Early that September evening at Shenandoah Country Club came news either flabbergasting, mystifying, or – for those who fancy dark humor – borderline comedic.
Larry Ziegler had just slammed a five-foot playoff putt to beat Homero Blancas and ice the first, and most assuredly last, Michigan Golf Classic, a standard 72-hole PGA Tour event that began on the Thursday after Labor Day and wrapped up in Sunday twilight that had just begun veiling a relatively new golf course on Walnut Lake Road in West Bloomfield.
There was, however, a wee problem. George Walsh, the PGA Tour’s tournament supervisor, explained it all during a press session that substituted for the usual post-tournament ceremonies where trophies and checks and sponsor gushing typically flows.
“I received a note at 4:39 p.m.,” Walsh said before reading from it, verbatim:
“Receipts at this time are insufficient to write a check for the prize fund. Payment must be deferred until all our receivables are in.”
In words he somehow delivered with a straight face, Walsh assured media that “players accepted it (the news) graciously,” adding, probably unnecessarily, “This is the first time in tournament history this has happened.”
In professional sports annals, this moment was a certified doozy. A sanctioned, scheduled, official PGA Tour event had just blown apart every notion that guaranteed money and paychecks were to be natural assumptions.
Ziegler, a 30-year-old, relatively well-known Tour player, had just lassoed $20,000 for first place in a tournament with an overall purse of $100,000. This was money – first place and total cash – that in 1969 put the Michigan Golf Classic in step with plenty of Tour stops: the L.A. Open, the Bob Hope Desert Classic, the Byron Nelson Golf Classic, and even the Masters, which paid its champion $20,000.
The problem for a first-year tournament, in a golf-rich Michigan region known for major championships and Tour events that prospered, was, well … everything.
Heavy rain made Thursday and Friday sloppy. The tournament’s first 36 holes were played in front of galleries that might have topped out at 500 people.
Shenandoah was a new golf club at the time, with a back nine that was in its first year of full-time play. Tour players who had dropped by six weeks earlier, while playing the Buick Open at Warwick Hills in Grand Blanc, had gotten the word to their brethren: You might want to think twice before playing the MGC.
Those dark reviews had power. Only a single pro from the Tour’s top 10 money-winners – Frank Beard – showed up, meaning that even after weather cleared for Saturday’s and Sunday’s duels, billboard names were few. Jack Nicklaus, Lee Trevino, Gary Player, Bruce Crampton, Gene Littler, Raymond Floyd, Arnold Palmer, Billy Casper, Dave Hill – all boycotted Shenandoah.
As for the celeb golfers who showed up, few were pleased with this new golf course designed to be at the heart of real-estate ventures.
Doug Sanders played nine holes on Thursday and withdrew. He had seen enough.
And yet, there were stars who braved Shenandoah:
Chi Chi Rodriguez, Kermit Zarley, Jerry McGee, Hale Irwin (well before he won his string of U.S. Opens), Charlie Sifford, Bob Goalby, Ed Sneed, and Mike Hill, the Tour pro from Jackson and brother of Dave, who had won that summer’s Buick Open but who passed on the MGC. Also teeing it up: Deane Beman, who five years later would become PGA Tour commissioner.
But as a late-summer weekend wore on, the Michigan Golf Classic looked by the hour to be a colossal, misbegotten mistake. At the most, 3,000 fans turned out for Saturday; maybe 5,000 on Sunday.
Those who said yes paid $5 per ticket. But with a poor gate, neither sponsorships nor entry fees could begin to cover $100,000 in prize-money promised.
Jim Dewling remembers.
Dewling, who now owns a plaque in the Michigan Golf Hall of Fame, in 1969 was an assistant PGA golf professional at Birmingham Country Club, which a year earlier had held a satisfying United States Women’s Amateur tournament at the course on 14 Mile Road.
Marshall Chambers was a BHCC member and chairman of the 1968 Women’s Amateur, which he considered to be a grand success. So, for that matter, did another BHCC regular, Ray Maguire.
“It’s a rainy day, we’re sitting in the men’s grill – Marshall Chambers, Ray Maguire, and myself – and Chambers has the idea of a Tour event for Detroit,” recalled Dewling, who is president of Total Golf, Inc., in Milford. “He thought it needed to be in the northwest suburbs, where there was a lot of development going on.”
Phil Lachman, whose family for generations had owned, and still owns, a trophy-and-gift business in Southfield, was thumbs-up on a Tour stop and was to be a major investor. Another ally was brought aboard: John Brennan, general manager at Oakland Hills Country Club. The team began hunting sites that in a relative hurry could get ready for a 1969 Tour event.
