It was just after 6:30 p.m. last Monday, and the big question around the nation's capital was whether the PGA Championship was going to last longer than the Republican Convention that was starting in Kansas City. Well, you know how they say that nothing works in Washington. After all the lightning, thunder, rain, wind, postponements and double bogeys had turned the PGA at the Congressional Country Club into something more like a comedy than a major championship, Dave Stockton stood in the twilight fretting over a 15-foot putt for a par 4 on the last green.
Stockton does not miss many putts. He is the kind of player of whom his contemporaries say, "Dave shot an 80 but turned in his usual 69." Meaning the putts dropped like sweat beads and that he swiped a good score.
So Stockton swiped the PGA when he crouched over that final putt and rolled it right into the heart of the cup—and also into the hearts of Raymond Floyd and Don January, both waiting for Stockton to miss so the three of them could get on with the first sudden-death playoff in a major championship.
Stockton survived one of the weirdest tournaments of any year, and one of the most bizarre final rounds. Six different men led over the last tortuous 18 holes, including three normally reliable veterans who frittered their chances away with atrocious double bogeys just when it seemed they had taken command.
August 22, 1976
Before Stockton began doing what he does so splendidly, getting it up and down and in from Asia Minor, Charlie Coody, who had started the brisk, sunny day with a two-stroke lead, hit a shot next to a tree and made a double bogey at the 3rd hole. Then Jack Nicklaus, who had taken a one-stroke lead, hit a medium iron into the water and took a double bogey at the 6th hole. Then January, who had gained a two-stroke lead on everybody, hit a long iron shot into the water and took a double bogey at the 10th hole. Floyd and January finally finished at 282, two over par. Nicklaus was at 283, while Dr. Gil Morgan and Tom Kite, who had provided some early excitement, were at 284 and 286, respectively.
Stockton flirted with doom before he got to the 18th hole. Back on the 13th and 14th he hit the ball sideways and made bogeys to blow a two-stroke lead. He was snap-hooking and slicing, but avoided the large catastrophe by sinking all his missable putts, like the eight-footer that saved a bogey at the 14th. Stockton, in fact, used only 53 putts over his last 36 holes.
On the 17th Stockton hit a marvelous bunker shot from under the lip and sank the three-foot putt to save par and his one-shot lead. He drove straight for a change off the 18th tee, but he still had a 235-yard, two-iron shot to the hole that all of Congressional looks down on, a gorgeous par 4 with a green sitting like a barge on water.
Stockton's shot was woefully short of the green, but safe. Then his chip shot, usually one of his strong points, was horrible. It left him all of those agonizing 15 feet to the cup, but he made the putt for an even-par 70 and the 281 that prevented the PGA from lasting forever.
Much of the pretournament talk centered on Johnny Miller, the British Open champ who had called in sick from California after falling off his motorcycle and cutting his right hand, and Tom Weiskopf, whose practice rounds had been dazzling. "I feel bad for Miller, but if you're going to ride a motorcycle, do it in the off-season," said Nicklaus, who makes like a budding Franz Klammer in December. While Weiskopf was hitting the ball splendidly, a few tour insiders wondered about his temperament.
The public and, in fact, many of his fellow pros didn't know it, but Weiskopf recently was slapped with a $3,000 fine and placed on probation for one year by Tournament Players Division Commissioner Deane Beman for what might be termed conduct unbecoming. It had to do with Weiskopf's withdrawal from the recent Westchester Classic, his fourth too-hasty retreat from a tournament this season. The probation means that Terrible Tom will have to be Wonderful Tom for the next 12 months or face an even sterner penalty from Beman. "I'm trying to change my attitude," Weiskopf said once again.
If any of this was bothering Weiskopf, he did not show it during Thursday's opening round. Playing almost flawless golf and keeping his volatile temper in check, he rode the good fortune of a holed-out six iron for an eagle 2 at the 6th hole to a blazing five-under-par 65 that put him into the lead. Congressional was not supposed to yield this kind of round in 1976. It was said to be playing longer and stronger than it had in the 1964 U.S. Open, when Tommy Jacobs shot a second-round 64 and Ken Venturi a third-round 66 that launched him toward one of the more moving and dramatic Open victories.
"The key to playing this course is keeping it on the mowed grass," Weiskopf said. "You have to drive it straight. It's very stimulating to shoot 65 on a course like this."
A lot of other people obviously were stimulated on Thursday. Weiskopf's 65 was soon followed by 66s out of the bags of young Kite and Dr. Morgan, who had yet to become a household word among optometrists. And there were 68s by Coody, Jerry McGee and Lee Elder, the local pro who one night arranged for some of his tour friends to have dinner with a local politician named Ford. Apart from Weiskopf, what they all had in common was straightness rather than the length Congressional seemed to be begging for.
"I've been telling people all my life that long golf courses don't necessarily favor long hitters," said Gary Player, who opened with a 70. "People see 7,000 yards, like we have here, and they immediately predict Tom Weiskopf or someone else who hits the ball a mile will win. The fact is, long courses favor the guys with good short games. I've always played my best on long courses—and my short game has been the reason. I can't begin to count all the pars I've saved on long courses with my bunker play."
