Seniors Golf : Charles Wins, Seven Tie for Second

Times Staff Writer

The suspense lasted well into Sunday afternoon at the Vintage Country Club.

But in the end, Howie Johnson didn't win an unprecedented second tournament in two days and deprive someone of the $40,500 first prize, Dale Douglass didn't have to go looking for an attorney and Bob Charles finally won a Seniors Tour event on his own.

The New Zealand farmer, the greatest left-hander in the history of golf, shot a two-under par 70 in the final round to win the $300,000 Chrysler Vintage Invitational by four strokes with a 72-hole total of 285.

Charles, at three under, was the only player to finish under par, although conditions for the final round were ideal. The winds that hampered the players during two of the first three rounds failed to show. There was a seven-way tie for second, headed by Johnson and defending champion Dale Douglass. All were at 289.

Johnson, who started a controversy by winning the 54-hole first Super Seniors (60 and over) Saturday, was in the running Sunday until Charles birdied the 16th Sunday to put the tournament out of reach.

If Johnson, who earned $8,200 for his victory Saturday, had won the 72-hole Vintage tournament, he would not have collected the $40,500 first prize. It would have gone into the pension fund. When Saturday's leaders, Charles and Douglass, were informed of this ruling, it came as a shock. It seems certain there will be changes made before the GTE Seniors tournament begins Friday at Wood Ranch in Simi Valley.

A double-bogey seven on the sixth hole probably ended Johnson's hopes, but he was only three shots back going into the 16th where Charles knocked in a five-foot putt for his birdie.

When Douglass three-putted 18, missing from 1 1/2 feet, it cost him $8,600. Instead of taking second place outright, he tied with Johnson, Chi Chi Rodriguez, Bruce Crampton, Butch Baird, Gary Player and Bobby Nichols.

There is no doubt that youth is being served on the Seniors Tour. Except for the 61-year-old Johnson, all the other top finishers are either 50 or 51 and recent additions to the 50-and-over group.

Charles became eligible for the Seniors Tour March 14 last year. When he and Amy Alcott teamed up to win the $500,000 Mazda Champions last fall, he became a tour winner. But, this was the first time he won one strictly on his own. In three previous tournaments, he led going into the final round and lost.

His putting touch, a feature of his 15 years on the PGA Tour, deserted him Sunday.

"On the regular tour I was an outstanding putter," Charles said. "But, my eyes are gone. I can read the greens, but I can't get the ball started on the right line. Today may have been the worst I ever putted.

"I kept hitting good iron shots and missing putts. I was sure somebody would come blowing past me and win it.

"I think from tee to green I'm playing as well as I ever have in this my 27th year of competitive golf. But it is surprising that my poor putting didn't cost me. It wasn't the greens, it was my eyes."

It appeared it might be Douglass. On the first hole the defending champion, playing in the last group with Charles, sank a 25-foot birdie putt. Charles missed a 15-footer and his lead was only a stroke.

On the second hole, a 418-yard par-4, Douglass had a chance to catch Charles. His 15-foot putt just curved around the hole. But when Charles sank a 20-footer off the fringe on three and Douglass missed a 10-foot putt for par, the two-stroke switch put Charles back in command.

"Maybe if that putt had dropped, it would have changed the game," Douglass said. "But, there were a lot of holes left and I would still have had all those chances to mess up.

"I putted well in this tournament and hit the ball off the tee. But the difference was that last year, every time I looked up, I had hit an iron close to the pin. I didn't hit my irons well in this tournament."

There were two other challenges to Charles in the final round. One was by Player, who was three under for the day after 13 holes to move within two shots of the lead. But he bogeyed 16 and lost all chance. He finished with a 69.

Walt Zembriski, who trailed by three shots going into the last round, birdied the first two holes to move within a shot of the lead, only to falter and finish at 291.

There were seven rounds in the 60s Sunday, the best a 67 by Billy Casper. Casper, who won last week in Arizona, is playing as well as anyone. He gives credit to the Centinela Player Training Center, which accompanies the seniors to each tournament. He works out every day after his round.

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