Duel Identity

Special to The Times

No matter the venue -- Riviera Country Club, Rancho Park Golf Club or Valencia Country Club -- the Los Angeles Open has staged some of the game's most dramatic tournaments. Following is a brief look at 10 memorable post-World War II duels:

* 1950: Sam Snead beats Ben Hogan in 18-hole playoff. Equally triumphant was Hogan, making his first tournament appearance since his near-fatal 1949 car accident. Followed by a huge crowd at Riviera, Hogan, a three-time champion (1942, '47, '48) in Los Angeles, opened with a two-over-par 73 and then shot three successive 69s to put himself in position to win. But Snead, the winner in 1945, made a 14-foot birdie putt at 17 and a 15-footer at 18 to force the playoff, in which he prevailed, 72-76. Because of poor weather, and, subsequently, the scheduled start of the Bing Crosby tournament on the Monterey Peninsula, the playoff was postponed until the next week.

Epilogue: Snead, who also won the Crosby, won 11 tournaments in 1950 and finished with a then-tour-record 69.23 stroke average. Nonetheless, it was Hogan who was selected as player of the year. Hogan won two tournaments that season, but one was a big one, the U.S. Open, the only major Snead never won.

* 1959: Ken Venturi overcomes eight-stroke deficit. The victory came three years after, as an amateur, he had squandered a four-shot advantage heading into the final round in the Masters. Venturi rallied with an eight-under 63 to win by two over Art Wall Jr. Venturi applied the pressure by posting a 30 on the front nine at Rancho Park before Wall teed off, then finished the round with five threes on a cold, foggy day.

Epilogue: Venturi, who also won the 1959 Gleneagles Open, finished 10th on the money list with $25,887. He went on to win the 1964 U.S. Open at Congressional. Wall recorded 14 victories on the PGA Tour, including the 1975 Greater Milwaukee Open when he was 51 years old. Only Snead, at 52, was older when he won a tour event.

* 1963: Arnold Palmer in another classic charge. Trailing Wall by three shots heading into the final round, Palmer, who had never finished better than 10th in seven previous L.A. Open appearances, went out in 33 at Rancho Park. After a double bogey at 11, he birdied 12, 16, and then 17, when he made a 50-foot putt from at least 10 feet off the green.

"This was one of my big goals," Palmer said. "I'd always done so poorly here. I came earlier than ever before. I started with my old set of clubs.

"Usually, I start off the new year with a new set and sort of fool around."

Epilogue: Palmer won the tournament again in 1966 and 1967 and finished second to Billy Casper in 1968. Palmer also experienced his share of frustration at Rancho. In 1961, he hit four balls out of bounds on the par-five ninth hole (now the 18th), finishing with a 12. A plaque at the course marks the occasion.

* 1969: Charlie Sifford prevails over Harold Henning in playoff. Opening with an eight-under 63 at Rancho Park, Sifford, the first African American to become a full-fledged member of the PGA Tour, in the early 1960s, went wire-to-wire for his second official tour victory. The first had come at Hartford in 1967. Sifford, a Los Angeles resident, tied Henning with a 20-foot birdie putt on 16, and won the playoff with a birdie at 15.

"I didn't know I had so many fans in L.A.," said Sifford, a former caddie. "But I had as many as Arnold Palmer."

Epilogue: Sifford, 80, who lives in Ohio, didn't win again on the regular tour but finished in the top 25 in each of his first six seasons (1981-1986) on the senior circuit. Henning, from South Africa, won three senior events.

* 1970: Billy Casper knocks off Hale Irwin in one-hole playoff. One more par is all Irwin, 24, needed to win his first tournament. But in horrible conditions, he bogeyed Rancho Park's 18th hole when his seven-iron approach hit a tree, or, as he put it, "the one lousy little limb hanging out there between me and the hole." In the playoff, on the par-four 15th, Irwin missed a 12-foot putt and Casper, a superb putter, converted from five feet.

"I let everything I've worked so hard for as a pro slip away today," Irwin said, "but now I know I can win -- any time, anywhere."