Player was up to his ankles in adventure all week. Trying to avoid a stampede of autograph seekers one day, he was accidentally pushed into the lake behind the 18th green. "Why didn't you jump in and save me?" Player asked his caddie, Rabbit Dyer. "I can't swim," said Rabbit. Player also shared a rented house, but few of the household chores, with Lee Trevino. "Lee is the perfect host," Player said, "because he loves to wash dishes." Trevino laughed. "Yeah, all Gary does is play golf, sleep and eat my tacos." Trevino, who is trying to play his game into shape after sitting out most of the summer tournaments, including the U.S. and British Opens, with a bad back, missed the 36-hole cut by a stroke when he shot an 80 on Friday, the day that belonged exclusively to Dr. Morgan.
He got around early with a 68, and by 2 p.m. his 36-hole total of 134—six under par—was a stunning figure for everyone to look at. No one came near it as the heat and humidity increased and the afternoon wore on. Weiskopf encountered trouble on the front nine, hitting into the water at the 6th hole, and struggled to a 74, but at least he didn't pick up his ball and go home. Looking at the leader boards scattered around Congressional's hills, it seemed as though Morgan was playing his own golf tournament. After 36 holes his nearest pursuer was Kite, who was four strokes back, while Player, Weiskopf and January were five shots behind and both Coody and Nicklaus a distant six shots away.
So just who was this Dr. Gil Morgan?
"He's a good player, although I must say I've never played with him," said Nicklaus. To most of America, with a name like Dr. Gil Morgan he might have been the star of a daytime soap opera. He was not all that unfamiliar a fellow on the tour, however. He had been out there almost three years and had graduated from the rabbits with an $8,875 finish at the San Antonio-Texas Open last October, thus finishing 60th on the money list with $42,772 and gaining the last qualifying exemption for this year. He had finished tied for second at Memphis and he had been in the top 10 three other times—at Los Angeles, in the Western Open and at Houston. Just another friendly 27-year-old with hair over his ears, a white visor, a wife named Jeanine, a cat named Claude and an Oklahoma hometown named Wewoka. Not the sort who goes around leading major championships, much less winning them.
As for the optometry business, Morgan is indeed licensed to practice in Oklahoma and Florida, but he never has. Thus, he is about as much a Dr. on the tour as Dr. Cary Middlecoff, who did more sand blasting than root canals.
Morgan was primarily where he was because he had not missed a putt in two days. But when Morgan went out Saturday under the full flood of the spotlight, he tapped one of his first putts 10 feet past the hole, hit another one six feet short and was rapidly on the way to a 75, which made it a PGA anybody could win—if anybody ever finished it.
The problem was the thunderstorms that swooped in so suddenly and caused more weather delays in a major championship than anyone could recall. Arnold Palmer, still seeking his first PGA title, the only major championship that has eluded him, had already recorded a fine two-under 68, his best PGA score in 10 years, when the first one howled in around five o'clock. All the leaders were still trying to complete their third rounds. Nicklaus thought he saw lightning before anyone else and started for the clubhouse as the sky turned darker and darker. However, a PGA official ordered him to keep playing. "I didn't really see lightning," Nicklaus admitted, "but I heard a lot of thunder—and they can generally be found in the same places."
Everyone saw lightning and wind and rain a few moments later, and play was suspended until early Sunday morning. Morgan, who was three under par and leading Coody by one shot, David Graham by two and Nicklaus by three, marked a risky three-foot putt for his par at the 12th hole and lit out for a roof. Once again he had to think about his lead overnight. And that tricky little putt.
At 7:30 a.m. Sunday the 24 players who had not finished their third rounds were back out at Congressional. Morgan made his three-foot putt after about a 15-hour wait, then said, "I slept on that knee-knocker all night long." But there were others he did not sleep on. He bogeyed the 17th and the 18th after poor drives, and by breakfast time, just when the final round was about to start, he had lost the PGA lead. It had fallen into the hands of Coody, who hadn't won a U.S. tournament since the 1971 Masters.
Coody had gone to the course, played five holes with Nicklaus and returned to his motel by 9:30 a.m. Coody and Nicklaus completed those holes in one under par, each birdieing the 18th, which is one of golf's more scenic points of interest when there isn't a mild tornado brewing. Through 54 holes, then, Coody was the leader, with Nicklaus joining Morgan only two strokes behind and nine other players, including former PGA champions Player, Raymond Floyd and Dave Stockton, within five shots. Coody's finishing birdie had given him a 67, the lowest score in the third round, while Nicklaus had put back-to-back 69s onto his opening 71 and looked very much in a mood to win.
The serious contenders played only three holes Sunday before the second storm roared in. When the sky opened up once more and lightning began dancing all around Maryland, Coody had parred three holes and held a one-stroke lead over Nicklaus, who had made a birdie.
None of this mattered because the whole round was washed out, and they all had to start over on Monday, a day usually reserved for playoffs and traveling. But the real question was: By then, did anyone care? There had been two days of golfers turning their emotions on and off like Congressional's lightning detector. They had played part rounds that counted and part rounds that did not. They had developed the art of sprinting to safety in mid-swing. They had seen their rhythms and routines disrupted, even shattered.
And after all of this, the winner would probably be remembered only as the Champion of the Postponed Golfers Association of America.