Weiskopf Gets His Due

In a year of stirring victories for Americans in major championships, the quietest and sweetest of all was Tom Weiskopf's US Senior Open win. If his 13-under at Congressional didn't compare with Weiskopf's magnificent '73 British Open (his only other major championship), it certainly provided this complex and thoughtful gentleman with something like his due after a career which seemed full of torment.

Because golf, the selfish sport, is very, very mean to her goats. Baseball fans are quick to fix the horns on a player, but booing is okay at the ballpark, and besides, since Branca's gofer ball and Buckner's muff really only summed up their teams' collapses, who cares?

But failure strips great golfers so bare that they are criticized in whispers, as befits naked emperors. Golf fans and writers remember the great collapses in a sort of quiet, polite way -- under their breath, out of the side of their mouths, between the lines, with all due respect. Partly it's because we understand how hard it is, and we know that they know better than we know what they have done and what they haven't. Scott Hoch is plain spooked, Venturi still lies awake in bed thinking about the '56 Masters, Sam Snead lost his hair and lost a lot of sleep over all those lost Opens -- and Tom Weiskopf has never made a secret of never having been the same after one Sunday afternoon in April 1975, when Jack Nicklaus drained a 38-foot putt on the 16th hole of the last round of the Masters to tie Weiskopf at -12 and set the stage for Weiskopf's tragic stumble over the last three holes. "That was the end of me," he has said.

Weiskopf was the Greg Norman of his day -- the original "next Nicklaus," singled out by the vengeful gods of golf as an object lesson in frustration. His almost tragically consistent inability to win an American major (the only other player with four second-place Masters finishes is Jack) made him a prodigal pretender, a disappearing dauphin.

In hindsight, Weiskopf was a victim of his own moodiness, caught in a struggle that was as much the cause as the consequence of his disappointment. He has put some of the blame on his having learned the game not on the country clubs of Ohio, but on public links courses. "Jack and I are totally different," he told Golf Digest a few years ago. "He came from a very upper-middle-class family. He started playing before I did and he had so much more experience." In his defense, the path from the munis to the US Open is a lot thornier than the one from the country clubs, and it was an even longer one in Weiskopf's youth.

Suppose it was this resentment that held Weiskopf back, grew into ambivalence and exasperation as a professional: no such insecurity affects the game's true sons, the Nicklauses, the Mickelsons, who look like they own the course wherever (or however) they are playing. Small wonder Weiskopf's heroes were guys who looked like they would have had to sell tires if they missed too many cuts -- people like Hogan, Snead, and Bolt (the last an early nemesis of Nicklaus) who had clawed their way to the professional circuit.

But if they could do it, why did it bother Weiskopf so much? Was it a certain wounded vanity about his origins? Did he begrudge Nicklaus his privileged childhood? Did he have an invisible chip on his shoulder? Some golfers seem haunted by not being to the manor born. For a certain type of player who was not born with a silver spike wrench in his hand, reverse snobbery might turn into a woeful distraction -- might confront him with the sheer absurdity of the spectacle of this absurd game, and will give him pause, at the worst moment, to wonder what's the point?, and makes him doubt the worth of the struggle just when it was there. Or maybe it was just plain envy. After all, he has continued his battle with Nicklaus, throwing darts at Jack's course designs. He's got a "thing" with Jack.

The strangest thing of all was that as a competitor, Weiskopf looked like the embodiment of a spoiled rich kid. His game -- powerful, reliable driving complemented by smooth, versatile iron play -- was undone by a sullen, frequently petulant nature. It didn't matter that underneath it all, he was his own worst critic; that more than any other golfer of his age, he seemed to be fighting a losing battle with himself. The kind of behavior that a big-bucks brat like John McEnroe used to spur himself on, seemed to wear out Weiskopf's mount. It was as though this wondrous player had somehow donned the mask of that which he most feared and despised in the game around him.

No one could ever question Weiskopf's devotion to and love for golf, which has flourished despite his disappointment. His reverential respect for great golf courses and for the standards of play; that perfect swing; even his perennial sartorial elegance all testify to a sort of selfless dedication to the game and all that is graceful about it, a devotion which as a matter of personal pride has been more important to Weiskopf than the state of his playing career, or his position on the final leader board. A cynic might say that these are the wine Weiskopf has made of his sour grapes.

This poignant victory has sweetened Weiskopf's cup. Of course his wisdom was gained at great cost. But it ought to be of some consolation to all golf fans to see the pursuit of formal perfection which Tom Weiskopf has represented finally find a reward at home, however late it was in coming.