Alex Narey looks back fondly on some PGA Championship memories incongruous with its label as the weakest of the four major championships
Most people would struggle to name the last five winners of the PGA Championship. It’s a fair point, but you shouldn’t be fooled by a brand, because the PGA has also delivered with a serious calibre of winners.
It perplexes that many only remember one-off wonders like Mark Brooks (1996) and Shaun Micheel (2003), but they forget about the golden runs of Player, Palmer and Nicklaus in the sixties and seventies. Indeed, to his eternal irritation, Micheel is often lambasted for having the temerity to win a Major Championship following his success at Oak Hill in 2003.
However, the 34-year-old realised his dream by playing one of the finest shots the game has seen, knocking a 7-iron stone dead from the rough to keep Chad Campbell at bay with a two-stroke victory. Very few players have closed out a Major in such style; it’s what you would call the polar opposite of Todd Hamilton’s hybrid-chip run to victory at the Troon Open of 2004. Ask yourself what you would rather watch…
The tournament has also witnessed some of the most dazzling final-round charges, complemented with some not-so-dazzling final-round collapses. Younger readers will remember the most recent of such, when Keegan Bradley swept up a five-shot lead from Jason Dufner to prevail at Atlanta Athletic Club in 2011.
But the PGA had developed a nasty habit for chokes and charges long before – the scent of victory on an attacking layout countering the nerves as the ‘hunted’ reach out for the finishing line. Notably, Lanny Wadkins became the first winner via a sudden-death play-off in 1977 at Pebble Beach. Starting the final round some six shots behind Gene Littler, Wadkins was still five down at the turn. But then came the implosion; Littler bogeyed five of the next six holes. The resulting 76 would have still been enough for victory had Wadkins not made his only birdie of the day at the last before winning the play-off at the third extra hole.
One year later, John Mahaffey’s victory at Oakmont was no less thrilling, and no less heartbreaking for Tom Watson. Trailing by seven shots heading into the final round, the Texan’s 66 was enough to force a three-way play-off with third-round leader Watson – who had led by five overnight – and Jerry Pate, who was having to pull himself together after missing a four-footer for outright victory at the 72nd. Mahaffey’s 12-foot birdie putt would seal the deal on the second extra hole.
Perhaps the most impressive rise and demise came 11 years later at Kemper Lakes, when a maverick Payne Stewart clocked in for a closing 67 to win by one stroke ahead of Andy Bean, Curtis Strange and the hapless Mike Reid. Earlier in the year, Reid had led the Masters with five holes to play, only to succumb to the pressure from Scott Hoch and Nick Faldo. But his slip here was of tragic proportions.
Holding the lead through the first three rounds, Reid was still six shots clear of the field at the 13th on Sunday, only for his game to desert him. After a bogey at 16 came a double at the par-3 17th. Stewart, meanwhile, was cleaning up with four birdies from his last five holes, and when Reid failed to convert a six-footer on the 18th, the Wanamaker Trophy had finally slipped from his grasp.
Here for the long run…
All said and done, excitement is part of golf, and should have nothing to do with whether a tournament can lay claim to being a Major. But is there likely to be drastic changes ahead, like taking it globally and, more specifically, to Asia. “I’d never say never,” says James Corrigan, the Daily Telegraph’s Golf Correspondent. “But I don’t think that will happen in the next 20 or 30 years, because America holds so much power. I also think we need to see more players from Asia in the world’s top 20 consistently, and I think we are some way off that.”
As for its USP, Corrigan is adamant that it has one. “It’s always going to be seen as the ‘other one’. But I think it gets too much stick, because on a Sunday afternoon, it’s as good as anything. Believe me, it doesn’t matter what you’re playing for going down the closing stretch, whether it be the Masters, the US Open, the Open or the USPGA, it’s a Major, and in those minutes, the pressure and the excitement is intense. That’s its identity, and that is enough.”