Ballesteros have won the other major titles, it is more likely that the victor will arrive at the last hole with his swing stammering like, "I, Clau . . . Clau . . . Claudius."
Perhaps not since the interregnum between the reigns of Hogan and Arnold Palmer in the mid'-50s has one of golf's major championships taken place in such an atmosphere of a total lack of favorites.
Tom Watson, who already has set the prize-money record this year, has managed to prove that a player can have the best and worst seasons of his life in the two halves of one year.
Ever since his scattergun driving at the U.S. Open at Inverness made him miss the cut, Watson seems to have been reeling from a blow to the psyche.
"I'm still not striking the ball well at all. . . i'm kind of confused and frustrated," Watson said yesterday. "It'll come back. It always has."
But probably not on one night's notice. Only the purest of tee balls pass muster at Oakland Hills, the course that probably gave birth to the quip, "The players and caddies have to walk down the fairways single file."
Scratch tense Tom Terrific, in all likelihood.
Sentiment will certainly fall to Jack Nicklaus, who, after finishing tied for second in the British Open and a stroke out of first in Philadelphia last week, seems to have paid the dues necessary to resemble himself once more.
"Everybody goes sour sometimes," Nicklaus said yesterday, explaining his worst season, statistically. "I might be playing just a little better. And i'm starting to make some putts. That's encouraging."
Certainly, flocks of PGA Tour followers hope Nicklaus is not whistling in the twilight, that he can redeem a somewhat lost year in four marvelous days. No show could surpass a fifth PGA title for the Golden Bear, especially on the sort of legendary course that usually brings out his best -- and ohers' worst.
Nicklaus, however, has had only middling success on the monster that gave all the baby monsters their name, finishing tied for fourth in the '61 Open and 13th in the '72 PGA. Only one of Oakland Hills' two par-5s is reachable in two, thus cutting the Bear's gimme birdie possibilities from his normal four per round to one.
There exists a man, both beloved and at the top of his game, who seems almost perfectly suited to Oakland Hills -- the purest of drivers, savviest of scramblers, the sort of fighter who can think his way around a firebreather.
Yes, Lee Trevino will be present and, it is to be hoped, accounted for. "I haven't missed a putt since I won the Canadian Open (in June)" Trevino chortled Tuesday.
"Driving's the ticket here, you know" offered Gary Player, whose sand game in Oakland Hills' deserts helped him win that '72 PGA. "If Trevino could play here every week, no one would ever top him as the leading money-winner."
For two seasons, since rehabilitating himself from being struck by lightning and having back surgery, Trevino has been climbing back to greatness. The final step was reverting to his famous fade in April and scrapping his erratic hook. Now, Trevino stands fourth on the money list.
Oakland Hills has always loved the little man, the cussed critter who wouldn't quit. Hogan won at Oakland Hills after his horrible auto crash. Gene Littler, later to beat cancer, won the Open there in 1961 with a course-record 281 (one over par) that Player tied in '72.
To be sure, lightning-beater Trevino would look perfectly at home in the company of Hogan and Littler -- all of them banty-rooster types.
"I'm playing and putting as well or better than I did in the early '70's, Trevino said.
No man, however, is truly a favorite on the rolling terrain that made Ross exclaim when he first saw it, "The Lord intended this for a golf course.
The final three Oakland Hills holes are lucid testimony to the course's delicious horrors. The 405-yard dogleg 16th is the picture-post-card quintesence of water-hole gambles. Unfortunately, it is one of the holes that has suffered from the loss of 200 trees in the last five years due to Dutch elm disease.
The 201-yard 17th has a pinpoint green set in a sea of sand -- the sort of diabolical beachwork that was Jones' contribution to Ross' original tee-to-green majesty
Finally, the 18th hole, like six other Oakland Hills par 4s, is more than 440 yards long. Get out those long irons, boys, and hit 'em pure.
So that is the finish -- water, sand and distance in succession.
If anyone finishes, he can verily call himself a champion.