Sports The Snore Of The Crowd

"Tennis and golf crowds want their sporting events just like their museum openings."

It began on a Tuesday evening with a party at Lamar Hunt’s palace in North Dallas. Before me was nearly a week of bigtime professional golf and tennis. And more parties. I couldn’t decide whether this was a sportswrit-er’s dream or nightmare.

My car was in the shop, so my date drove us in through the high gates, past the majestic fountains of the former home of James Ling, to a second driveway, by a pool, where a white-shirted man took her keys and handed me a parking slip. “Now I know what I want to be when I grow up,” I said, “King.”

In typical style, Hunt had imported Cajuns from Louisiana to barbecue huge chunks of beef, while the eight World Championship Tennis finalists mingled with media and local society personalities. This media bunch was a bit different from your usual Cowboy or Ranger beat men. Like the Cajuns, most of the writers were foreigners who had been imported by Hunt, all expenses paid. Some were legit writers, but many appeared to be tennis groupies who simply could not pass up a freebie of this magnitude. To media watchers, this sort of relationship might seem, well, incestuous. But Hunt and his extraordinary public relations man, George Pharr, obviously recognized early the value of newspaper and magazine coverage, especially to a fledgling professional sport like tennis. To them the most expeditious route between here and there was simply to buy the coverage.

A few gins deep, I began to question various experts, attempting to place pro tennis players in some kind of perspective vis-a-vis other athletes. It has long been my theory that if you built tennis courts, instead of basket-ball courts, in ghettoes, Jimmy Connors would be selling rackets in the country club pro shop.

This fairly horrified some of the experts I tried it on. “Why don’t you Americans just leave tennis alone,” said one imported journalist. “Americans are always trying to compare this sport to that sport.” Finally I found WCT trainer Skip Locker, who has worked extensively with the Cowboys and other kinds of pro athletes. He is greatly impressed with tennis players as athletes, but concedes, “I guess if somebody like Oscar Robertson started out at age eight playing tennis, he would be superior just because he is so fast and strong.”

Encouraged, I tried the logical extreme of my theory on Lamar Hunt himself. “What about Wilt Chamberlain as a pro tennis player?” I asked. “Think of the serving leverage, the reach at the net, the power on overheads.”

“I see the point you’re trying to make,” Hunt said. “But let’s really look at Wilt Chamberlain. I think he is a tremendous athlete. But his eye-to-hand coordination wasn’t the best. Look at the trouble he had with free throws.” Becoming more and more interested in the theory, Hunt went on to say he could think of some great tennis potential on his own Kansas City Chiefs football team, notably wide receiver Otis Taylor.

While Hunt seemed intrigued by the notion, I began to see other fingers in the room pointing my way. Nobody likes to be hated, so I tried a different line of questioning on Michael Davies, the executive director of WCT and a former player of some note. I asked him why fans were not allowed or encouraged to cheer during tennis matches. Davies patiently explained that if fans were always yelling like crazy, you couldn’t hear the officials call “out.” I politely mentioned that baseball umpires call “out” and balls and strikes over crowd noise with little problem. He returned with some disgust, “I just don’t enjoy going to a sporting event where some drunken fan full of beer is next to me hollering all the time.”



WEDNESDAY

The Byron Nelson Golf Classic is run like a giant fraternity picnic. A friend who works annually at the tournament says, “Most of the guys who work out here are executives. This is where they try to work the little power plays that they can’t work in their offices. They love authority and are pretty tough to deal with. I’ll be glad when this week is over.”

Don’t get me wrong. I love rich people. I wish I were married to one. But they bewilder me. I do not understand why some of them pay $12.50 to follow a golf match in which they are prohibited from energetic vocal involvement in the action-if you can call it action at a golf tournament -and in which they may not be able to drink a beer, depending on whether they have the proper badge on.

Golf crowds are structured by a basic caste system. First, there are enough uniformed police officers to quell a major riot. When people pass you on the course, they usually cast a furtive glance at your badge to see where you “fit in.”

I spent Wednesday at Preston Trail trying to get my badge straightened out. Seems I didn’t have the correct press credential badge. After much haggling, I decided to take care of the press credentials the next morning and to use my basic pavilion pass badge to follow my boyhood friend and eventual tournament winner, Tom Watson.

