Home Groan Russ Cochran, the pride of Paducah, will never forget the big one that got away the last time the PGA was played in Kentucky

August 13, 2000

Neither of us could sleep on Saturday night. I could feel myself
getting nervous. Nervousness is like a monster. It keeps getting
bigger and bigger.
--Jackie Cochran's 1996 PGA diary

The biggest week of Russ Cochran's golfing life was two parts
Cinderella, one part Jean Van de Velde. Four years ago, during
the PGA Championship at Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Cochran
electrified the vocal crowds with a course-record 65 in the third
round. Suddenly, the kid from Paducah, Ky., 223 miles west of
Louisville, had a two-shot lead with 18 holes to go in the first
major championship held in the state in 44 years.

You may remember the finish. Another Kentuckian, Kenny Perry,
lost to Mark Brooks, a Texan, on the first hole of a playoff. You
probably don't remember Cochran's role in the outcome. Mainly
because he had virtually none. He was never a factor after a
disastrous bunker-to-bunker double bogey at the 7th hole. He shot
a 77 in the pressure-packed final round and finished 17th, five
strokes behind the leaders.

Kentuckians, though, never forgot Cochran's abortive run, and
when the PGA returns to Valhalla next week, he will, as usual, be
bombarded with questions from home-state fans. "In some instances
people are quick to bring it up," the 41-year-old Cochran says.
"Other times, they want to make sure I don't mind talking about
it. You shoot the course record on Saturday, and they say, 'He's
going to win it!' Then when you don't, they're not sure if you'll
ever recover. They want to make sure that wasn't the worst week
of my life."

Actually, the week was a rare one for the left-handed Cochran.
He's not what you'd call a major championship kind of guy. In 17
years on Tour he has played in 13 PGAs, five U.S. Opens, three
Masters and one British Open. In those tournaments he has made
the cut only 12 times and has just two top 10 finishes.
Nevertheless, Cochran has been a steady money winner, earning
$4.2 million. His only victory came at the '91 Western Open, the
scene of an ugly collapse by Greg Norman, but Cochran has
finished second eight times. He wound up a career-high 10th on
the Tour's money list the year he won the Western but has
struggled recently. In '99 Cochran tied for ninth place in the
final tournament of the year to secure the 129th spot on the
money list, the worst he could finish and still be exempt for
this season.

Cochran was in even worse shape in 1996. The year before he had
wound up 131st in earnings and had lost his Tour card. By
midsummer he had gotten into 21 events on a conditional exemption
but had made the cut in only eight of them. Heading into the CVS
Charity Classic in Sutton, Mass., the last qualifying event
before the PGA, Cochran calculated that, unless he finished at
least third, he would miss the biggest golfing event in the
history of his native state. "I couldn't go anywhere in Paducah,"
he says, "or anywhere in Kentucky without somebody saying, 'Hey,
we're going to be there pulling for you.' It was embarrassing.
I'd say, 'Yeah, well, I'm not 100 percent certain that I'll be in
the field, but I'm sure going to try.' People thought that since
I played the Tour, it was a given that I'd play in the PGA."

The prospect of not teeing it up at Valhalla was so troubling
that Russ and his wife, Jackie, planned a vacation with their
four children (Ryan, who's now 16, Reed, 14, Case, 11, and Kelly,
8) on Hilton Head Island, S.C., the week of the tournament. "I
had tried hard for six or eight weeks to play my way in, and
nothing fell into place," Russ says. "I finally said, 'To heck
with it.' I figured I'd missed my chance. The pressure was off."

While Jackie was in Vicksburg, Miss., watching Reed play in a
baseball tournament, Russ caught lightning in a bottle during the
final round of the Charity Classic, shooting a 68 at Pleasant
Valley Country Club. He wound up in second place, three strokes
behind winner John Cook. Jackie found out what had happened a few
hours later, when she saw the Charity Classic's results crawl
across the bottom of a TV screen. "I knew our plans had just
changed," she says. "My stomach was churning. We wanted to get to
the PGA so bad and didn't think we were going to. I was
thrilled."

I knew something special was happening when he made a birdie at
13. The crowd was so large, I couldn't get into position to see.
He putted and there was a pause, then the crowd roared. I felt
chills. This was a different tournament. --Jackie's PGA diary

It only seemed as if half of Paducah, population 26,200, was
staying at the same Sleep Inn as the Cochrans and following Russ
every step of the way at Valhalla. His old coach at Kentucky, Dan
Leal, was there, too, and he stopped by on Thursday night to
congratulate Russ on his 68 in the storm-delayed opening round.
Whatever the reason--relief over having made the field or a hot
streak--Russ was suddenly making birdies. He had six on Thursday.
Then he had six more on Friday, but he also made a pair of double
bogeys and two other bogeys and shot a 72, putting him in a tie
for eighth, six strokes behind the halfway leader, Phil
Mickelson.

That gave Jackie something to write about. She had agreed to do
a daily diary for the Lexington Herald-Leader in exchange for a
donation to charity. "I had to ask him some questions, and, to
tell you the truth, I think I got on his nerves," Jackie says.
"Russ told everybody later, 'Man, Jackie was doing this dang
article, and we'd be lying in bed when she'd say, 'Honey, what
were you thinking on the 9th hole?' He was mainly teasing me...I
think."

