No muzzle for the monster

Gary Player held on to win the PGA championship at Oakland Hills, but that tough old course proved that its teeth are still fierce
August 13, 1972

All week long there were these wonderfully crazy scenes out there on this evil thing called Oakland Hills in Michigan, mostly of the world's best golfers being made to look like steam fitters wandering through the countryside searching for their kids or their picnic baskets. There were glimpses of Jack Nicklaus hollering at his shots, of Lee Trevino trying to laugh the course to death and using a six-wood, of Arnold Palmer growling at the swerving greens. Finally, there was the funniest and yet the most dramatic scene of all. It came in the dark, misty gloom of Sunday after it had seemed that nobody—really, nobody—wanted to win the PGA championship, the last of the year's major tournaments. It came at the 16th hole, the most evil of the 18 evil holes at Oakland Hills, a 408-yard par-4 dogleg to a narrow green, lake in front, bunkers behind. There, Gary Player sent a ball flying out of the rough and soaring over some willows at either a flagstick, the beckoning lake, the bunker or oblivion. As the ball hung up there in the air, Player broke into a dead run to his left for a better view of where it might be headed. So did the thousands behind him. Everybody ran. And ran. For a hilarious instant, it looked as if Player had stolen somebody's wallet and the mob was in pursuit. What they all discovered when they rounded the trees, however, was that Player had run right into the championship.

Until that moment, it had looked very much as if the man in contention who could bogey the fewest holes would wind up being the winner. It had also looked like there might be a 10-way tie and the world's most congested playoff. Tough courses can do this. At one point during the afternoon there were 10 players only one stroke apart and, throughout most of the final round there were stages when two, three, four and five men were sharing the lead.

Inevitably it was up to the last man on the golf course. Gary Player, to hit the one shot that would make the difference, a shot that would bring a merciful end to the PGA and reestablish Player among the giants of the game. What Player did, when he precisely had to, was slug a nine-iron exactly 150 yards—150 blind yards—to within three feet of the cup for one of the most precious birdies ever.

"It was either going to be a three or in the lake," Player was to say later.

It was the time for that kind of gamble. In all of the confusion of the final round at Oakland Hills, everything had settled down to what Player, who had been the 54-hole leader, would do. Everyone else had collapsed on the closing holes. All those Jim Jamiesons, Ray Floyds, Billy Caspers, Gay Brewers, Tommy Aarons and Jerry Heards, all the guys who had drifted in and out of contention.

The scene was this: Player had just bogeyed two holes in a row and now had driven wildly into the right rough of the 16th, and he knew as he dwelt on the shot that he clung to a one-stroke lead on whichever of those Jamiesons or Aarons could reach the big white clubhouse without suffering the loss of life or limb.

"I was really demoralized." Player said. "I'd worked hard, as I always do, for this major championship, and I felt that it was mine to win and here I was this close, but it was slipping away."

He knew the distance of the shot, those 150 yards, but all Player could see as he bent over and peeked through the willows was a spectator's folding chair in the crowd behind the green. He fussed around and peeked some more and discovered that the chair gave him some kind of a line to the flag.

"I didn't want to hit a nine-iron 150 yards, but I had to get up over those trees," he explained. "Fortunately, I had a decent lie in the rough. I told myself that I was going for everything."

The shot was absolutely perfect, even if Gary didn't get to see it land and bite on the green, being as how he was out there running across the fairway. It was the shot that enabled Player to cover Oakland Hills' last three treacherous holes in one under par on a day when just about everybody else played them in one, two and even three over, as Jim Jamieson did. The shot also helped Player to a final 72 to go with his earlier rounds of 71, 71 and Saturday's 67 for a 281, and the ultimate two-stroke victory over Jamieson and Aaron.

If it can be said that anybody actually lost the tournament of all of those who were in contention, that man would have to be Jim Jamieson. Jamieson, a good-natured 210-pounder, first came to everyone's attention at the Masters this year as an unlikely challenger to Jack Nicklaus. He finished in a tie for fifth, whereupon he was expected to disappear. But Jamieson is a better player than that, a man with good hand action on the club and a good fat man's swing in the tradition of Porky Oliver. He proved his performance at Augusta was no fluke when he won the Western Open in June and now here he was last Sunday, challenging both Player and Oakland Hills. In fact after 15 holes, Jamieson was three under par for the round, even for the tournament, and leading. Before he teed off he had said in reply to the question what are you going to do to win: "I'm going to play good and if that doesn't work I'll cheat." Jamieson himself may have been cheated by Oakland Hills on those last three brutal holes that Player conquered. More likely he simply succumbed to the pressure of a big championship.

