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.