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."