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MIKE DOWNEY

Champion Relishes This Sequel

February 27, 1995|MIKE DOWNEY

Riviera is a country club just off Sunset Boulevard, the setting of Broadway's most popular musical, and a few blocks from Rockingham Drive, the centerpiece of America's most notorious crime. The golf tournament that concluded there Sunday began with players named Simpson, Cochran, Brown and Claar, by way of keeping things topical.

Los Angeles, you're still where the action is. Sixty-six years ago, resident humorist Will Rogers was master of ceremonies for an L.A. Open fund-raiser that was called the first $100-a-plate dinner in America's history. He pulled a C-note from his pocket and attempted to persuade the audience that he had to pay "like all the rest of you suckers."

That 1929 tournament was the first time it was played at Riviera. It also was the first time anyone repeated as champion. Never breaking 70, MacDonald Smith won the same way he had the previous winter at the Wilshire Country Club, utilizing his great skill around the greens to take home that hefty $3,500 paycheck.

A little local knowledge goes a long way. Corey Pavin has become the fifth man to take back-to-back L.A. Opens, although now the tournament is sponsored by Nissan, which was not a popular make back when Will Rogers was driving down Sunset. Without a round worse than 68, Pavin not only won, he made a case for his defense so strong that perhaps only Johnnie Cochran could have improved it.

Striding toward the 18th green and a prize that inflation has bumped slightly higher than Mac Smith's--$216,000--it occurred to Pavin that the difference between this year's triumph and last year's, aside from a winner's purse-boost of 36 grand, was that when he and Fred Couples took the same walk the year before, he couldn't be positive that his two-shot edge would hold up.

"Last year I didn't have the luxury of walking up 18 knowing I was the winner," Pavin said. "I could relish it this time."

He could enjoy it the way Arnold Palmer did in 1967, when color television and a six-figure purse came to this tournament for the first time and were waiting for Arnie when he did his victory wave to the gallery at Rancho Park for the second consecutive year.

He could enjoy it the way Paul Harney did in 1965 when, so weakened by a case of pneumonia that he barely was able to practice, he closed with 68-69 for back-to-back championships at Rancho and a $12,000 reward. Or the way Ben Hogan did at Riviera the same year the U.S. Open was played there, 1948, when he defended his crown with a 275 total that stood as a tournament record for a quarter of a century.

Saying it amazed him merely to hear his name in the same sentence with Palmer's and Hogan's, the winner and still champion couldn't help but nod when someone described Riviera as his kind of course, saying: "I hope it's my kind of course, good gosh. I don't know what else I have to do."

The way he plays Riviera, there are people practically willing to concede Pavin an elusive major, in this case the PGA Championship, when that tournament comes here in August. Naturally, these people need reminding that Nick Price, Nick Faldo, Greg Norman, Ernie Els, Tom Watson, Ian Woosnam, etc., will have something to say about this, having not availed themselves this past weekend of Riviera's hospitality.

Pavin scorched the place. After getting a birdie on the 10th hole with a sand wedge that he plopped two feet from the pin, Pavin crossed to the 11th tee with spectators shouting "Go Bruins!" as he passed by. He proceeded to hit one of his poorest tee shots, but recovered from behind a tree trunk for a par, seemingly comfortable here with every leaf and twig.

Playing partner Kenny Perry turned to Pavin at one point to say: "It must be great to play with everybody cheering for you this way."

Pavin laughed and pointed out that people were also cheering "Go Trojans!" in deference to the third man of their threesome, USC alumnus Craig Stadler.

By the time he got to the unfriendly 15th, a hole so difficult that Palmer once said, "I'll take my par here any time," Pavin had the tournament locked up. It barely mattered that he took his only bogey of the round, driving into the rough of the 447-yard beast and carding a five. One mistake can terminate some tournaments for Pavin, but not this one.

"That was the only mistake I made all day, and that's how you win at Riviera, by not making mistakes," he said.

Riviera is more than a Los Angeles landmark. It is a natural beauty that wears its age well, an illustrious dowager living off Sunset that cannot wait to preen and show itself off for the cameras. Ready for its close-up, PGA.

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