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Victor At Valhalla
Jaime Diaz
August 19, 1996
Mark Brooks beat a hospitable local hero to win the PGA in Louisville
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August 19, 1996

Victor At Valhalla

Mark Brooks beat a hospitable local hero to win the PGA in Louisville

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If you're among those people who wonder why the best professional golfers act grim and stoic down the stretch of a major championship—pretty much as Mark Brooks did to win the 78th PGA on Sunday—just remember the cheery and accommodating manner in which Kenny Perry went down to defeat. While Brooks was impassively grinding through the final round at the Valhalla Golf Club in Louisville, Perry, a 36-year-old Kentuckian who had never been a factor in a major championship, was giddily being carried to the round of his life by the home crowd, whose golf-starved state hadn't hosted a Grand Slam event since the 1952 PGA.

But no matter how many of the 30,000 spectators were rooting Perry home, he was all alone as he stood on the 72nd tee with a two-stroke lead, needing only to drive his ball into the fairway and make a par-5 to clinch his victory. The amiable Perry felt the loneliness. His rushed drive, a snap hook into deep rough, led to a bogey that cracked open the door for Brooks, who pushed his way into a playoff by getting up and down from a deep green-side bunker. Perry's magic carpet ride was over, and the gritty Brooks's fortunes were soaring. The Kentuckian went quietly in sudden death.

Brooks's first major championship, after six career wins on the PGA Tour, puts him in the top rank of golfers. Valhalla gave him his third title of 1996 and made him not only the Tour's leading money-winner, with $1,290,577, but also the favorite for Player of the Year.

"I don't think things will change a whole lot for me," Brooks said after his victory, in the matter-of-fact way that belies the passion with which he plays. "I don't know what you want me to say. I was taught a long time ago that if you drop your guard, then the other guy knows what's going on. So I try not to drop my guard."

Brooks's lack of emotion was fitting, because the PGA at Valhalla didn't deliver on any of several fairy tales that it had promised. The sweetest might have been that of Tom Watson, who at 46 was making a last-ditch attempt to win his first PGA and join Gene Sarazen, Ben Hogan, Gary Player and Jack Nicklaus as the only men to have won all four Grand Slam events. Watson came close, playing the first 10 holes on Sunday in six under par to get within two of the lead, but he limped through the final eight three over to finish 17th.

Nick Price had his own inspirational tale, spurred on as he was by his longtime caddie, Jeff (Squeeky) Medlen, who earlier this year learned that he has leukemia. Price, a two-time PGA winner, hovered around the lead all week, and like Watson, he was within two on the back nine on Sunday. Though he stalled and finished tied for eighth, he and Medlen gave the championship its emotional center.

For a long time Valhalla also looked as if it would be the site of Phil Mickelson's first victory in a major. But after the 10th hole of the third round, in which Mickelson missed a 10-foot eagle putt that would have given him a three-stroke lead, he was surprisingly shaky on the greens, missing makable putts by wide margins and finishing in a tie for eighth.

The cruelest dashed dream, however, belonged to Perry, who lives three hours from Louisville, in Franklin. A three-time winner in his 11 years on the Tour, he bolted out of a large pack of final-day contenders with five birdies on the first 14 holes. Perry is considered a superior driver, but when it came time to plant a serviceable shot in the wide fairway of the 540-yard, par-5 18th, he was overwhelmed by the magnitude of his possible victory. His backswing put his driver in its familiar slot at the top, but Perry rushed his forward swing and hit a horrible duck hook. His ball dived down a steep embankment overgrown with bluegrass. "The crowd was going ballistic, and my heart was racing," Perry would say later. He couldn't get over the fact that so many people were rooting for him. "I was so excited, so nervous, I just over-swung the club," he said. His eight-iron recovery stayed in the rough, and his third shot missed the green short and left. After a good pitch-and-run, Perry still had a right-to-left breaking eight-footer for par that could have ensured victory. He pushed it.

Suddenly Brooks, defending champ Steve Elkington and Vijay Singh were still alive, within a stroke of the lead, but rather than show frustration over having let them back in, Perry bounded to the scoring tent with his 68, high-fiving fans along the way. From there he moved into the CBS tower behind the 18th green to be interviewed by commentators Jim Nantz and Ken Venturi. When network officials told him to feel free to leave the booth to hit practice shots in preparation for a probable playoff, Perry chose to stay, offering his comments as the last two groups finished. It was a neighborly choice but not a move from the Nicklaus school of how to win a major championship. "I was probably caught up in the moment," Perry said later, "and I probably should have had my butt down on the practice range. But that television time was good for me—good publicity. I've been around 10 years out here, and, shoot, nobody knows who I am."

When Singh and Elkington both failed to birdie the 18th, it looked as if Perry still might get his major championship. As Brooks came to the final hole needing a birdie to tie, the gallery surrounding the green started a rhythmic chant of "Kenny! Kenny! Kenny!"

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