OJAI — Most of his fellow pros on the Senior PGA Tour call Walt Zembriski "tough." You can add bold.
Instead of trying to protect his one-shot lead in the final round of the GTE West golf tournament Saturday, Zembriski continued his assault on the 6,190-yard Ojai Valley Inn and Country Club layout.
Zembriski shot a final-round 65 on the par-70 course in the hills above Ventura to finish at 13 under par 197 for a two-shot victory worth $52,500.
He had to be tough because George Archer, who trailed by only a shot after 36 holes, and Jim Dent were waiting for him to falter. Dent shot a six-under 64 and Archer had a 66. They finished tied for second at 199.
Bob Charles also had a final-round 66 to finish in fourth place at 202. With Orville Moody, his only challenger in the money race, finishing far back with a 212, the New Zealand left-hander virtually clinched his second consecutive money title. Charles has earned a record $612,396. With only the GTE Kaanapali remaining next week, Charles leads Moody by almost $33,000.
For the third time this week, the course record fell. Butch Baird put together strings of four and three birdies and finished with a seven-under-par 63. Twenty-six golfers--more than one-third of the field--posted sub-par totals.
Zembriski, a former steelworker who worked on skyscrapers, is a refreshing member of the 50-and-older set. He is unassuming, with a sharp wit.
He walks around as if in a dream. He still finds it hard to believe when fans ask for his autograph. As he walked up to the 15th green holding a two-shot lead, there was a big cheer. Zembriski looked around as if expecting Arnold Palmer to appear. When he realized it was for him, he sheepishly tipped his hat.
"Isn't this amazing?" he said after sinking a curving 14-foot putt for a birdie on the 15th that virtually was the clincher.
"I love this course," he said. "The weather is great. It's a short course with small greens. You have to have control. It's my kind of course."
On the first hole, a 412-yard par-4 with a dogleg right, he let his rivals know what to expect. His six-iron approach went nine feet past the pin. He rammed in a downhill putt for the birdie. If he had missed he would have gone several feet beyond.
"I didn't even look at the leader board until after the birdie on 15," he said. "When I saw I led by three, for the first time I decided to play it safe."
He started as a caddy in Mahweh, N.J., when he was 12 at a club where Babe Ruth used to play named the Out of Bounds Club, and he became a steelworker when he couldn't make it on the regular tour.
But an experience in 1971, when he had been sent up to fix a pulley on a crane some 400 feet in the air, made him think about trying golf again, at least on the mini-tour.
"They sent me up there because I was smallest," he said. "The wind caused it to sway back and forth. It was scary and I had to take a 30-minute break. I had continued playing golf and that experience on the crane helped influence my decision to try the mini-tour.
"I knew the pressure of a five-foot putt would never bother me."
It would have been a romp for Zembriski had he not faltered on the ninth hole in each of the last two rounds. Both times he went into the 517-yard par-5 with a four-shot lead. And each time he bogeyed, needing four strokes to get down from 100 yards.
On the final round Dent birdied the ninth to pull within two shots of the lead.
"The way Walter was playing I knew I needed to birdie 10 and 11 to have a chance," Dent said. "But I only birdied 11, and Walt just kept firing birdies.
"We should have been playing for second place, anyhow, but Walt let us back in on the back nine yesterday. Today he didn't back up."
It was Archer's fourth tournament as a senior. He won the first, has been in the top 10 in each one and has earned $91,238.
Chi Chi Rodriguez was fifth at 203. Baird's record round put him in a tie for sixth with three others. One of them, Rocky Thompson, who won the qualifying school in Florida last month by 10 strokes, didn't even qualify for the GTE West. As an alternate, he made the field when Ken Still withdrew.
Palmer, discarding an unorthodox putter after one round, shot his best round, a one-under 69. It seemed to satisfy his army which left en masse after his early finish, not staying around to watch Zembriski win his third tournament.
Despite his solid performance, Rodriguez is not happy. He is miffed because, after winning the first two Senior Skins Games, he was not invited to defend his title next month in Hawaii.
"I'm Rocky Marciano," he said. "I retired undefeated."