COOL CUSTOMER IN A HOT PGA

Larry Nelson calmly coped with searing weather to beat Lanny Wadkins in a playoff for his third major title
August 16, 1987

For a tournament that needed more grass on the greens, less grass in the rough, more spectators, a lot more shade and a whole lot more Grand Slam atmosphere, this year's PGA Championship didn't turn out half bad. Thank you, Larry Nelson.

When Nelson stoically stared down Lanny Wadkins and made a six-foot par putt on the first hole of sudden death at the PGA National Golf Club in Palm Beach Gardens, Fla., on Sunday, he gave a lost-in-paradise tournament the touch of history it desperately needed. In taking his third major championship—he won the '81 PGA and '83 U.S. Open—the unassuming Nelson now leaves Andy North as the only exception to Walter Hagen's rule that anyone can win one major, but only a great player can win two. Nelson's three majors put him in an elite group populated by only Jack Nicklaus, Tom Watson, Lee Trevino, Raymond Floyd and Seve Ballesteros among today's players.

With a one-under-par 70-72-73-72-287, the highest winning score in PGA Championship history, Nelson outlasted a collapsing, stumbling field that was worn down by PGA National's searing heat, steel wool rough and crusty, multicolored, bare greens. "It was so easy to make bogey out there, and I didn't back up as much as everybody else," said Nelson, who was one of only three of the top nine finishers to shoot par or better in the last round. "Par meant something. This course put the premium where it should be. Unlike on a lot of courses we play, I didn't feel like I had to make every 15-footer to stay competitive."

For the final 14 holes, the lead was either held or shared by five players—Nelson, Wadkins, D.A. Weibring, Mark McCumber and Scott Hoch. Playing best was Hoch, who birdied five of six holes in one run and looked as if he would be the first getting to the house with a potentially winning score. At the par-5 18th, Hoch hit a sand wedge to eight feet. But he ran the putt three feet by on the worn area around the hole and didn't come close with the short return. "I guess I definitely gassed the second one," he admitted. Instead of finishing two under, Hoch was even. He tied for third with Weibring.

The steadiest was Nelson. He never had the outright lead in regulation play, yet his nine straight pars Sunday were a sharp contrast to the shakiness all around. He bogeyed 14 and 16 to fall one behind Lanny Wadkins, but on the 17th he hit a pure five-iron to 20 feet behind the hole. He then putted directly over playing partner Ben Crenshaw's coin marker, a few feet from the hole, and watched his ball drop, giving him a tie for the lead.

After a nervous par on 18—"I was close to closing my eyes and just letting it go. That's the feeling I had," Nelson said—he played spectator. Wadkins had a 20-foot putt for victory at the 18th, but it slid past the cup. McCumber had a chance to make it a three-way playoff, but in a quixotic effort to reach the final green—245 yards away—in two, he flew his second shot, with a driver from the fairway, into the water. Instead of gaining a place in the playoff, McCumber finished tied for fifth with Don Pooley.

Nelson and Wadkins, who had won the 1977 PGA at Pebble Beach in a playoff against Gene Littler, went to the 409-yard 10th hole, and after good drives both missed the green with short irons. Nelson chipped to six feet, Wadkins to four. Nelson belied any jitters by smoothly cruising his putt right into the center. This was too much even for a competitor as fierce as Wadkins, whose four-footer was outside the hole all the way. Wadkins's temper can sometimes flash white hot, but he immediately turned and embraced Nelson.

Nelson plays precisely the kind of target golf that usually comes to the fore when par is a struggle. "In a major," he said after his opening round of two-under-par 70, "you don't necessarily have to play good. It's just imperative that you don't play bad. Mediocre is pretty good."

