"Golf is an art. I want people who watch me to think of a painting or a symphony"
PORTRAIT OF THE ARTIST AS A YOUNG SUPERSTAR: GEORGE KNUDSON AT THE TOURNAMENT OF CHAMPIONS IN LAS VEGAS
AT THE 16TH TEE in the second round of the 1968 Tournament of Champions at the Stardust Country Club in Las Vegas, the Nevada sun exploding off Marco Polaroid sunglasses, water hazards and a mulch of foil hotdog wrappers, George Knudson lay down on his back with his face in the shadow of his partner, Marty Fleckman, and groaned.
Knudson, the Toronto pro, was playing lousy golf. Not that he was figuratively in Fleckman’s shadow. Fleckman, a quiet, natty Texan on his first pro tour, was playing lousy golf, too. Partly it was just bad luck. Knudson’s putts were doing acrobatics around the cup, then running away. Partly it was the course itself, a flat, scary one with all the scenic charm of a Winnipeg parking lot, carved out of the Mojave Desert with sheer money. The course has narrow fairways and lumpy greens collared with tall grass, and wherever they haven't planted anything there’s a sand trap.
Knudson had plenty of time to stretch out, and no gallery to watch him, because up ahead were Bob Charles, then tied for the lead, and Juan Rodriguez, a Puerto Rican who keeps a running patter going with the fans and puts his hat over the hole and does a little dance when he gets a birdie and the opposing players have holed out. From the 16th tee Knudson could hear laughter for Rodriguez, applause for Charles and, from all over the course, the spooky sound of galleries reacting in chorus to fantastic or heartbreaking shots, joy, misery, the golfer’s emotional spectrum, a keening and sighing tossed around and distorted by a freakish desert wind. George’s army consisted of me, photographer John Zichmanis and a stringy Senior Citizen sitting on one of those portable seats that stick in the ground. His presence reminded me of another old man, at another hole, who said to his wife, “This K-nudson has never been a dynamic fellow. I can’t understand it.” “No,” she said, “he doesn’t wear very flashy shoes, does he?”
There is a loneliness of the long-distance golfer. Maybe Knudson felt it, flopped on his back on the grass in Las Vegas, which is the ultimate expression of urban alienation. Anyway, you felt intrusive, standing there. Since we have made a way of life out of a game that consists of knocking a little white ball into holes with sticks, we must make great men, poets and warriors and logistical geniuses, out of the players who can do it best. That is grasped even by the nongolfers. At the Stardust course nobody moved when a pro was ready to swing. A girl in a blond wig with slithery legs clicking out of an aluminum mini, who was carrying a paper cup of beer somewhere, stopped short like the most beautiful pointer in the world. When Julius Boros shot out of the rough and his ball cracked a spectator on the head and fell short of the green there was a great furious cry from the crowd — at the spectator, not at Boros. The tournament is a god-game, played by gods.
They take themselves so seriously, do the gods of golf. There is a cover-up style, though, during the play. At the Tournament of Champions there is a kind of conspiracy among the players to pretend that they are all unwinding after the Masters, to establish that all they have to do is
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GEORGE KNUDSON continued from page 15
“I want people to blow their minds when they watch me play”
$2,000. which they have already dropped in the casinos, and who the hell cares, anyway, with this splitting hangover. It goes over terrifically well with the fans in Vegas, where conspiracy, not blackjack, craps, pep pills or buttocks décolletage, is the name of the game. The vacationing dentists who pack casino nightclubs feign hilarity at the dirty jokes, while their wives counterfeit sophistication when bare-breasted showgirls jiggle on stage.
High-school principals who blow $100 at the Wheel of Fortune affect the air of tycoons who would spend that much on a manicure. At the course, when Tom Weiskopf misses a key putt and claps his hand on his head, grimacing, everybody cheerfully conspires to pretend that, boy, he really tied one on last night.
Actually, most of the golfers on the PGA tour are provident types who are more apt to go a little nutty over vitamin pills and positive thinking than the various modes of undress or the vodka and cranberry juice or even the gambling in Vegas. At the Stardust casino you could see them early in the evening at the blackjack tables, but they weren’t betting much, and you never saw' them drunk, and most of them were accompanied by gorgeous blondes who turned out to be their wives.
There was a big party throwm by the hotel in the Aku Aku room, which is a south-seas place where somebody is always singing, “Kali - mee - nah - liawah, mo - kali - wa - no - hu -cak -wuh,” and the Maitai cocktails are supposed to make you want to run out and play the Big Bertha slot machine at a dollar a crank, or maybe look for Big Bertha herself among the 250 show girls in permanent residence. But this party turned out to be very quiet, with only the press making some discordant noises amid the “kah-nee-wo-nowuh.” Mrs. Juan Rodriguez. a former Polynesian dancer whose Hawaiian name is Iwalini. which means Heavenly Sea Bird, got up with the band and danced the luani to a sad song called Beyond the Reef, and much later did it again, but her husband w'asn't even there. He w'as up in his room, in bed. George Knudson wasn’t there either. It turned out that he had a steam bath and went to bed early.
