The two worlds of professional golf met atop the leader board of the PGA Championship today at Riviera Country Club.
In first place, after a six-under-par 65 that included seven birdies, was the latest Wunderkind of the tour: 24-year-old Hal Sutton, the brawny blond who desperately wants to dominate the game as Jack Nicklaus once did.
One stroke behind was the most unlikely and inspirational creature imaginable--a humble 36-year-old club pro named Buddy Whitten. He plays despite chronic back miseries and "excruciating pain" in his right foot caused by a sewing needle that--nobody knows how--got imbedded in his foot as a child and has worked its way an inch deep into the bone in his heel. Whitten never knows which misstep will send his foot from its normal throb to agony.
Whitten, who is tied at 66 with Scott Simpson and leads Bruce Lietzke, Danny Edwards and John Fought by one stroke, is the golfer who hurts only when he walks. Of the 150 golfers here, Whitten is the only one who loves the spongy Kikuyu grass for which Riviera is infamous. "It's the first time I've ever played golf day after day and not had terrible pain," said Whitten, who has played 90 holes already this week.
It's a long way from the heartwarming Whitten, who had the round of his life this morning, to the voraciously ambitious Sutton, who wants to devour all golf.
Last season, as a rookie, Sutton not only set a first-year record for money winnings ($237,434), but broke the old record by more than 50 percent.
This year, he's the sport's leading cash winner with $297,500. Yet he wanders about with a perpetual frown of dissatisfaction because he hasn't met his other goal of 1983--winning a major championship. Winning the 1983 TPC wasn't enough for Sutton, who already has a U.S. Amateur title. Two weeks ago, Sutton blew the Anheuser-Busch Classic in Williamsburg with a final-round 77 and that has him steamed, too.
The square-jawed, hard-eyed Sutton looks like he'd be glad to grab Tom Watson (a 75 with two 7s today) and Nicklaus (73) by the throat, one in each hand, and fling 'em into the nearest hazard. "I don't like to miss my goals," said Sutton, thinking about that "major" he craves. "I've got three rounds to do it."
If Sutton lapped the field here, expunging his "choke" memory and grabbing that here-comes-the-new-turk major, it would be consonant with his driven personality. "I didn't sleep very well the night after Williamsburg," he said. "I rehashed every shot. Then I went out and made a few changes. Put a new shaft in my putter. Don't know if what I did was right, but I've worked as hard as I ever have in my life in the couple of weeks since then.
"I met (former PGA champion) Dave Marr one day and he said, 'Don't let it get you down . . . Arnold Palmer had a six-shot lead with seven holes to play in the Open and lost. If you don't think great players have done that, just check your record book.'
"I've always had respect for Dave Marr, but I've got a lot more now."
Nothing less than greatness will satisfy Sutton; he knows his Williamsburg collapse--the first nagging sign that he might be just another of the tour's collection of good-but-not-great check-cashing millionaires--can best be beaten by being buried quickly. Now that he is back in the lead again, it's of enormous importance to Sutton to prove that he won't back up again.
If Sutton wants athletic immortality, Whitten will settle for much less.
Riviera is called "Hogan's Alley" because Ben Hogan won the U.S. Open here in 1948. Then, after his near-fatal car crash in 1949, he made his inspirational return at the L.A. Open in 1950. Even the flinty Hogan would be moved by Whitten's persistence and courage, which is akin to his own. Here on a course beloved by generations of movie stars, Whitten is living a script after Hollywood's heart. If he wins, they'll have to remake "Follow the Sun."
A week ago, the 5-foot-10, 145-pounder, who has never won a cent in a major pro championship, learned why his capricious right heel had been making him scream for 16 years after missteps.
"You're not going to believe this," said the doctor, X-ray in hand. He'd found the needle that countless doctors had never discovered.
As soon as Whitten walked down Riviera's first fairway Monday, he knew he'd found his golfing heaven. He'd tried braces, shoe lifts and supports, but he'd never tried Kikuyu grass. "It was like walking on a cushion."
For the first time in his golfing life, Whitten's right foot didn't throb, his calf didn't ache. He could walk off the course without limping.
Whitten doesn't know yet if that needle can ever be extracted from his heel bone. But he has found a course where he doesn't have to spot the field a foot and a leg. "When I came here, I doubted whether I could even walk four rounds," said Whitten, whose back problems are so bad he says he wouldn't play the Tour even if he won this PGA.
Despite his ingrained pragmatism, Whitten--who gets to play only "one or maybe two rounds a week" because of his club duties and foot pain--can't help starting to dream. In a practice round, Gary Player told him he had "the greatest right leg move I've ever seen."
With every compliment from Player, Whitten's confidence grew. "He's got my ego and confidence higher than they've ever been," says Whitten who, like a true teaching pro, cured Player of his tee-ball hook. Fortunately, Whitten doesn't know that if Player saw a tree swaying in the wind, he'd say, "Beautiful backswing, laddie."
The last club pro to win the PGA was Walter Burkemo in 1953 in the match-play days. And, fade to the eerie music, who gave Whitten his first club job as an assistant pro? Why, Walter Burkemo at Birmingham (Mich.) Country Club. You couldn't get 'em to swallow that screenplay for a bad made-for-TV movie.
"Three more 66s and two club pros will win 30 years apart," said Whitten. He added cheerfully, "Realistically, I don't have a chance, do I? If Watson and Nicklaus and I played seven days a week, they'd have to give me strokes. If my handicap were 3, I think I'd do a great job here this week . . .
"I have no illusions or delusions . . . I'm not physically strong. It takes a special breed of people to play this tour . . . I'm not a traveler. I don't see myself as a world beater . . . I flunked the qualifying school three times. It was not fair to my family to continue."
Whitten doesn't have to win to be this week's tale of triumph. He really is a Professional Golfer of America--not the gifted glory boy who plays the PGA Tour, but one of the more numerous breed that gives lessons to little old ladies and searches through the back room of the pro shop for a 9 1/2D Etonic.
Like so many of his club pro brethren, he learned long ago that he didn't have the gifts for the Tour life, so he settled for stability and a family. He calls his home course--Blythe Field--"the best manicured in Western Michigan." His spouse is "my beautiful wife Julie" and the apple of his eye is his 4-year-old son Scott.
Yet, when Whitten plays Blythe Field he remembers those days a decade ago when he, Larry Nelson, Bill Rogers and Gil Morgan haunted the same minitour stops and the same qualifying schools on the way up the ladder. Now Nelson is U.S. Open champion. Whitten is Michigan Open champion.
Some guys, like Sutton, whose father is a millionaire oil man, get all the breaks. Others, like Whitten, who was an Army medic and got sent to Saigon the week of the Tet offensive, have to make do with needles in their heels; since fame is out of the question, they learn to settle for the pleasures and the wisdom available at Blythe Field.
Yet, when the stars are aligned and the Kikuyu grass is high, when Gary Player is leading cheers and Walter Burkemo was your mentor, you can aim higher.
"I hope I can play well one more day. I've played in seven or eight PGAs and one U.S. Open but I've never made the cut. I'd like to."
Whitten knows of Riviera's terrors. Payne Stewart, who may have to change the spelling of his first name, hooked his first three balls out of bounds, took a 10 on the par-5 No. 1 and shot 78.
Watson took a triple bogey at the second hole when, among other sins, he tried to hit a punch shot left-handed from under a tree and double-hit the ball for a penalty stroke. "I moved the ball about six inches and hit it about 10 times," said Watson with disgust.
Whitten knows about such disasters. Until today, they've been the rule of his career.
"I better go," he said. "I need to put ice on my foot."