Shenandoah Country Club seemed worth a call. It was a new club, located between Halsted and Orchard Lake roads, resting on acreage north of Walnut Lake Road. A first nine had been opened in 1965 and the second nine was now growing in.
Dewling phoned a friend, Sam Garzia, one of Shenandoah’s developers.
“We’ll be ready,” Garzia said.
The PGA Tour knew plenty about Metro Detroit’s money and golf history. Go-ahead granted.
And with that, the Michigan Golf Classic was anointed part of the 1969 PGA Tour calendar. It would be held a week after the Greater Hartford Open, and three weeks before the big Alcan Open, with its whopping $55,000 first-place cash.
‘Never happened before’
Media who covered the MGC saw no particular trap doors as the tournament neared. Again, this was Michigan. Golf always was hot, especially in Metro Detroit.
What became obvious Thursday and Friday is that crowds were in no mood to see a so-so field when it was raining.
“It was like golf is right now on the PGA Tour – only it wasn’t a virus (knocking out the galleries),” said Jack Berry, the longtime Detroit News golf writer, who was a PGA Lifetime Achievement winner in 2007, and a former president of the Golf Writers Association of America.
Berry paused and said, with a laugh: “There wasn’t a parking problem.”
But there never was the slightest notion, Berry said, that players wouldn’t be paid, all for one basic reason:
“It never had happened before.”
Neither did Dewling give the player’s purse a thought. He was busy as the tournament’s caddie master, rounding up quality caddies from surrounding clubs who could be handed the bag of a PGA Tour star.
Dewling realized by Saturday the Michigan Golf Classic was not Tour business as usual.
“Nobody was showing up, and it was a total disaster.” Dewling said. “That (Saturday) morning, Mr. Lachman comes to me and says: ‘Jimmy, come and go for a ride with me.’”
Dewling hopped on Lachman’s golf cart.
“He says to me,” Dewling recalled, ‘I don’t think we’ll be able to pay the purse.’”
The tournament itself, apart from any business drama, finished in entertaining fashion.
Blancas holed a 55-foot pitch shot on the 72nd hole to tie Ziegler and force a playoff that lasted two holes.
Phil Rodgers, a Tour celeb who later overhauled Jack Nicklaus’ short game, shot 67 on Sunday and finished tied for third with J.C. Snead.
Those at the top could feel fairly good about their adventure in West Bloomfield. That is, until they got word from Walsh late Sunday that they better be carrying plastic. There was no money in the MGC’s till.
Joe Dey, then the PGA Tour’s commissioner, got the word that afternoon in New York City. It might have taken all of 24 hours for Dey and the Tour to stipulate that any future Tour event would need to guarantee before a single tee-shot was whacked that every cent of the purse was secure. The PGA Tour made good on all the requisite player prize money.
In the meantime, a bizarre embarrassment had all but the stiffed players snickering.
“It was actually funny, in a way,” Berry remembers. “But it was all easily explained. They were basing the purse on attendance, and no one showed up.
“They got a bad break with the weather. It was miserable. And then the course was essentially unfinished.”
Dewling remembers, also with a chuckle, a personal triumph from an event that had intentions better than its results.
For his work with the caddies, Dewling got a check from Lachman for $500 – sizeable money in 1969.
“I was the only one who got paid,” Dewling says now, with a laugh, which he agrees might be the best way to remember the star-crossed Michigan Golf Classic.
Top finishers in the 1969 Michigan Golf Classic at Shenandoah Country Club (prize money in parentheses):
1. Larry Ziegler – 72 70 66 64—272 ($20,000.00)
2. Homero Blancas – 71 71 65 65—272 ($11,400.00)
T3. Phil Rodgers – 69 70 67 67—273 ($5,900.00)
T3. J.C. Snead – 71 70 65 67—273 ($5,900.00)
T5. Mike Hill – 68 71 68 67—274 ($3,462.50)
T5. Larry Hinson – 69 68 68 69—274 ($3,462.50)
T5. Casmer Jawor – 69 70 69 66—274 ($3,462.50)
T5. Grier Jones – 65 73 70 66—274 ($3,462.50)
T9. Joel Goldstrand – 69 69 69 68—275 ($2,500.00)
T9. Jerry McGee – 68 69 70 68—275 ($2,500.00)
T9. Kermit Zarley – 68 68 69 70—275 ($2,500.00)