The players sometimes do a little drinking immediately after a round, to loosen up. At the end of the second round, Knudson, who was fairly de-
pressed, met me at the clubhouse and tossed back two Michelobs and a couple of double Scotches. Then he started talking about his feeling for the game, which is fantastically strong, complex and mystical, so that eventually, 1 would say, you have to conclude that the whole mythology of golf as set forth on the sports pages is pretty well the way the pros sec it,
that all the stuff about not being able to buy a putt and the fatalistic quotes are in dead earnest.
"That’s the way we have to swallow it," Masters champ Bob Goalby told a Vegas paper after he didn't win the Tournament of Champions. “Maybe there was a reason. Maybe it was supposed to be that way.”
And the paper ran the three lines at the end of the main tournament story as three separate paragraphs, thud, thud. thud. You could see that the reporter figured he had snagged into
some real drama for the windup, gutsy philosophy from the 18th hole.
George Knudson is a slender, good-looking guy with steel-framed sunglasses like an appendage on his nose. But you know what Knudson looks like, or you wouldn’t have read this far. Knudson started out by talking about “Chi Chi” Rodriguez, who was playing in front of him and get-
ting all the laughs, which maybe bugged George a little.
"That Rodriguez has got the showmanship," he said. “I don’t need it. I don’t need the fans. I like to keep on an even keel." He said he used to gamble w'hen he came to Vegas, had done so for 1 1 years and never made any money. "I was a plunger, dropped thousands. I quit this year, climbed the mountain, baby. Now I get my kicks out of standing behind other plungers and watching them lose. I still get sweaty palms. It’s a
goddam compulsion. In Puerto Rico once I lost 13 straight roulette turns, betting color at $50 a throw.”
Then he came on with all this great stuff about golf and George Knudson: “Give me a course I like and a tournament and I’m in heaven — miserable and in heaven. My great love is swinging a golf club. The competition is secondary. I love competition, too, because a little pressure gives the swing more importance, more significance. I could have an orgasm in swinging a golf club to the ultimate. Once I really made every right move. I mean once in my life. One swing of the club. I could blueprint it for you. You’ve got to be knowledgeable to play golf. It should be classified under art, in my opinion, if an individual believes in swinging, believes that there is such a thing as the perfect swing. I want to paint pretty colors with a golf club. I want people to blow their minds when they watch me play. I want to make them feel the same way they do when they go to a concert or a gallery. I want to paint pictures, birds and sky and trees. I want to play great music. I’m not doing it now. I’m not capable. But I’m doing things that will make me capable.”
What George has been doing, to good effect, is taking the treatment at Lloyd Percival’s Fitness Institute in Toronto, with Percival acting as coach, physioand psychotherapist, father confessor and great punt of the West. Percival favors a holistic approach, which involves neural fatigue, control technique, well - perceived goals, evaluation, aspiration and a lot of other stuff that another golfer might have to go to India to find out about. Percival has got Knudson doing isometrics and other specialized exercises. He has been strengthening George’s left side for more driving power off the tee. and he has got him to take it easy out there when the pressure is on. to evaluate instead of rationalize his bad games, to harness his emotions and energies toward an objective.
“I feel that I have found myself.” said Knudson, sitting in the Stardust clubhouse and dragging at a Tareyton. He smokes too much, 50 or 60 a day, but Percival can’t quit either.
George has always had going for him an inordinately pretty and efficient swing, like his idol, Ben Hogan. Now he wants to put on 20 pounds of solid golf muscle to improve his drive. His putting has been erratic. When it’s on he is one of the great ones, as when he won the Phoenix Open and the Tucson Open on successive week-
ends in February. He wasn’t painting any pictures with his putter in Vegas. “Anyway, not one man in golf has thought it out like I have,” he said.
One of the most interesting spectacles at the tournament was inside the big red-and-white-striped press tent, which smelled of elephants. The present occupants stood around haunch to paunch drinking free beer and watching the action on color TV. As somebody pointed out, it wasn’t so god-dern hot in there as it was over at the 18th hole, about 200 feet away. The reporters took down an occasional quote for their papers when the TV boys interviewed a golfer. Besides the eclipse of the daily newspaper in large sections of the U.S., the scene demonstrated the almost total domination of television over professional golf, symbolized on the course by. enormous ABC towers over every important green. A curious thing about golf is that it's a more involving spectator sport on TV than it is live. The reporters wouldn't admit it. but they all knew it, and so they stood around all day in the press tent, as glued to the tube in Vegas as their editors were back home in Akron and Phoenix. There was a lot of conversation going on:
“Thet Jay Boros jest comes in like Old Man River, don't he?”
