It could only have happened at Oakmont, fabled old Oakmont, where golfing spirits live in the bunkers and greens and leap across the Pennsylvania Turnpike. You could scarcely find a more suitable place for the sport to produce its first three-way sudden-death playoff for a major championship and, perhaps even better still, have the PGA title wind up in the hands of John Mahaffey, a man who is held in great esteem by his fellow pros. Mahaffey has suffered for a very long time, having undergone broken bones, a broken ego and a broken marriage, and you will just have to excuse everyone in the game while they shed a tear of joy for him. In golf, it is one thing to be able to come back and simply earn a living. But it is quite another thing to fight your way back from absolute humiliation and desolation and beat up on Tom Watson and Jerry Pate, who are among golfing's elite.
Mahaffey won the PGA in the near-darkness of Oakmont on Sunday evening by curling in a 12-foot birdie putt on the second extra hole of the playoff with Watson and Pate. He sank the putt and then he dropped the club, raced across a border of the green, jumped into his caddie's arms and began shouting. A second later he was bounding into his wife Susie's arms, and then he was in everybody's arms, so much so that Watson had trouble reaching his old friend to congratulate him. If there was anyone to whom Watson did not mind losing this championship, it was John Mahaffey.
Watson had been among those who had consoled Mahaffey after he had lost the 1975 U.S. Open playoff at Medinah to Lou Graham, and after he had blown the 1976 Open to the same Jerry Pate at Atlanta. Tom and John drifted apart after Mahaffey's divorce in that year, and Watson's subsequent success. "It's unavoidable that you start living in different worlds on the tour when someone's doing O.K. and someone else isn't," Watson said. "But John's a great guy, and he won this tournament with style."
To get his misfortunes out of the way, Mahaffey began suffering in various other ways after he lost those two Opens. Mahaffey, who is now 30, had joined the tour in 1971 as another NCAA champion from the University of Houston's golf factory, and he quickly earned reputations as both a solid young player—even though he couldn't hit the ball very far—and the Rich Little of the double-knit crowd. In fact, some pros think that Mahaffey's comic imitation of Chi Chi Rodriguez' swing is even better than the real thing.
August 13, 1978
Mahaffey won the Sahara Invitational at Las Vegas in 1973 and finished that year in 12th place on the money list with $112,536. He won $122,189 in 1974 and $141,471 in 1975, but by 1977 he had slumped to 150th on the money list with winnings of only $9,847, barely enough money for caddie fees.
An injured elbow put Mahaffey on the sidelines in late 1976, and a broken thumb did it again in the spring of 1977. The divorce didn't help.
"I've made up my mind that I don't want to talk about the past," Mahaffey said Sunday night. "It's been a long, long road back, and all I can say is, this makes it worth everything that came before."
Among the good things that happened to Mahaffey on Sunday were about 150 feet worth of putts that dropped as he fired the five-under-par 66 that enabled him to catch Watson. After all, Mahaffey was a player who was not even thought to be in the tournament after beginning with a 75 on Thursday. Even following rounds of 67 and 68, he was seven strokes behind Watson, the leader, and two behind the second-place Pate with only 18 holes to play.
Mahaffey said, "Because it was a major championship, I honestly thought somebody had a chance to catch Tom, but I honestly didn't think it would be me."
Despite Mahaffey's birdies on Sunday from 15, 35 and eight feet at the 4th, 6th and 8th holes, respectively, it wouldn't have been him—or Pate or anybody else—if Watson hadn't staggered into a double bogey at the 10th hole. "The 10th hole was the key hole of the tournament," Watson said. "I don't care what else anyone did."
True enough. With only nine holes to play, Watson was still four strokes ahead of Pate and five up on Mahaffey, and he was revved up from having hit a gorgeous three-wood to within two feet of the pin at the 9th hole and then making the putt for an eagle three. Watson, who had shot earlier rounds of 67, 69 and 67, looked as unbeatable as he had all week.
Two things happened at the 10th, though. Watson drove into a divot and he also had a downhill lie. He hit a poor second shot, the ball going into a bunker. Next came a terrible bunker shot and, finally, three putts for the six. At the same time, Mahaffey was holing a 45-foot birdie putt that, admittedly, he wasn't even trying to make.
"That was a three-shot swing," Mahaffey said. "It got me juiced up, and it had to have some effect on Tom's attitude." Watson agreed. "I started steering the ball," he said.
When Mahaffey sank a 25-footer for a birdie at the 11th, the margin between them was only one shot and it was anyone's championship. A few holes later, however, it looked like anyone's but Watson's. After Mahaffey rammed a nine-iron into the 14th green, very nearly holing it out, and sank a four-footer for a birdie to go nine under, it was obviously Mahaffey's. But when Mahaffey three-putted the 16th for a bogey at about the same time that Pate birdied the 17th, it was obviously Pate's.
Pate was playing one hole ahead of Watson and Mahaffey, and he struck a marvelous bunker shot out of an Oakmont cavern to within two feet of the cup for his birdie three at the short 17th. This put Pate nine-under for the tournament, and with Watson bogeying the 16th along with Mahaffey, the situation was very simple. If they all parred in, Pate would add the PGA to his other major championships, the U.S. Open and Amateur, and Mahaffey would edge Watson for second place by a stroke.