Despite Player's performance, Oakland Hills wound up being the winner that it always has been. This was the fifth major championship played on the course Ben Hogan once called a monster (the other four were U.S. Opens), and no one yet has broken 280.

There are many so-called "great" courses in the country, and, whether anyone thinks Oakland Hills is greater than, say, Merion or Oakmont or Pebble Beach or Augusta National, to name only a few with similar reputations, depends on the individual's particular taste for water, trees, hills, etc.

Oakland Hills may lack the beauty of a Pebble Beach or an Augusta, and it might lack the subtle elegance of Merion, but what it doesn't lack is relentless difficulty. The fairways roll and toss, the greens swell and run like lightning in spots, it has been bunkered by the devil himself and it plays longer than most any city's going-home traffic.

Gary Player called it the toughest course in America, and to his credit he called it that before he won. Jack Nicklaus said pretty much the same thing when he stated that Oakland Hills had "less breathing room" than any championship course he had ever competed on.

Nicklaus played a rather indifferent PGA, obviously because he hadn't recovered from the shock of losing the British Open and thereby seeing his chances for a Grand Slam demolished. After two rounds of 72 and 75, he was so far behind the serious contenders that no sort of miracle seemed possible. During his Friday 75, Jack was actually seen yawning between shots. However, he sort of brought the championship to life on Saturday when he suddenly took on the look of Nicklaus at Augusta, Pebble Beach and Muirfield.

Nicklaus fired a four-under 31 on the front nine Saturday despite a three-putt green, and it sent him virtually racing down the fairways on the back side, with most of the record crowd bolstering his spirits with shouts of "Get 'em. Jack!" the way they used to shout for Arnold Palmer.

Striding down the 10th fairway, Nicklaus saw a friend, Desmond Muirhead, the golf course architect, in the gallery and yelled at him.

"Did you get to see any of that?" Jack said, meaning his 31.

Muirhead said no, he'd just arrived.

"I just arrived myself," Jack grinned.

Nicklaus might well have been headed for a 64 or 63 at any other course—he certainly appeared to be in that kind of mood. But Nicklaus was at Oakland Hills and Oakland Hills doesn't permit such frivolous things. So on the 12th hole, even though he nailed a one-iron that looked like it would get him an eagle putt, up jumped the monster to turn the whole thing around—and take Jack out of the championship.

Had the ball carried one more foot, it would have been perfect, but it wasn't one foot longer and it bored into the lip of a bunker. Jack had to stand on his head to gouge at it, and the ball only trickled back down in the sand into his footprint. He bogeyed. The rally was done, and Oakland Hills only relinquished a 68 to Nicklaus instead of the 65 or 66 he needed to get back into things. He would close with a 72, a 287 and a tie for 13th place.

Nicklaus had arrived with the most highly publicized sore finger in golf history, but the finger was fine and didn't seem to bother him. It did provide a few jokes, most of them from Lee Trevino, who put a Band-Aid on his glove and explained to the press that he had a "sore glove."

Trevino, still celebrating the British Open victory, played almost as indifferently at Oakland Hills as Nicklaus. He unveiled a six-wood, though, and announced he was going to revolutionize the tour with it, and Lee took delight in revealing that he was so wealthy now he could afford to pass up the $250,000 Westchester Classic to play in the New Mexico PGA Pro-Pro at Truth or Consequences.

Until the end on Sunday, when Gary Player outscuffled all those challengers, the big excitement was created by a 60-year-old man in a yellow hat, green pants, blue sweater, red glove and the saddle-oxford golf shoes of his rightful era.

Sam Snead.

Yes, Sam Snead, age 60, shot a 69 at Oakland Hills for a total of 284 and a tie for fourth place. And the fact that Snead happened to do it at Oakland Hills made it all the more amazing. For it had been on that same course, 35 years earlier, that Snead had played in his first U.S. Open, the 1937 U.S. Open, and shot 283, good enough for second place, which was the best he ever did in a U.S. Open.

Once again, it brought up the question of how much of a sport is golf if a 60-year-old man can come within three strokes of winning one of the big championships?

Well, the answer is that Sam Snead is ageless, and all you had to do to know how tough a sport golf can be was to watch Gary Player, in the true heat of the PGA, hit that shot for the ages over the willows and lake of demeaning old Oakland Hills.

PHOTOUNTIL HE HIT HIS OWN VERSION OF THE PITCH AND RUN, sPLAYER WAS IN TROUBLE

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)