As a kid, Watson retired early from our neighborhood baseball team to spend his afternoons at lush Kansas City Country Club concentrating on golf. I reminded Tom that many of us had snickered at him then. We called him a pansy and were sure he’d never amount to much. Tom, who has been earning $100,000 on the tour the last few years was greatly amused by this bit of nostalgia. “Is that right?” he said.

But back to the badge business. When I had finally decided to use the lowly pavilion pass badge I had, I went in search of a beer. I asked a nice lady for a Schlitz, handing over my dollar. “Oh no,” she said giggling, “We don’t take money.” For just a split second I honestly thought these folks charged that exorbitant gate fee because the booze was free.

“You’ll have to get some tickets over there,” she said, pointing to a somber-faced lady wearing a blue “official” badge and holding a fistful of tickets. She told me cheerily I could buy either the “six dollar or the twelve dollar” book of beer tickets. I told her I wanted neither. Just a beer. She chimed, “Sorry!”

That night at the WCT match at Moody Coliseum, I covered myself by hijacking a spare Michelob from the press tent before the match between Rod Laver and Harold Solomon. The match seemed even, but only because Laver wasn’t playing ruthlessly. At 5’5″ and 130 pounds, Solomon has a nice tennis game. But he has no business being a pro. He is neither quick nor fast, only persistent-an excellent competitor with meager natural talent.

Laver, on the other hand, is a fine athlete. You can easily envision him (though he is small) in the backcourt of an NBA team, or in the defensive secondary of an NFL team. He is fond of reminding reporters that he is 36 years old, and seems to stare wistfully at passing shots that zip by him, as if to say, “If only I had my young legs.” Late one night when asked about that, Laver admitted, “That’s exactly what I’m feeling.”



THURSDAY

I headed for the Byron Nelson early, hoping to get the press credentials question cleared up so I could watch some golf. After a five minute plea to a rent-a-cop at the press tent, I was awarded an audience with Mr. Ayres Compton. I told him I was here to pick up my press credentials.

“Oh yeah,” he said. “What do you need them for?” What do you mean, what do I need them for?” I said. “I need to interview the players. I need handouts with sketches. I need the phones. I need a place to put my camera. And I need to drink your free Michelob.”

Grudgingly, it seemed, he handed over the goodies. I scurried to interview some of the early leaders. Most of them were lesser-known pros. In golf, unlike most other sports, underdogs are rarely cheered. In fact, when golfs big guns, Jack Nicklaus, Tom Weiskopf and Gary Player, decided to pass up the Nelson, most tournament officials seemed to be hoping for a Johnny Miller win. What an insult to the tournament’s proud tradition if an unknown like Bob Smith finished on top! While that all seems a little silly, it is true that the Nelson lacks the big names, probably because it schedules itself between the Masters and the Open, when the superstars want to rest.

I tracked down Bob Smith and found him a refreshing switch from the proverbial blandness of most touring pros. After one interview, he told reporters to “put Bob Smith in the headlines.” He added that the questions reporters asked were “no fun.”

Unfortunately, the other contestants were not such interesting studies. The basic interview with a pro golfer goes something like this: Player: “On the first hole, I hit a seven iron from the fairway and two-putted. On the second hole, a driver and an eight iron and a two-putt from 12 feet. On number three, I hit a sand wedge stiff and made the putt.” Reporter: “Was that an eight iron on two?”

These scintillating comments are mimeographed and tacked on a bulletin board, which normally has way too many people around it reading them. Some of the players will submit to additional interviews after they leave the press tent, but it’s usually the same dull hole-by-hole stuff. I asked one player to give me some humorous anecdotes about life on the tour.

“You’re crazy,” he said. “Dean Beman [commissioner of the PGA tour] would read that and take my card away.”



FRIDAY

It is a shame that I took up one of the seats in Moody for the Rod Laver-Bjorn Borg match. Some tennis aficionado might have gotten more out of the breathtaking four hours of tennis these men played. Both were fresh and extremely aggressive, though the 18-year-old Swede’s youth and ferocious top-spin passing shots eventually wore Laver out. In the fifth set, Laver had lost much of his serving velocity and ability to hustle.