The best was yet to come. Perry, who had played against Cochran
when they were in high school and now lives in Franklin, Ky.,
had already fired up the partisan crowd by moving into a tie for
third. When Cochran got hot on Saturday, enthusiastic fans
swarmed across the back nine to catch up with their other
favorite son. They saw him play a sweet six-iron to the 15th
green that resulted in a birdie, and then he holed a
sharp-breaking putt around a sprinkler head from just off the
17th green to save par. Cochran made another birdie after
hitting a brilliant flop shot from a hanging lie near a bunker
at 18 to cap off his seven-under 65. "I remember having
everything right there, having the crowd behind me and getting
supercharged," Cochran says. "People really got crazy on the
back nine."

The ovation at the final green was the kind reserved for the
likes of Jack Nicklaus. "It seemed as if the whole state was with
me," Cochran says. "It felt great."

The excitement was contagious. The two oldest Cochran boys walked
all 18 holes. Ryan, who would usually sneak off to watch someone
else play a few holes, never took his eyes off his dad. "Everyone
was so excited," Jackie says. "I have to say, I felt like a queen
for a day. People were saying, 'Mrs. Cochran, can we get you
anything? Do you need extra tickets?' Everybody treats you well
when your husband shoots low scores."

At first the Sleep Inn was chaotic. Friends offered
congratulations and asked for passes to Sunday's round.
Eventually things quieted down. While Jackie drove back to
Valhalla to pick up an extra 15 tickets, Russ and Case had
dinner at a nearby restaurant. Later, the kids asleep, Russ
watched a movie in the room.

No matter what happens, [Russ] is a good guy and a good father.
All you can hope is for him to win or lose with dignity.
--Jackie's PGA diary

The Cochrans had a fitful night. "I don't think either one of us
slept much," Jackie says. She dreamed that Russ's mother came for
the final round. That was silly, she knew, because Marcia Cochran
was in North Carolina attending a class reunion. Jackie went to
the 10 a.m. Mass at St. Margaret Mary's Church while Russ and the
kids got ready to go to the course. Kelly threw up while Jackie
was gone, setting a tone that continued on the practice range as
Russ warmed up. "I got a little quick on a couple swings, which
is normal for me," he says. "I hit one four-iron kind of weakly,
and some older fellow jumped up in the stands and yelled, 'C'mon,
Russ! You're going to have to tighten up and do better than
that!' I thought, Wow, he's wound up."

Russ's sister Kay was in the gallery with the kids. She asked
Ryan if he was nervous about his dad. "No," he said, "I'll still
see him tomorrow." Marcia Cochran was there, too. She'd gotten up
in Boone, N.C., in the wee hours of the morning and driven the
400 miles to Louisville. There would be other reunions. Her son
might never have another chance to win a major.

Cochran got off to a shaky start, mainly because his driver, the
weakest club in his bag, let him down. Playing in the final
pairing with Brooks also had him rattled. "Between holes we
walked down narrow, roped-off paths," Cochran says, "and people
were reaching over patting me on the back, wishing me well,
grabbing me, shaking me and--not two feet from me--screaming,
'C'mon, Russ! Let's go!' Man, it was hard to calm down."

A poor drive led to the double at the par-5 7th, and after that,
the PGA turned into a four-man race among Brooks, Perry, Steve
Elkington and Vijay Singh. When Russ finished, Jackie gave him a
hug by the scorer's tent. "Bad day," she said. "What the heck."
He shrugged, spoke with a few reporters, signed hundreds of
autographs and then hung out in the locker room with Danny Potts,
his high school basketball coach.

Once I got off the course, I felt as if I wanted to cry. Then I
thought, Russ isn't going to cry. I'm not going to, either.
--Jackie's PGA diary

The three-hour drive back to Paducah--Russ had a clinic
scheduled for the Boy Scouts the next day and had to get
home--was quiet. "The kids were devastated," he says. "I said,
'Look, boys, I choked my guts out. That upsets me, but don't
take it so hard. If I get another chance, I'll try again.
There's no guarantee it'll work out next time, either. But the
fact is, I had the time of my life out there.'"

Friends and neighbors have been telling Cochran that they've got
tickets for next week's big tournament at Valhalla, and they
can't wait to get back. Neither, he tells them with a polite
smile, can he.

COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER COLOR PHOTO: JIM GUND Crash of 1996 Cochran couldn't find his rhythm, or the fairway, in the final round, shooting a 77 to drop from first to 17th. COLOR PHOTO: PHOTOGRAPHS BY GREG FOSTER Next up A lefty like his dad, Ryan made a name for himself in Kentucky by winning his age division at the '98 State Junior by 13 shots.

"My stomach was churning," says Jackie. "We wanted to get to the
PGA so bad and didn't think we were going to."

Says Cochran, "People were reaching over, patting me on the
back, wishing me well, grabbing me, shaking me."

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)