Why don't more of the top players in pro golf come to the Kemper Open at Congressional? And will they come to the Kemper when it's played at Avenel next year?
Or will the scoreboards of the future continue to look like those of the present -- i.e., interesting if you love golf, but a bore to the general sports fan who doesn't know, or care to know, who Charlie Bolling might be.
Three days ago, the Kemper field looked thin but fairly appetizing.
That was before Andy Bean, Calvin Peete and Jim Thorpe withdrew with injuries. Before past champions John Mahaffey and Bill Glasson started playing footsie with the cut, not the lead. Before name players such as Mark O'Meara and Lanny Wadkins blended back into the middle of a nondescript pack.
Now what do you have?
It's going to take more than one day for the public to learn that Mike Reid, who barely speaks above a whisper; Larry Mize, who looks like a choirboy, and Bobby Clampett, who has been in a three-year slump, are really a great bunch of fellas.
The Kemper's chief difficulty is that pro golf is the sport that most resembles a supply-side economist's dream. It's an almost totally open and unregulated marketplace. Nobody tells these guys where or when to tee it up. If you can't charm them with cash or prestige or luxury or esthetics, then they just flat don't show up.
If Peete's knee is sore, who can order him to play hurt? If Tom Watson thinks the Congressional greens are bumpy, who's going to tell him to tough it out? If Hal Sutton is tuckered out after winning the Memorial, it's his business if he wants to go fishing.
How free are these folks? Well, an American pro could play one tournament a year, win it, make enough money to be in the top 125 on the money list and still keep his tour playing privileges for the next season.
"You've got to compete for the players," said veteran Howard Twitty with a shrug. "And we're spoiled."
The $500,000 Kemper's in a tough spot and it's not going to get much easier. In May, the tour goes to Las Vegas, where the purse is $1,140,000. Then comes Texas. Everybody loves Byron Nelson and his purse is $600,000. Then comes the Colonial in Dallas on a great course that current players prefer to Congressional. Then it's on to Jack Nicklaus' Memorial on the best-conditioned course on earth (except for Augusta) for a $577,730 prize and the Bear's benediction.
By then, you're tuckered out. The U.S. Open is only two weeks away, and chances are you'll skip either the Kemper or the $600,000 Westchester Classic, or maybe both.
Washington has plenty on its side. Players love coming to the Nation's Capital. It's goodbye, Columbus; hello, D.C. Also, the Kemper ranks high for hospitality and perks. The prize money is only fair to middling.
One other seldom-mentioned factor hurts the Kemper field. Not too many players really like Congressional that much. "It's a great course," said Dan Forsman, "but who enjoys shooting par or over par? I missed the cut the last three years here, and the course beat me up pretty good. I had to think about whether or not I'd come back."
Congressional isn't just hard. It's different. And tour pros abhor what's foreign to their regimens and rituals.
Few modern courses other than Congressional have the blind, hilly tee shots, or the nearly blind, uphill approaches to pins. Some would call this a part of the brute track's greatness. But other pros, behind their hands, will tell you, "Congressional's overrated."
A question of taste. But one that drives away some players.
Also, Congressional's greens and general condition have gradually gotten better since the arrival of greens superintendent Bill Black in 1980. But it's taken years for the course to overcome its early reputation for bumpy, slow greens and flyer fairway lies.
There's nothing, except his wallet, that a golf pro protects more than his putting stroke. He doesn't mind swift pace or dramatic breaks. But he hates slow greens because he's not used to them, and he goes crazy if a good putt veers off line. Also, lots of grain is an annoyance and, if you get above the holes here, you need some local knowledge not to get burned. If you don't read bentgrass grain like a Hogan, you might think the greens here were of inconsistent speeds.
Put it all together and the pros get the shivers when they think about a week at the Kemper. Lots of long, tough shots might put your full swing out of whack. Your putter might get schizophrenic two weeks before the most important event of the year. You might have to figure out how to play blind.
As if that weren't enough, Congressional has an unabashed bias in favor of long hitters. So, if you're not one of 'em, you might stay away on those grounds alone. First rule of the tour: You play where you can win.
Because of all this, there's reason to hope for a more prestigious field next year at Avenel.
First, it's a TPC course, owned by the players themselves. It's in their interest to support their own stop and there'll be internal pressure to show loyalty, especially for the first year or two. Also, everybody will be curious. Is this "my kind of layout," they'll all wonder?
Avenel will play considerably shorter than Congressional and won't be nearly the par monster. Egos won't get bashed. As architect Ed Sneed said, "We need courses where the players can show their skills, show their ability to make birdies." Snead and Commissioner Deane Beman want their new course to yield low numbers to the hot player while punishing the wild hitter.
Within a couple of years, Avenel's new zoysia fairways and bentgrass greens should be in as good or better condition than Congressional's. It's doubtful Avenel will ever be as physically gorgeous a layout as Congressional. But, to pros, that's the least of considerations. What they like is birdies, cash and familiar, lush playing conditions. And, if the Kemper raises its purse by $100,000 or more -- as it easily can now that it won't have to pay any rent to Congressional -- all their needs can be met.
The competition for star attractions will remain severe. But, starting next year, the Kemper should have -- as good capitalists say -- a better posture in the marketplace.
Fans may not have a clubhouse like Congressional's to gaze upon, but they might be able to watch a few more players whose names and history they already know.