The 2020-21 PGA Tour season will conclude over Labor Day weekend with the Tour Championship at historic East Lake Golf Club in Atlanta, its home since 2002. The 30 players who qualify will compete for $46,000,000 in prize money.
By contrast, in the 1960s the PGA Tour season ended ingloriously in late November at the Cajun Classic, played in Lafayette, Louisiana, in the heart of the bayou. The off-the-beaten-path tournament was a throwback to the tour’s hardscrabble origins. Today it is hardly remembered. Other than being the scene of a less-than-epic showdown between Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus when both were at the top of their games (more later), it was typically ignored by the sporting press and fans who were more focused on football and the Thanksgiving holiday.
A tournament was first played in Lafayette in April 1958, the same week as the Tournament of Champions. The site was Oakbourne Country Club, a course opened in 1955. Fittingly for its subsequent obscurity, it was originally an alternate event for the non-winning pros who were ineligible for the TOC, before being moved to November the following year, in theory as a “full-field” event. Its unofficial hosts were Jay and Lionel Hebert (pronounced “A-bear”), brothers from Lafayette, each of whom won a PGA Championship (Jay in 1960, Lionel in 1957). Jay won the original Lafayette Open Invitational in 1958; Jay won it in 1960 after it changed its name to Cajun Classic. In 1963, the Cajun Classic became the tour’s anchor, a position it held until its demise in 1969.
Even by the standards of the day, the Cajun Classic was bush league – played for a miniscule purse, on a below-grade track and at times in horrible weather (Lafayette in late November may not be North Dakota, but it’s not south Florida, either). A Sports Illustrated article about the 1964 edition, “A Matter of Pride at Endsville,” told of a tournament official who was asked during the pro-am why there were no road signs leading to the Oakbourne Country Club. “Signs for who?” the official replied, noting only about 100 spectators were in attendance. “The crowd they’ve got here now is as big as they usually get for a final round. Anyone who wants to come knows where it is.”
According to former tour pro Ron Cerrudo, 76, who twice played in the event and remains active as a teaching professional at the Daniel Island Club in South Carolina, the genial Hebert brothers were responsible for the few top names who showed up in Lafayette. “Lionel talked all the time,” Cerrudo recalled. “Jay was more subdued.”
Despite the brothers’ charms – Jay, a former Marine who was seriously wounded at Iwo Jima, was slim and viewed as the most handsome man on tour while Lionel was rotund and played the trumpet almost as well as golf – most top names still stayed away. Thus, the field was comprised primarily of journeymen and stragglers, many who were desperately trying to finish in the top 60 on the money list so, under the then-existing system, they would be exempt from Monday qualifying for the following year.
Tommy Aaron, the 1973 Masters champion, has memories of the Cajun Classic, some warm and others grim. In November 1960, it was his first tour event, the result of a sponsor’s exemption facilitated by the Hebert brothers. “I knew nothing about the tour,” Aaron, 84, recalled in a telephone interview from his lifelong home of Gainesville, Georgia, from where he drove to Lafayette in 1960. “I didn’t know what to expect.”
Aaron was accustomed to playing public courses, so he was not put off by the conditions. In time, Aaron would learn that Oakbourne was about the same caliber as the Rancho Park municipal course, the maligned former venue of the Los Angeles Open. Aaron finished 23rd in 1960 to take home $150 from the $15,000 purse (about $1,375 in today’s dollars). But he was happy. “I was excited to see my name in the paper,” he remembers.
According to Aaron, the Cajun Classic “had an old tour feel, from the 1940s or 1950s.” In 1961, he played with winner Doug Sanders in the final round. “We had 50 people following us,” Aaron said.
Cajun Classic had its one moment of glory, so to speak, when both Palmer and Nicklaus showed up, albeit reluctantly.
Oakbourne was the scene of some milestones. In 1962, John Barnum at age 51 became the oldest first-time winner in tour history and the first tour victor to use a Ping putter. In 1967, Marty Fleckman – projected as golf’s next superstar after a stellar college career (he held the 54-hole U.S. Open lead at Baltusrol as an amateur earlier in the year) – won the Cajun Classic in his pro debut. He never won again.
In 1963, Jack Nicklaus showed up. His earnings for the year stood at $98,990. In 1962, Arnold Palmer had become the first pro to win $100,000 in a season. The rivalry between the two had blossomed to the extent that Nicklaus wanted to join him in that club. As usual, Palmer stayed home. However, that milestone became immaterial as the tournament became the scene of one of the PGA Tour’s darkest moments.
On Friday, November 22, 1963, while the second round was being played, President John F. Kennedy was assassinated. “Few of the pros cared to talk about their golf scores,” the Associated Press understatedly reported. “I remember leaving the course and I heard [JFK] had been shot in Dallas,” Aaron recalls. “I was shocked.”
After a pause on Saturday, the tournament was completed with 36 holes on Sunday, just as the scheduled National Football League games were played. To his dying day, NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle said the biggest mistake of his long career was not postponing those games.
“It was a distraction to say the least, for such a terrible thing to happen,” says Aaron, who finished third.
The reason the PGA Tour felt compelled to complete the tournament while the nation was deep in mourning is lost to history. “We played unnoticed today,” winner Rex Baxter Jr. acknowledged at the time. Nicklaus finished fifth and earned $1,050 to barely put him over the $100,000 mark.
