The last of the year's major tournaments, the PGA Championship played last week at Oakland Hills outside Detroit, introduced the 20-foot tap-in; downgraded a famous course from a monster to a pushover as the players took advantage of slow, soft greens to accumulate 9.3 million birdies; unveiled a new personality, Rex Caldwell, who is such a hot dog there isn't enough mustard in America to cover him; reminded everyone that at 67 Sam Snead can still play the game (he finished at 288, only five strokes higher than he had shot on the same premises a mere 42 years ago); continued the torture of Ben Crenshaw, who was runner-up in a major tournament for the second time in three weeks; made all of us suspect that the sudden-death playoff is going to be a permanent part of the script; and finally, agonizingly, rewarded the man who had played the best golf with the trophy. David Graham, the methodical 33-year-old Australian, won it, lost it, and won it back by doing that old-fashioned thing of striking the ball into the fairway, hitting it onto the green and rolling in a putt.
Last Sunday was no doubt the longest day in modern golf history. What was expected to be the final 18 holes began with Caldwell, the hot dog, the unknown, leading Crenshaw by two strokes and everyone else by at least four, which was how far Graham was behind. But it did not end until some six hours after the leader and the contenders teed off, and Graham had outlasted Crenshaw on the third extra hole of their playoff, a 202-yard par-3. Graham defeated Crenshaw by holing a six-foot birdie putt, but he could have missed it and still won, because Crenshaw had been bunkered and then had stroked his desperate putt for a par past the cup. However, it would be just as correct to say Graham won the tournament back on the tee with the kind of shot he had been hitting all afternoon, a basically perfect four-iron.
The fact is, for 17 holes Graham played a nearly flawless round of golf. And he had been rewarded for it by getting to seven under par for the round—and 10 under for the tournament. He needed a par on the last hole to score a stunning 63 and a 72-hole total of 270. And though Crenshaw put up a 272, eight under par after four consecutive rounds in the 60s, Graham deserved this championship; he had hit the better shots.
But he got a terrible break on the 18th hole, where he was heckled by spectators and irritated by photographers. That, added to the pressure of the moment, sent him reeling to the double-bogey six which gave Crenshaw a ticket to the playoff. Ben had putted his way into the lead earlier in the day, then had fought his heart out to recover from a couple of bogeys in order to finish with a 67.
August 12, 1979
A bogey on the 18th hole would have given Graham the championship then and there, but he mishit his chip shot from behind the green amid the noisy and engulfing crowd. Then, with his composure shattered, Graham had his only poor putt of the day, missing a five-footer. And so the two went to the first tee for the PGA's third straight playoff.
It appeared to be over on the first hole when Crenshaw putted up for a gimme par from his usual 50 feet away, but Graham dropped a 25-footer for a halving four after fighting his way out of the rough. It seemed to be over again at the par-5 2nd, where Crenshaw was in for a birdie and Graham faced a grueling 10-foot putt to stay alive. But he canned that one, too.
So Graham had not only outplayed Crenshaw in firing his last-round 65 despite the double bogey on 18, and outplayed him again with his marvelous iron shot into the 3rd green, but he had also done the impossible—he had out-putted him.
Afterward, Crenshaw graciously said, "I don't like second worth a damn, but I shouldn't have been in the playoff. David will be remembered as a man who shot a 65 on the last day of a major championship—with a double bogey. And that's incredible."
Graham had begun the last round with birdies on the first two holes, while Crenshaw had started out with three birdies—all of which told Rex Caldwell that he was Rex Caldwell. Graham said he won the tournament with his birdies at the 7th, 8th, 10th and 11th holes. "I knew I was playing the best golf of my life," he said. "I couldn't do anything wrong. I didn't realize what I was doing until the 18th tee. On my backswing there, I said to myself, 'My God, where am I?' Then I woke up in a playoff. That's where the putter saved me and the four-iron won it back."