“ . . . been teeing off with irons and lagging their putts.”
“Chi Chi? He'd stand oney about yea high.”
“He isn’t goin' to do a hat dance after thet round.”
“ . . . so he goes and cronks it into the flaming creek.”
“Sand traps. They're goddam homb craters.”
“ ... in for five Gs, right? What, him worry?”
“. . . nobody here. If you shook the Sahara at 7 a.m. more people would fall out.”
It was true that the galleries were fairly small, and you got the feeling that some of the fans had turned out just to get away from the Irish laddie who kept playing Galway Bay on an electronic zither back at the casino. Others might have been heading for Caesar’s Palace and been blinded by the light. You could hear the chips and the silver dollars chinking as the
galleries moved up and down the fairways, a sound like the ghost of Marley clanking his chains in Scrooge's house. In Vegas, golf hasn't taken over to the extent that it has elsewhere in the U.S. — probably because the casinos don’t have any windows and when it gets light outside nobody notices. The fact that Jack Nicklaus and Arnold Palmer, last year’s top-money winners, passed up the tournament must have hurt the gate. Nicklaus wanted to rest before
the Dallas Open and Palmer said he had a sore tendon in his right hip.
Despite its $30,000 first prize, the Tournament of Champions isn't unreservedly popular with the best golfers. There is the town and its temptations. There is a feeling that the tournament lacks class. “You arrive at your room, which is paid for by the Stardust, and there is a piece of jewelry for your wife and a pair of golf shoes,” says a competitor. “You wander around in your gold blazer and
have a drink with Toots Shor or somebody, and, geez, what has it all got to do with golf, you know?” It is that everything Las Vegas touches turns to tinsel. Back in the 1950s the Tournament of Champions was famous because of an enormous Calcutta pool that preceded it, with the pot running as high as $380.000. Celebrities, big-time gamblers, real-estate operators and miscellaneous tycoons, some of whom had bulges under their arms, bought T. of C. competitors at
He: “I shot a 61.” She: “Did you win?”
an auction. The pot, less 10 percent for charity, was split among the owners of the winners. Singer Frankie Laine kept buying Gene Littler, and Littler kept winning — three times in a row. In 1959 the PGA frowned on all this extracurricular frivolity, and the Calcutta went underground. Simple gambling, through friendly neighborhood “oddsmakers,” continues more or less openly to this day. At the start of this year’s tournament you could get 10-to-onc odds on Knudson.
The real-estate machinations of Howard Hughes — who is now rumored to be alive and well under Lake Mead — have also soured the tournament. It used to be held at the Desert Inn course, which is superior to the Stardust, but it moved over last year after Hughes bought the Desert Inn. It seems that Hughes’s purchase of the hotel did not include the tournament rights. Now Hughes reportedly is buying the Stardust, and the future of the tournament is in his hands. Or is it? Nobody seems to know for sure and, well, it is a very complicated subject.
On the last day of the tournament I followed George around a few holes with Mrs. Knudson, who is a striking redhead. George was playing a little better, but not very much. He couldn’t, as they say, buy a putt. George had said that his wife didn’t know anything about golf, and that that was the way he liked it, “because I don’t want to end up with a head like a golf ball.” He had said that
once, when he came home from a tournament, she asked him how it went, and he told her he had shot a 61. “Oh,” she said. “Did you win?” But Mrs. Knudson professed to like the touring life. “Our eldest starts in grade one in September,” she said. “George is supposed to be giving up the winter tour, but I’m not even thinking about it. We were going to stay home last winter but we decided to take him out of kindergarten. I’ll try and find a way of taking him out of grade one.”
Knudson finished the tournament with a 290, which was good for $2,975, and which so depressed him that he didn’t show up at a bash in the clubhouse that afternoon. The winner turned out to be Don January, who edged out Julius Boros by one stroke with an eight-under 276. After it was all over, January revealed that he had been suffering from a stomach ailment, which he described as a galloping case of “the stand-ups, the bendovers and the sit-downs.” Apparently he was the only casualty of the party in the Aku Aku room. Too much pork-fried rice or something like that. This was the great angle for all the reporters in the press tent to seize on, and the next day there were all these newspaper stories about the taciturn Texan who carded blah-blah-blah despite a case of food poisoning that nearly blah-blah-blah. But one journalist noted that, in a sick man’s town, it seemed natural that a sick man won. ★