This approach seemed to suit PGA National, which ranks somewhere between pretty good and mediocre as a major championship test. Although it hosted the 1983 Ryder Cup matches, the 7,002-yard Champions course is not rated in the nation's top 100, or even among Florida's top 10. While indisputably challenging, it has the look of a resort course, with water everywhere and trees and pleasing contours in short supply. The ambience wasn't enhanced by the immediate surroundings, which included local business signs promoting PGA Pizza and even PGA Gynecology.

Worse, it was hot. Palm Beach may be a resort, but people who live there wisely leave in droves during August. After three days of rain early in the week, PGA National was a sweatbox for the tournament. The 97° high (and 84% humidity) made Sunday the hottest Aug. 9 in Palm Beach history. With few trees to provide shade, players took to wearing a variety of wide-brimmed hats and wet towels for relief. Arnold Palmer wore sweatbands around his wrists for the first time in his career and declared, "I've never been so hot in 57 years." The usually intrepid 300-pound caddie Herman Mitchell had to quit on pro Mark Hayes after nine holes Thursday. Gary Hallberg said the heat made him "delirious."

So why hold the climactic major championship of the year in such trying climatic conditions? Because when PGA National was developed in 1979, its financial backers extracted the promise that the club would host the PGA. An attempt to have the tournament played in the winter, as it was in 1971 when Jack Nicklaus won on the former PGA National (now the JDM course), was nixed by pressure from locals who anticipated an off-season tourist windfall from the event.

But summer in Florida did not sell well, nor did tickets. Organizers arranged a promotion with a soft drink company that offered a free round of golf at PGA National (usual greens fee: $75) with the purchase of a ticket and the presentation of an empty soda can. All-star threesomes the first two days, such as Palmer, Nicklaus and Watson, helped some, but not enough to keep most of the course from looking desolate. Greg Norman, Hal Sutton and Fuzzy Zoeller counted only 63 people watching them Thursday. And in a move normally associated with your basic Las Vegas high-roller pro-am, the club hired a buxom model in a chartreuse bikini to stand close to the main scoreboard near the 18th hole. Nonplussed PGA officials asked her to leave.

"The PGA is taking a hurtin' this week," summed up Palmer.

Besides the questionable planning, there was plain bad luck. Last month pythium blight, a fungus, attacked the greens, which led to the wilting of most of the bent grass. The putting surfaces were left with clumps of Bermuda grass between nearly bare patches where the bent had once been. Greenskeeper Luke Majorki did some emergency repairs to get the greens playable, but they still ended up being, by consensus, the worst surfaces the pros have played this year.

Even more severe than the greens was the rough, a three-inch-deep sheet of Bermuda that, except for a yard-wide strip of intermediate rough, bordered the fairways, most of which were between only 27 and 31 yards wide. Errant balls went to the very bottom, often causing players to step gingerly around the area where they thought their ball might be. It was considered a blessing to be able to advance the ball more than 120 yards out of the stuff, and it didn't matter if a drive had missed the fairway by two yards or 20.

On his first hole of the tournament, McCumber hit his ball over the par-4 10th and into a barely visible lie in the rough. A full cut with a sand wedge barely moved the ball, and two more healthy swings advanced it five feet before he finally pitched on and one-putted for a 7. Although Bobby Wadkins shot a 68 to lead after the first round, and brother Lanny and Floyd shared the second-round lead at four-under 140, the rough was the principal cause for the 70 scores of at least 80 in the first two rounds.

"This kind of rough takes the creativity out of the game," said Peter Jacobsen, who finished 20th with 294. "I call it the Ballesteros Corollary. The powers that be don't want to see Seve win their tournaments by hitting from the parking lot, into a garbage can and into the hole. They want us to go from Point A to Point B to Point C. The thing is, out of the garbage can is exciting."

Until Sunday, Ballesteros was just that. He came to Florida intent on playing the aggressive game that won him his four majors, not the steadier, more mature game that recently has only gotten him close. He realized that on a course as penal as PGA National, the odds were against him, but he was committed to the attack. "If it works out, fine," Ballesteros said. "If it doesn't, I will get on the airplane and go home."

