Michigan Golfer ON-LINE

Nothing Weak About PGA Championship
by Jack Berry

Weak sister? That’s what some critics would have you believe about the fourth leg of the Grand Slam, the PGA Championship.

Not so. Jack Nicklaus won the PGA five times. Think he’d give back any of them because they weren’t “major” enough? Gary Player, Lee Trevino and Nick Price each won the PGA twice. It’s the one big one that Arnold Palmer never was able to put in his bag.

The PGA was the first major championship won by Payne Stewart, who went on to win two U. S. Opens and it was the first major won by Vijay Singh, who went on to win this year’s Masters.

Great players win the PGA, and, more often than not, they do it in great style, as Tiger Woods did last year on the No. 3 course at Medinah Country Club in suburban Chicago.

The only legitimate question about the PGA is the organization’s site selection. This year it’s at Valhalla Country Club in Louisville, Ky. Valhalla may mean the hall of the slain heroic warriors in Norse mythology but being No. 4 in this year’s Grand Slam lineup of Augusta National, Pebble Beach and St. Andrews is not of mythic proportion.

The PGA owns Valhalla, a Jack Nicklaus design, and will make a ton of money. To its credit, the PGA makes an effort to go to places where the PGA Tour rarely goes and where there is great golf interest. It has thrown St. Louis, Indianapolis, Louisville and Seattle into the major championship mix along with visits to traditional sites such as Oakland Hills, Winged Foot, Oak Hill, Southern Hills, Medinah and Hazeltine.

And no one can dispute the strength of the PGA’s field — all 150 players are professionals. The Masters is an invitational, with a field
usually of 90 players and at least five of them are amateurs. This year, with an invitation to Australian teenager, Aaron Baddeley, there were six amateurs.

But the PGA Championship field consists solely of pros and the cream of the international field, as well as the leading 70 PGA Tour money winners for the year, all winners of PGA Tour tournaments in the previous 12 months, the previous Ryder Cup team, winners of the last five Masters, U.S. and British Opens and all former PGA Championship winners.

Occasionally there’s a surprise, like 1991 at Crooked Tree Golf Club outside Indianapolis, when the ninth alternate, John Daly, got in and won. Nick Price withdrew to be with his wife as she gave birth to their first child. But Price left his caddie, Jeff (Squeaky) Medlen, for Daly and it was a marriage made in heaven. Three alternates declined — they couldn’t get to Indianapolis in time — but Daly drove up from Memphis and, despite never having seen the course, opened with a 69, follow with rounds of 67-68-71 and won by three strokes over Bruce Lietzke.

A perennial knock on the PGA by a minority of critics is that it lost its soul when it switched from match to stroke play in 1958. What happened was that the PGA got smart.

There’s no doubt that match play is exciting and there were great champions with a lot of Michigan flavor — Walter Hagen, Oakland Hills‚ first professional, won it a record five times. Tommy Armour won when he was a Detroit club pro and Leo Diegel won at match play as did Chick Harbert, then pro at Meadowbrook, and native Detroiter Walter Burkemo won in 1953 at Birmingham Country Club. Hogan had won the first three
legs of the Grand Slam that year, the Masters, United States and British Opens, but passed up the PGA because his legs, severely injured in a February 1949 collision with a Greyhound bus, simply couldn‚t take the double-round days required in match play.

But the PGA doesn’t have to apologize for championships like the 1972 edition at Oakland Hills when Gary Player hit one of the greatest shots of his career, a 9-iron over a willow tree and over the lake to four feet of the cup on the 16th green. The ensuing birdie righted Player’s ship after bogeys on 15 and 16 and he went on to win by two shots over Tommy Aaron and Jim Jamieson with Snead, Billy Casper and Raymond Floyd three behind.

Then there was the 1979 PGA where David Graham, one of the game’s best long iron players, tore into Oakland Hills in the final round. He was seven under par on the 18th tee but double bogeyed the difficult par-4 and fell into a playoff with gallery favorite Ben Crenshaw.

Graham miracuously escaped trouble on the first two holes of the sudden death playoff with an 18-foot par putt on the first hole and a 10-footer on the second to match Crenshaw’s birdie. The precise Australian then won with a birdie on the third.

Payne Stewart won his first major in 1989 at stormy Kemper Lakes north of Chicago when he birdied four of the last five holes to catch and pass Mike (Radar) Reid. Stewart was outfitted in Chicago Bears colors and looked as though he was ready for Halloween — lots of orange.

Nineteen-year-old Sergio Garcia made the Shot of the Year last summer, on the 16th at Medinah where his ball nestled among tree roots. He slashed the ball out with a savage banana slice, sprinted to the fairway and leaped high to watch the result as the ball rolled onto the green 189 yards away.

Garcia made par but Woods, behind him, had no such heroic shot on that hole and bogied it to trim his lead to one shot over Garcia. However, Woods still had some magic in his bag and made a brilliant slippery
sidehill eight-foot par putt on 17 to maintain his lead and then made a solid par on 18 to finish the round and raise the Wanamaker Trophy in triumph.

“It was a tough day but it’s always nice to play with all the pressure on the line,” Woods said. “If you don’t like that and you don’t have fun doing that, then I don’t know why you’re even out there.”

Woods, at 23, was the youngest PGA champion since Jack Nicklaus won his first PGA in 1963 at the same age.

Nicklaus and Woods. If they aren’t major, who is?

Return to the Michigan Golfer August 2000 Issue Page
Return to the Michigan Golfer Home Page

You can contact us at clubhouse@webgolfer.com
Copyright© Great Lakes Sports Publications, Inc.