This was tennis at its best-gruelling mano à mano battling. It is matches like these that explain tennis’ phenomenal growth as a spectator sport, both live and on the tube. It may well become the TV sport, if one of the networks can provide consistently good matches between top name players. WCT finished in the black this year, an incredible success when you consider that of the “top 10 players” agreed upon by three national tennis magazines, none of the first four (Connors, Newcombe, Vilas, Rosewall) were on the WCT tour.

Throughout the WCT you sensed a sport which has only begun to grow; at the Byron Nelson, you felt a premonition of decline and fall.

SATURDAY

By now, I had lost my stomach for most everything about the Byron Nelson, save the Michelob. The course had played pretty much the same all week-easy. Byron Nelson himself showed some concern for this, promising tougher rough and more challenging pin placement in the future. The players weren’t forced to hit long enough irons, and the greens were holding shots too well. It was all rather boring, except for my personal interest in watching Tommy Watson continue to burn up the course.

That night was the gala ball honoring the two WCT finalists Arthur Ashe and Bjorn Borg. I had tried an earlier conversation with Ashe, receiving replies about as interesting as those of the golf pros I had talked to earlier. So I decided to keep my eye on Borg, knowing he was supposed to be hot bachelor property. His style was a little crimped this night, though, possibly because his parents were with him.

It was difficult to get a word with him. Photographers surrounded him. “Word’s out,” said one cameraman. “Those magazines and newspapers in Europe are buying any pictures of Borg.”

WCT had imported some celebrity tennis groupies to play in their Saturday afternoon pro-celebrity matches. Lloyd Bridges, Charlton Heston, Chad Everett, Ed Ames and Dan Rowan graced the dinner (an average beef stroganoff) and fairly bored everyone with lavish and long-winded praise of everyone in the room, including each other. I later asked Heston if he’d paid his way to Dallas, thinking perhaps celebs got the same freebie treatment as foreign sportswriters. He said of course he did, and got kind of mad.

WCT managed to seduce gratis performances from Dallas sportscast-ing personalities Frank Glieber and Verne Lundquist. Out in the lobby, Lundquist was heard to say, “Never again. Not the Hollywood types.”



SUNDAY

The golf tournament was rained out, so I tried to arrive early for the tennis finals. Across the street from Moody, some very sharp capitalists were at work. Despite the expense of the best boxes at the tournament (up to $600), parking is never included. So some SMU frat rats had spent the night soliciting all the cars available to take up parking spots near the coliseum. As unsuspecting victims arrived and searched for a place to park, they were waved into parking areas and one of the frat men would remove a parked automobile to another spot. The going rate was about $4. One man pulled up to where a fraternity man stood, stopped the car, got out and handed the lucky huckster his keys and a $10 bill.

The finals match was horrible. Borg played aggressively the first set, then got careless and fell behind Ashe two sets to one. Ashe was not playing brilliantly, but more consistently than he usually does. Borg really sort of gave him the match, though, quitting altogether, it seemed, in the fourth set. If “Teen Angel” had been playing a team sport, that sort of thing would have earned him a spot on the bench. Later, Borg blamed his lackluster performance on his exasperating win over Laver Friday night.

Somewhere in the third set, I got up to visit the concessions. I was snared at the throat by a pert WCTette. I had heard about this rule about not walking around during play, but wanted to find someone to explain the rationale behind it to me. I was released by the usherette and grabbed an official-looking guy in a blazer. “Why can’t people walk around in the stands?” I asked. He said the players need to concentrate. “So does Toby Harrah when he’s facing a Nolan Ryan fastball, and Rick Barry when he’s shooting a free throw,” I said. He didn’t say anything.

Which brings me to what kept gnawing at me after that week of some very good tennis and some mostly mediocre golf. These sports, unlike any others, seem to be tailored to pampering their participants, often at the expense of the crowd’s full enjoyment and involvement. Of course, it may well be that tennis and golf crowds, still predominantly rich, want it this way, want their sporting events just like their symphony or museum openings.

But this uptightness robs thesesports of their inherent drama, and,moreover, makes their players ratherboring. The simple fact is, tennis orgolf “personalities” lack personality.While Laver and Tom Watson arefirst class guys, both sports need moreLee Trevinos and Arnold Palmers,guys who really didn’t have much andhad to scramble. Of the two sports,tennis will be the survivor, especiallywhen the O.J. Simpsons and WaltFraziers are introduced to a tennisracket, instead of just a football orbasketball or baseball, when they arefive years old.

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