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A huge circus-like tent in the asphalt parking lot west of the clubhouse. The new cart barn built near the practice range for the added carts needed for the new West Course. Re-purposed sleeping rooms in the clubhouse. Another newer, more modern test set on the practice green east of the clubhouse. And, finally, a state of the art, permanent media center near the 18th green.
Maybe nothing more than the various facilities used to accommodate media coverage illustrates the evolution of PGA tournament golf on the South Course at Firestone Country Club over the last 65 years. In that time the growth of television coverage has also meant huge change in filling the needs of that industry, as well – permanent stage pads and underground cable for starters.
There is no indication that Bertie Way, the golf pro who designed the South Course originally in 1929 ever saw any of the first Rubber City Opens played between 1954 and 1959. A good player himself who tied the second in the 1899 U.S. Open, Way retired as pro at Mayfield Country Club outside Cleveland in 1952. He died in Florida in 1963 at the age of 90.
But Way might recognize one thing – his original routing.
When Robert Trent Jones was brought in to toughen the course in preparation for the 1960 PGA Championship, he added length – nearly 1,000 yards, over 50 bunkers, two ponds and re-shaped every green to his signature, potato chip style. He also cut par from 72 to 70. Yet 16 of the holes still go north to south or vice versa and the other two still go east to west.
The fact that Way got the original job should be no surprise. While at Mayfield, he gave golf lessons to John D. Rockefeller and late built a course named Euclid Club for the oil baron. That course no longer exists but built in 1900, it did host the 1907 U.S. Amateur.
That fact that Rockefeller and friends with industrialists Henry Ford and Harvey Firestone should not be ignored when it came to Way’s hiring. In that era, he also designed several courses in Detroit.
But Way was not designing a course for tour pros in 1929. The South Course was intended for Firestone employees. What’s now the North Course was called Firestone Public and was just that. It was remodeled by Jones in 1969 and became part of the private country club complex.
Way might have been surprised to see Tommy Bolt shoot 23-under to win the inaugural Rubber City Open, just as Jones would be surprised to see Tiger Woods shoot 21-under 259 to win the 2000 Bridgestone Invitational.
Jones might also be surprised to watch today’s players regularly hit the 667-yard, par 5, 16th hole, the signature hole on the South Course in two shots.
In his 1977 book, “Arnold Palmer’s Best 54 Golf Holes,” written with his long-time Pittsburgh golf writer friend Bob Drum, Palmer included the 16th in not only his best 54 but also among his best 18.
In 1960, already the winner of the Masters and U.S. Open, Palmer was trying to win what some called the “American Slam” or three United States based major championships. `Jay Hebert won with a 1-over 281 total with Palmer tied for seventh at 286.
At the 16th in the third round, Palmer made a triple bogey 8 after his second shot from the rough tipped an over-hanging tree and ended up in a hazard. His 75 that day was his worst round on the tournament.
In that same book, Palmer recalled playing with former Firestone pro Bobby Nichols in the 1963 American Golf Classic. He was the tournament’s defending champion both hit the green at the 16th in two and made birdies. Palmer finished third at 281 behind winner Ken Venturi’s 275.
Besides Woods, no player has a more distinguished record on the South Course that Jack Nicklaus.
He has his most famous encounter with the 16th hole in the third round of the 1975 PGA Championship. Three back of Australian Bruce Crampton, who shot a then course-record 63 in the second round, Nicklaus shot 67 that day to Crampton’s 74 but it’s his par on the 16th with a penalty shot, no shot from the fairway and a 20-foot par-saving putt that’s remembered.
(The tournament chairman for the PGA that year was Don Padgett, who would become PGA of America president in 1977-78. His son, Don II, become Firestone’s pro in 1979 and later became director of golf and eventually general manager. He later became president of Pinehurst Resort where his late father served as director of golf in the 1990.
Today, Don Padgett III is executive director of the Bridgestone Invitational.)
Jack Nicklaus did win the American Golf Classic, four of the old four man World Series of Golf tournaments including the first two plus the first expanded WSOG event in 1976, but it was the 1958 Rubber City Open, now 60 years ago, that was his first exposure to PGA Tour golf and Firestone’s South Course.
Still an amateur and a student at Ohio State and playing on a sponsor’s exemption. Palmer, who won his first Masters that year, was the defending champion and U.S. Open winner Tommy Bolt, winner of the inaugural event some 65 years ago, was also in the field.
Art Wall won the tournament with a 269. Nicklaus shot a respectable 7-under 277 to tie for15th. (Par was 71 that year.) But after a second round 66, Nicklaus was in second place with a shot behind leader Wall. A third round 76 while paired with Bolt killed Nicklaus’ chance for a Cinderella ending. Bolt shot 274 with Charlie Sifford, Nicklaus’s first round playing partner, at 275 and Palmer at 276.
By that way, Wall’s winning check was for $22,000. For the 1960 PGA, it was only $11,000. Al Geiberger earned $25,000 when he won the 1966 PGA, a tournament remembered more for what happened after when former British Open (and Cleveland Open winner) Tony Lema, his wife and their pilot died the in crash on a private plane flying for Akron to a corporate outing in Illinois.
Nicklaus got $45,000 for his ’75 PGA victory but $100,000 when he won the expanded field WSOG in 1976, his last victory at Firestone.
It’s doubtful that any player took better advantage of winning at Firestone than Nick Price.
He came into the 1983 WSOG as a virtual unknown having won the South African Order of Merit. He became the tournament’s first wire-to-wire winner, defeating Nicklaus by four shots. The $100,000 first prize was nice but better was the 10 year exemption that went to the winner and helped launch a World Golf Hall of Fame career for the three-time major champion. The exemption was important because it would be eight years before Price won his second Tour title.
Thanks to Price’s WSOG victory the world also got to know his golf instructor – a fellow named David Leadbetter.
The days of typewriters clanging away in the press tent are gone. So are the days on the tent flooding during rain storms one time forcing then golf course superintendent Jim Loke to commandeer a shuttle van so he could back it into the tent’s front door to driver reporters, staff members and tournament volunteers only about 25 feet but through six inches of water.
The cart barn was too far from the locker room and 18th green and only had a half bathroom. It had air conditioning when the garage doors were open
The locker room set up was unusual but required lots of temporary electrical outlets and phone lines. There was easy access to players, those who did use the locker room, weren’t more that 50 feet away, but women staffers, reporters and volunteers needed to good downstairs to find a bathroom.
Can’t help but wonder what the old timers like Bertie Way, Robert Trent Jones and former winners like Tommy Bolt, Art Wall, Frank Beard and Jerry Heard would think of the place now.
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