Epilogue: Throughout his career, Irwin proved his point, breaking through a year later at Hilton Head to record the first of his 20 tour victories, which included three U.S. Opens (1974, '79, '90). Casper won the 1970 Masters, his third major in a career overshadowed by the Big Three of Palmer, Jack Nicklaus and Gary Player. Casper won 51 times, trailing only Snead (82), Nicklaus (73), Hogan (64), Palmer (62), and Byron Nelson (52).

* 1974: Dave Stockton holds off 61-year-old Sam Snead and John Mahaffey. Stockton, who had grown up in San Bernardino and went to USC, came through with a brilliant birdie at Riviera's 18th hole to break a tie with Mahaffey. From 243 yards, Stockton hit a three-wood to within 12 feet of the pin. Stockton had discovered that Snead was still up to some old tricks. At the 18th tee, "Snead says, 'You probably don't remember this, but in 1950, I birdied the last two holes to beat Hogan,' " Stockton recalled.

"As the ball's in flight, I've got my fist under his chin, and I said, 'I guess Mr. Hogan didn't hit it that good, Mr. Snead.' "

Epilogue: Two years later, at Congressional outside Washington, Stockton won his second PGA Championship, edging Ray Floyd and Don January by one shot.

* 1978: Gil Morgan upsets the Golden Bear. Any given Sunday can also apply to golf. Tied with Nicklaus heading into the final round at Riviera, Morgan, a licensed optometrist, beat Nicklaus by two strokes to win for only the second time. The turning point was a Nicklaus double bogey at 15 after he flubbed a chip shot.

"I never in my fondest dreams thought I'd ever beat Jack Nicklaus head to head on one of the greatest courses," Morgan said. Throughout the tournament, Nicklaus was accompanied by plainclothes representatives of the FBI and Los Angeles Police Department after officials had received a call that he might be the object of a kidnapping.

Epilogue: Morgan continued to play extremely well in Los Angeles, winning at Rancho Park in 1983 and finishing second to Fred Couples in 1990 at Riviera.

* 1982: Tom Watson over Johnny Miller in sudden death. Miller, the defending champion, squandered a two-stroke lead with bogeys at 17 and 18 at Riviera, forcing a playoff with Watson, who converted from 45 feet on the third extra hole. Miller then missed from 12 feet. The $54,000 check moved Watson, the L.A. champion in 1980, past Lee Trevino into second place in all-time earnings behind Nicklaus.

Epilogue: Neither player ever won the L.A. Open again. Miller, though, would exact a little revenge when, at the age of 46, he outdueled Watson in the final round of the 1994 tournament at Pebble Beach. For Watson, 1982 would be another outstanding year, with victories at the U.S. Open at Pebble Beach and the British Open at Royal Troon.

* 1992: Fred Couples prevails over Davis Love III. Couples, a huge crowd favorite at Riviera, birdied the second extra hole to win his second Nissan L.A. Open in three years. After Love missed from 35 feet on the par-three 14th hole, Couples made his putt from 10 feet. Until a triple bogey at the 12th hole in the third round, Love had looked unstoppable.

Epilogue: The victory propelled Couples, 32, to the type of year that had been long anticipated. He won two other tournaments, including the Masters, and finished No. 1 on the money list. The future seemed unlimited. But Couples, winless since the 1998 Memorial, hasn't enjoyed a similar season.

* 1998: Billy Mayfair edges Tiger Woods in a playoff. Woods played the last 36 holes in 11 under par at Valencia Country Club, but it wasn't good enough to hold off Mayfair, who birdied the 18th in regulation to tie him and did it again with a five-footer on the first extra hole. It was his first victory since the 1995 Tour Championship.

"You go for a while without winning and you start thinking, 'Can I ever win again?' ? Mayfair said. "And then to beat Tiger Woods. Wow." The tournament was held at Valencia because of preparations at Riviera for the U.S. Senior Open.

Epilogue: Mayfair won later in the year at the Buick Open but hasn't had a victory since. Woods has yet to win in Los Angeles.

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Michael Arkush is a writer/author based in Ojai. He is currently working with Ken Venturi on his autobiography, to be published by Triumph Books in 2004.

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