The following year, the Cajun Classic had its one moment of glory, so to speak, when both Palmer and Nicklaus showed up, albeit reluctantly. In 1964, there were no official world rankings, and nothing like the FedEx Cup. The closest thing the PGA Tour had to a season-crowning achievement was the money title. The companies with whom Palmer and Nicklaus had endorsement contracts paid approximately $20,000 in bonuses to the money title winner (worth about $175,000 today). “It’s a real measure of accomplishment,” Nicklaus said in 1964, “the next best thing to winning a major championship.”
Palmer seemed to have the money title sewn up at the Sahara Invitational in Las Vegas several weeks earlier. However, in the final round he shot 76, while Nicklaus scored 67. Both had commitments abroad that prevented them from playing in subsequent PGA Tour fall events. As a result, heading into the season-ending Cajun Classic, Palmer led Nicklaus in money earnings by $318.87 ($111,703.37 to $111,384.50). When Palmer learned that Nicklaus was heading to Lafayette, he committed as well.
In the first round, Palmer shot 74 and seemed in danger of missing the cut, while Nicklaus was 4-under after eight holes. However, heavy rain materialized and, under the archaic tour rules then in effect the whole round was washed out and replayed in its entirety the following day. On Friday, both shot 68 in bone-chilling conditions, with wind and temperatures in the 40s.
On Saturday, Palmer shot 74, Nicklaus 71, despite a two-shot penalty incurred when he and playing partner Butch Baird discovered they had hit the other’s MacGregor balls.
With the winter solstice approaching, there was limited daylight to compress a 36-hole finish on Sunday. The unseasonably cold weather that had persisted through the weekend continued. When Nicklaus teed off at 8:12 a.m., the wind chill temperature was in the 20s and it was raining. “Nicklaus looked more like a polar bear than the Golden Bear he uses as a trademark; he was wearing three sweaters, a knitted yellow dickey and a rain suit,” Sports Illustrated reported. “By the time he reached the 3rd hole – followed by a gallery of 18 – the damp towel that hung from his golf bag was frozen stiff.”
After the morning round, Palmer trailed Nicklaus by one stroke. During the final 18, Nicklaus increased his lead over Palmer to four shots. But Palmer rallied with a stretch of five holes played in 4-under par. Then, on the 15th hole, Palmer missed a 2-foot putt that seemingly ended his quest for the money title. He finished his round ahead of Nicklaus and waited in the clubhouse.
Miller Barber, with a five-shot lead, had the tournament won, but Nicklaus and playing partner Gay Brewer were battling for second place. On 18, Brewer faced a 16-foot putt to finish second alone. The money title came down to that one putt. According to Sports Illustrated, “Brewer walked over to Nicklaus and Jack jokingly slipped a money clip into Brewer’s hand.” Nicklaus then turned his back, too nervous to watch. A murmur from the small gallery told him that Brewer missed the putt. Thus, Nicklaus and Brewer tied for second, and Nicklaus won the money title over Palmer by $81.13.
After 1964, the Cajun Classic resumed its obscure end position on the tour calendar. In 1968, a 23-year-old Cerrudo already had secured his spot among the top 60 with a third-place finish at the Sahara Invitational but decided to play at Oakbourne anyway. He was grouped in the final round with Dan Sikes, who also was exempt for 1969 by virtue of wins in two events. “Sikes told me, ‘I’m just trying to make enough points to make the Ryder Cup team,’ ” Cerrudo recalled. Cerrudo won – one of his two career PGA Tour victories, the other being the 1970 Texas Open.
Cerrudo’s win earned him $5,000 from the $35,000 purse, the largest the Cajun Classic would ever have (at a time when most purses were in the $100,000 to $150,000 range). A tie for 35th place netted Bruce Devlin, Terry Dill, Rex Baxter and Bob E. Smith $37 apiece. Places 41-89 earned nothing. One might wonder why those who made the cut – but who had no chance of finishing in the money or making the top 60 – wouldn’t feign an injury or come up with an excuse to get out of town to get an early start on the holidays. For many, the reason was simple: At the time, all players who completed 72 holes in a PGA event automatically made the field of the next tournament. And the next tournament was the more hospitable season-opening Los Angeles Open in early January.
Cerrudo would be the last winner of the Cajun Classic. Throughout 1968, a year of cultural upheaval, the structure of professional golf in America was also rocked to its core. Touring pros, with Nicklaus at the forefront, challenged the PGA of America, which governed the PGA Tour. The PGA of America was, as it is now, an organization catering to golf professionals, not professional golfers. Nicklaus and others chafed at its management and planned to start a rival tour, American Professional Golfers, Inc. A boycott of the PGA Championship in July was threatened but did not materialize.
The APG had serious legs, and numerous existing PGA Tour sponsors announced they would flip to the APG. Sponsors for new events also came forward. A schism was averted in late 1968 when the PGA of America agreed to form the Tournament Players Division, an autonomous group under its umbrella. This resulted in some new tournaments and a dramatic increase in total purses (39 percent between 1967 and 1969).
Under the new regime, there no longer was room for the little Cajun Classic. It died quietly.
A monument stands today in front of the clubhouse at the Oakbourne Country Club, listing past Cajun Classic winners, a slice of the game’s history lost to all but a few who remain. Players at Oakbourne who see it for the first time often chuckle. A PGA Tour event? Here? For good or bad, the answer is: yes, in a manner of speaking.
Top: Daily Advertiser coverage of the 1964 Cajun Classic
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