Watson, however, birdied the 17th with a fine shot out of the rough and a six-foot putt, and pulled even with Mahaffey, who parred the hole. None of that would have mattered if Pate had parred the 18th. Pate did everything but par it. He hit a superb drive and a nice six-iron onto the green, the ball ending up some 20 feet below the hole. Even when Pate left his first putt about three feet short, it didn't seem too alarming.
But Pate's putt for the par rimmed the cup and spun out, coming back at him. Of all of the shots made by all concerned, this was the one that caused the three-way playoff.
Happily, no one could say Watson blew the tournament. His final-round 73 was not exactly a blowup score, and he had made two birdies and an eagle while struggling to take his fourth major trophy. "I'm pleased that I hung in there," Watson said. "But there's not much you can do when somebody runs the table. I can't complain about it because that's what I did for three rounds."
It all went back to what Watson had said earlier. Mahaffey won it with style. As he put it, "All John did, in the final analysis, was beat me, Jerry Pate and the golf course."
After all of the drama and confusion, that's really what it came down to. Well, you knew something crazy had to happen on Sunday. Wasn't this Oakmont, which practically invented golf history in this country? Oakmont has held more major championships than any other club, and it has seen all of the greats and near-greats walk among its immense bunkers and rambling ditches and over its marble-top greens. Bobby Jones, Ben Hogan, Sam Snead, Gene Sarazen, Tommy Armour, Jack Nicklaus and Johnny Miller had won at Oakmont—either a U.S. Amateur, a U.S. Open or a PGA—and the course had even provided the most unusual winner in golf, Sam Parks Jr., a name known only to Sam Parks Sr. when he staggered through the furrowed bunkers and over the lightning putting surfaces in 1935 to take the Open.
Miller's final-round 63 in 1973, although partly aided by rain-dampened greens, severely bruised the egos of Oakmont's members, and for this PGA, Oakmont was determined to present a golf course which would be more akin to the Oakmont of Sam Parks' day, when his winning total was an alarming 299 and everyone else slid off the greens and down a hill toward the Allegheny River.
Early in the week it seemed that Oakmont had what it wanted, greens so speedy and dangerous that Nicklaus, among others, said that on some of them there wasn't even a place to set a cup. Or as Lee Trevino said, "The only way you can stop a ball around here is to call a policeman."
The next thing that happened, though, was the last thing Oakmont lovers wanted. Rain. Thursday's storm, which suspended play for nearly two hours off and on, swamped the course, and the result was, as in Miller's Open, an uncharacteristic Oakmont for the 60th annual championship of the PGA.
From the outset, players were able to throw their iron shots at the flags like darts, and while the greens remained reasonably "quick," as the pros like to say, their speed could be described as perfect rather than horrible or frustrating. In short, the conditions were ideal for good scoring if the competitor was on his game.
Rather curiously, one fellow in particular was nowhere near his peak—Nicklaus. Here was Jack, flushed with the success of winning the British Open and at Philadelphia in successive weeks before resting up a week for Oakmont. Here was Nicklaus, back on a course where in 1962 he had taken the U.S. Open in a playoff with Arnold Palmer, his first major title as a professional. Here was Nicklaus with a chance to add one more record to his list—a fifth PGA trophy would tie him with Walter Hagen.
But on Thursday morning it was only someone who looked like Nicklaus who teed off. On No. 1 he pulled his drive into an Oakmont ditch, had to chip out, and made a bogey. On the 2nd hole he pulled another tee shot so badly that he managed to turn some trees into an obstacle. He had to hit a shot lefthanded in the hope of escaping worse trouble, and he wound up with a double bogey.
From there, Jack thrashed around to a 79, one of the worst rounds he had ever had in a major championship.
"Sometimes you just can't get it going," Nicklaus said. "I could have shot a 79 almost anywhere today."
Barbara Nicklaus said it better. "He even walked sloppy."
Nicklaus insured that he wouldn't survive the 36-hole cut by making three double bogeys on the back nine Friday and shooting a 74, which left him at 153, five strokes too many. Thus, for only the fourth time in his professional career, Nicklaus had missed a cut in a major. Trivia collectors may want to know the others: the '63 Open at Brookline, the '67 Masters and the '68 PGA at Pecan Valley in San Antonio.
Meanwhile, the Oakmont course was yielding surprising numbers of low-scoring rounds. Watson's 67 on Thursday was one of 16 sub-par performances on the day. There were four more 67s on Friday, and 10 other rounds below par. Along came Saturday and a couple of 66s by Pate and Gil Morgan, and there were no fewer than 18 other sub-par rounds that day, including the 67 which gave Watson his five-stroke lead on the field. Before the tournament ended, Oakmont would yield 64 rounds under par.
Still, the "winning" total of 276, eight under par, was hardly a humiliating figure for the Oakmont members. Granted, it was lower than some people had shot at other PGA venues of far less stature, such as Pecan Valley and Columbine and Aronomink, but it was purely a result of the soft conditions. On a faster track there might have been 30 guys in the sudden-death playoff—or no winner at all.
For the silly old romantics, however, it was much better to see John Mahaffey hopping around out there on the other side of the Turnpike.