This cheerful fatalism is the new Ballesteros, who has decided that he needs to take some pressure off himself. He admitted that missing the five-footer that eliminated him from the playoff in this year's Masters stole his confidence and made him sullen. But during a Wednesday practice round, Ballesteros was hitting sand shots between his legs for the gallery. He took to wearing a decidedly undashing "bucket hat" that made him look like a Worth Avenue tourist. Such is his charisma that by Friday the souvenir stands had sold out of what quickly became known as the "Seve hat."

"Seve only needs to get back to using his intuitive skills," says friend Mac O'Grady. "He has to tie into that childlike state, that Ponce de Leon Fountain of Youth. Like his comrade of 500 years ago, he has come to Florida searching for that lost innocence. If he can win this, he might win the next six majors."

Indeed, after opening with 72 and 70, Ballesteros seemed ready to run away with the tournament on Saturday. A birdie at the 10th moved him to five under and two strokes ahead of Floyd, Nelson and Weibring. He was still leading when he stepped up to the 16th tee with an ostensibly safe two-iron. But he hit a horrible block into the canal that borders the hole on the right and took a 6. He birdied the par-3 17th. But on 18, after a drive of more than 300 yards left him with only 220 to the pin, he hit another block, this time with a one-iron, into the lake. Another bogey left him at two under, two behind Weibring, who shot a course-record-tying 67, and McCumber. Afterward, Ballesteros seemed in light spirits. "My attitude is better, isn't it?" he said. "I used to be 24 handicap on that, now I am almost a professional. I am trying to convince myself that I am a happy man."

New attitude or not, Ballesteros has to eliminate disaster holes if he is to start winning majors again. On the third hole Sunday, Ballesteros was tied for the lead with McCumber when he came apart with shocking swiftness. Short of the par-5 in three, he dumped a routine pitch into a bunker, exploded over the green into a lake and made a triple-bogey 8. He finished with 78 and a tie for 10th. He was not a happy man.

For the 39-year-old Nelson, a former Army infantry sergeant and team leader who walked point through the rice paddies of Chu Lai in Vietnam, the victory was the most satisfying of a career that started late. Though he didn't learn to play golf until 1969, he joined the PGA Tour in 1974. In the last four years he has been getting more involved with outside business interests, and recently began wondering if his career might be effectively over before he turned 40. His last win had been the 1984 Walt Disney World, and his best finish this year a tie for sixth in the Memorial. "I had started thinking that maybe I had gotten my last win," said Nelson. "They say the first one is the most important, but I think the last one is."

"Larry is a hell of a competitor," said Wadkins, citing Nelson's 9-0 record in Ryder Cup competition against European professionals, including two four-ball and two foursomes matches with Lanny as his partner. "When he gets in the hunt, he is very tough to shake." When asked if his relationship with the devout Nelson is a case of opposites attracting. Wadkins feigned anger. "Are you calling me a wild, hell-raising s.o.b.?" And then he answered his own question, "Might be."

Nelson and Wadkins will surely renew their partnership when the U.S. tries to regain the Ryder Cup from the Europeans next month at Muirfield Village in Dublin, Ohio, with Nelson trying to extend the longest undefeated, untied string in Ryder Cup history. As he proved Sunday, when Larry Nelson gets the chance, he tends to make some history.

PHOTOMICHAEL O'BRYONNelson staked his claim to the trophy with this putt for par on the first extra hole. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISIN[See caption above.] PHOTOMICHAEL O'BRYONWadkins's hopes for another PGA Championship sank when his four-foot putt didn't. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISIN PHOTOMICHAEL O'BRYONBallesteros had a rough time on Sunday, but he kept his disappointment under his hat. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINThe heat Payned Stewart. PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINWadkins stayed in contention on Sunday by chipping close to save his par at 16.
PHOTOJACQUELINE DUVOISINWhile the players sweltered on the course, some lucky fans had it made in the shade.
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)