There is always some golfing history to deal with when a major championship returns to one of the historic old battlegrounds. Oakland Hills certainly has its share among the bent grass, elms, willows and fierce bunkering that make up its design. Some of the history of Oakland Hills is revered, and some of it is peculiar. Part of the drama last week lay in waiting to see what kind of history the 61st PGA would make.
At first Oakland Hills was simply another of Donald Ross' many designs, and not among his more distinguished. In the 1924 U.S. Open it produced a relatively unknown champion, Cyril Walker, primarily because Bobby Jones played the 10th hole in seven over par to lose by three strokes. In the 1937 Open, Ralph Guldahl established a 72-hole record of 281. At this point Oakland Hills' championship qualities were seriously being questioned. But then came the 1951 Open and what Robert Trent Jones calls the birth of modern golf architecture—and the "monster."
When Trent Jones redesigned Oakland Hills for the '51 Open, it was said that he forgot only two things: fairways and greens. Oakland Hills that year had the narrowest fairways, the highest rough and the most severely placed bunkers of any course ever. The architect said he had invented "double target" golf to test the ever-improving abilities of the game's great players. When Ben Hogan won that Open by firing a final-round 67 for a 287—15 strokes higher than the scores posted by Graham and Crenshaw—Oakland Hills gained its reputation as a monster. Hogan supposedly said, "I finally brought the monster to its knees," although no one who was there that day can recall Ben using the word monster.
Afterward there was so much talk about the "Indian file" fairways and the bomb-crater bunkers that Oakland Hills was again tampered with—made easier for two subsequent majors, the 1961 Open that Gene Littler won and the 1972 PGA that went to Gary Player. Their winning totals echoed Guldahl's 281, but the layout was still thought to be a "monster," such creatures being courses refusing to yield a number below par.
It was with all of this in mind last week that Oakland Hills' members took to moaning over the low scores that a "slow and softened" course yielded. After Tom Watson shot 66 the first day, Alan Tapie shot 65 the second day and Caldwell 66 the third day; after 15 sub-par rounds on Thursday, 18 on Friday and 18 on Saturday; after it was obvious that the winner and a few other chaps were going to break 280 on this hallowed Hogan-land, the greens superintendent, Ted Woehrle, was thinking about wearing a disguise.
He had said after two rounds, "My biggest problem now is the red numbers on the board. The members are angry."
Pre-tournament rains did nothing to speed the course up, but neither did the sprinkler system. It is possible that Oakland Hills would have been more difficult if the watering system had broken back in June. The fairways were lush because of the sprinklers, and there was no rough despite the rain, a paradox. Fairways are supposed to be "down" and greens are supposed to be like lightning for major championships, but at Oakland Hills neither was the case. Thus, tee shots did not skitter into trouble, and even four-wood shots held on the greens.
"We aren't seeing the true character of Oakland Hills," said Crenshaw. "But it's still a great place. I can't stand on the 10th tee without thinking about the double bogeys Jones made there and the birdie Hogan made."
Despite the easy conditions, the PGA still had plenty of glamour. Watson gave it luster on opening day, and when Crenshaw became the 36-hole leader there was certainly no reason for disappointment. Other fine players were hanging in there: Jerry Pate, Hubert Green, Graham Marsh—and David Graham. Weakened or not, venerable old Oakland Hills was going to produce a fitting champion to go along with the Hogans, Players and Littlers who had won in the past.
There was only one problem. Rex Caldwell. With his swaggering and his waggish remarks, he was a hero only in the press tent. He declared himself the greatest putter in the game. He wallowed in his gun-slinging role as an unknown upstart. On Saturday night he even predicted that he would, in fact, win the tournament.
The mysteries of putting had been solved by him in only one week. He had changed his swing to keep himself from falling backward so far on his follow-through. He had shaved off his mustache to make himself look more like a golfer.
"I'm not a putter, I'm a roller," he said. "You've got to roll the ball."
As for his chances in Sunday's final round, when all that was asked of him was that he go out and win a major championship for his first victory ever, Caldwell said, "You can book it, I'll be nervous. But I'll be rolling it."
On Sunday, though, nobody rolled it better than David Graham.