THE GTE SENIORS TOURNAMENT : Devil Winds, Undulating Greens Torture Old Pros

Times Staff Writer

If you asked some of the professionals playing in the GTE Seniors tournament at Wood Ranch what they would rather do--putt on the course's hilly greens and drive into the blustery winds there, or steer a Buick into a brick wall at 60 m.p.h., the vote would come out about even.

At least the brick wall would get things over in a hurry, instead of the slow torture some of the pros say they've been exposed to the past couple of days in Simi Valley.

During Friday's opening round, Bob Heath, Wood Ranch's director of golf, said he thought the old pros would appreciate and even get a kick out of the 7,000-yard, links-style course. "When the players look back to remember it," he said, "I think they'll remember it as a good test of golf."

And World War II was a little barn dance over in Europe.

Here's a sampling of the players' appreciation for all the fun they're supposed to be having:

From Jim Cochran: "The problem here is the greens won't hold the shots. Like No. 8. It's the worst hole on the course. You can't stop a ball on that green. On No. 13, it doesn't matter what you do--if you land the ball on the green, it's almost impossible to keep the ball out of the back bunker. There's no way you can keep the ball by the hole.

"No. 5, that green is unbelievable. They ought to bomb that thing."

From Gary Player: "This is a tremendous layout, but the greens are too severe. I build golf courses and I'm anti-undulating greens. When you've got to putt over mounds and slopes, it's too hard."

From Billy Casper: "It's difficult because of the greens and the wind. The greens are too heavy on undulations, and they don't have any pin placements."

From Jim King: The course is too severe for the conditions that prevail here--namely, the wind. You've got to build a course according to the wind. It's a beautiful place, but it's unfair."

From Chi Chi Rodriguez: "All I know is my hat was blowing 100 m.p.h. this morning."

Sounds like everyone's having a helluva good time, doesn't it?

Part of the problem at Wood Ranch is that the course is only 2 1/2 years old and sometimes it behaves that way. Even though it is designed in the Scottish-links style, most of the holes do not allow players to bounce the ball into the greens to avoid bouncing over them. "Bouncing into the green is tough," Heath said, "because the bent grass in the fairways stops the ball quickly. Plus the greens are well protected."

And the greens are hard, thus the complaints about their inability to "hold" shots into the greens. As for their sloping, multitiered features, Heath said, "That's part of what a links-style course is all about."

For the most part, Wood Ranch is designed for point-to-point golf. The idea is to aim for a specific area off the tee, land the ball there, then drop it on the green. Landing in the rough--a sticky combination of blue and rye grass and, in places, fescue grass--is, as one player put it, "worse than dying at birth."

"And then there's the water," Heath said. "We have water that comes into play on 14 of the holes."

Adding to the mayhem is the wind. Breezes blow across the course alternately from the ocean and from the desert, usually about 20 m.p.h., and at times they seem to swirl simultaneously. If a golfer was to be blindfolded and dropped on the 11th tee, he might think he landed in Kansas. There's even a windmill just off the 11th fairway.

"The wind is the course's toughest feature," Heath said.

Heath predicted that holes 10 through 13 would play a key role in the tournament's outcome. "They are the toughest four consecutive holes I've seen anywhere. There are no gimmes. Anybody who plays those holes even par will be in good shape."

During Saturday's second round, leader Bob Charles burned through the four-hole stretch with two pars and two birdies. Also among the leaders, Bruce Crampton and Tommy Aaron each made three pars and a birdie.

The four holes are representative of the course overall. Numbers 10, 11 and 12 are par-4s with lots of hazards in the form of lakes, creeks, rocks in the fairways and rolls in the greens.

The par-3 13th hole is 175 yards with water to the left, right and in front of the green and a bunker behind. "That is probably the best-known hole on the course," Heath said. "When people think of Wood Ranch, they think of that hole."

And when they do, most of them, including the pros, probably get the heebie-jeebies.

"This is a golf course you need to see a couple of times," said Arnold Palmer, who saw more than he wanted when he dunked a shot into the water while playing No. 11 on Friday. "It takes a while to learn a course like this. That was just a dumb shot. But, it's like getting kicked by a jackass--you get kicked by it once and you don't walk back there again."

As it turned out, Heath was right. Almost all the senior pros have gotten a kick or two out of Wood Ranch this week.

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