SI Vault
Dan Jenkins
August 22, 1977
It was sudden death as 47-year-old Gene Littler faced 27-year-old Lanny Wadkins in the National PGA at Pebble Beach—and Lanny killed a dream
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August 22, 1977

The Battle Of The Ages

It was sudden death as 47-year-old Gene Littler faced 27-year-old Lanny Wadkins in the National PGA at Pebble Beach—and Lanny killed a dream

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For most of the 59th PGA Championship in Pebble Beach, Calif. some madcap foolishness over the grooves in the faces of the golfers' irons was far more captivating than anything Lanny Wadkins or Gene Littler or Jack Nicklaus was up to. Or so it must have seemed to those meandering around the drought scarred but still lovely shores of Carmel Bay, the wrapper that Pebble Beach comes in. But in Sunday's final round, events slowly conspired to force the first sudden-death playoff in the history of the Big Four classics, and by the time the three extra holes were completed the golf club groove nonsense had been long forgotten. What will be remembered is 27-year-old Lanny Wadkins breaking the high-jump record for golfers who have just dropped a four-foot putt for a par.

No Masters or U.S. Open or British Open or National PGA had ever got itself decided at sudden death—well, at least not since the PGA switched from match play to stroke play in 1958. Sudden death had only been adopted—obviously for the benefit of television—by the Masters a couple of years ago and this year for the PGA. A playoff was bound to happen eventually, but not until Sunday afternoon at Pebble Beach did this seem to be the time and the place. Instead, that old smoothie Littler, 47, seemed ready to add still another comeback to the many in his career. With nine holes left, he held a five-stroke lead, and it was his PGA, even more than it had been on Thursday, when he opened up with a 67 to lead by one, or on Friday, when he shot a 69 and led by two, or on Saturday, when his third-round 70 had left him four ahead of Nicklaus, who was playing steadily but not making anything happen. Where Wadkins was all of this time was shooting 69-71-72, which could be considered as staying in contention only if Littler did exactly what Littler did—leave his short game in the Del Monte Lodge on a platter of abalone.

Littler's troubles began when he bunkered his approach on 10 and bogeyed. He three-putted 12 for a bogey. He bogeyed the 13th after a bad second shot and a poor chip. He bogeyed 14 after hitting into a fairway bunker. And he bogeyed the 15th with an impure short iron that found a bunker. By that time Littler had fallen into a tie with Nicklaus, and Wadkins was only a shot away. For a little while the gods of golf looked very much as though they were dictating that Nicklaus was going to win his 17th major championship in the least satisfying way—through the complete collapse of an old friend.

Then Nicklaus did what he has now done for the past two years. He found another way to lose a major when he was within throat-clearing distance of it. At the par-3 17th hole, where he had once taken a U.S. Open with one of the most brilliant one-irons anyone ever struck, Jack hit a three-iron that achieved something less than the desired result. In fact, it took a lousy bounce, leaving him with an impossible chip and putt to rescue his par. He suffered the bogey and failed to make up for it with a birdie at the last green, when still another putt refused to obey the rap he gave it. Minutes earlier Wadkins had jammed a fine wedge onto the 18th green and then staggered a birdie putt into the cup to close with a two-under 70 and a total of 282.

As the so-called "leader in the clubhouse"—Lanny was in fact standing under a tent by the green—Wadkins could only wait to see what Littler would do on the last two holes. Gene collected himself enough to make a difficult par putt on 17, and he parred the last hole comfortably enough, but he was not a lively fellow. Better than anyone, Littler knew he had blown to a 76, and the momentum, if such a thing exists in golf, had swung to Wadkins.

In the locker room before the playoff, Lanny said, "I hate to see it happen to Gene. He's one of the nicest guys around. But I'm making a comeback, too."

True enough. Wadkins, who had come on the tour in 1972 with an almost unheard of boastfulness and had set a rookie record for earnings ($116,616, to be 10th on the money list), had practically disappeared from the game for three years after a gall bladder operation.

But in the locker room, he was the old Lanny. He turned to a friend who had a beer in his hand. "Give me some of that," he said. Wadkins took a couple of swigs. "That ought to do it," he said. Then he grinned and went out the door.

On the first extra hole, Wadkins made an almost indescribable par 4 to match Littler's and keep himself alive. His second shot landed in the deep fringe. One out of 20 golfers could get it down in two from there, and nobody could get it close. Few people could realize what a good shot Wadkins hit, a kind of gouge actually, in order to get the ball within 12 feet of the cup. And nobody could make the putt—except Lanny did.

Both Wadkins and Littler played the 2nd hole perfectly, reaching it in two blows and two-putting for halving birdies. And after they both hit beautiful drives at the 3rd, one could not escape the feeling that the playoff might last until next year's Crosby. Each missed the green, however, Littler short and Wadkins over. Neither had a bargain of a chip, but Littler made his even worse by catching it fat. He was still a woeful 20 feet short. Wadkins gouged again from the thick fringe, and the ball trickled down to within four feet.

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