It was another chapter in that continuing story of Arnold Palmer's efforts to find happiness in middle age and save professional tournament golf from these Dave Stocktons. And it was an episode with the same old ending. You know that one. Arnold hangs in, makes a slight move and the kid weakens. Arnold moves close, closer, and the thundering herds go mad, mad, mad. Arnold then stands still and Dave Stockton wins. Tune in next year.
So it went last week on an elegant but brutal course called Southern Hills in normally quiet and peaceful Tulsa. The crowds pulled and tromped and prayed and yearned and leaned in Palmer's behalf as the 40-year-old hero tried once again to win the PGA Championship, the one major title that has escaped him. But he didn't do enough apparently, because he lost it again.
Palmer bore down and went after it in the sort of "mood to win" that people have seen him in before in Augusta and other places of his past glories. He even had a club he seldom uses, a four-wood which would get him out of the thick Bermuda rough. He even had a "cheat sheet," a yardage and diagram chart of the course. And he even had lighter woods for swinging easier and keeping the distance. "I'm trying everything," he explained.
What he didn't have was the lukewarm putter he needed. And without that, even on a punishing track like Southern Hills, he wasn't about to overtake a young man as revved up and possessed as Dave Stockton. From tee to green, Stockton played the kind of golf that wouldn't win him much money in a municipal gangsome, but he had a charcoaled putter, as, indeed, he has been known to have on occasion. And, despite the thrust of the Tulsa Daily World, which had lumped him with the "unknowns" leading the tournament on the second day, he had the right attitude.
"Nobody can putt and chip better than I can," he said after Saturday's third-round 66, which put him five ahead of Palmer and all his sentimental legions from Tulsa. "I just feel like I'm going to win. I'm putting great, and the bad holes aren't bothering me. I've been in the woods and in the bunkers, and I've even shanked a shot. But it hasn't bothered me. I just bounce back."
And so he did. Stockton would listen to the plaintive calls for Arnie and only try harder himself. He'd flog one into the woods or into a bunker, but he would squirt it out one way or another and ram home a putt, and Palmer would get nothing.
He played a fascinating four-hole stretch on the front nine Sunday that told it all. With Arnold always lurking there over birdie putts that refused to fall, Stockton rolled in a 30-footer for a birdie at the 6th (seemingly his 1,000th 30-footer of the week), and followed this up by holing out a 120-yard wedge shot for an eagle deuce at the 7th, and he followed this up with a horrible double bogey at the 8th, whereupon he followed that up by coming out of a fairway bunker for a birdie at the 9th. This meant Stockton had gone birdie, eagle, double bogey, birdie and closed, opened, and then closed the door again on his bewildered playing companion, Palmer.
Stockton, a 28-year-old Californian who has won only three tournaments in his six years on the tour, staved off Palmer and a fast-closing Bob Murphy on the final nine holes on Sunday with a hectic and close to panic-stricken performance. He struggled inwardly to a final-round 73 and to a 72-hole total of 279, which won him the championship by two strokes. He even bogeyed the last two holes, which means that his lead was luxurious enough that he could afford so unglamorous a flourish. It was a whimpering finish to say the least, but it was all he needed.
The one moment of minidrama came at the 13th hole, an enormous par-4 of 470 yards with water in front of the green. There Dave hooked into the water, and Palmer had his usual 25-footer for a birdie. A Palmer birdie and a Stockton double bogey right here, folks, and it really might have been, finally, Palmer's year in the PGA.
Stockton, however, calmly and quickly hit a great pitch shot (his 1,000th of the week) to within two feet of the cup for a bogey, and Palmer settled for a par, so the one meager stroke Arnold got was of little consequence.