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There's A New Bear On The Loose
Dan Jenkins
August 15, 1983
Hal Sutton put a death grip on the PGA Championship to stop a classic Jack Nicklaus charge
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August 15, 1983

There's A New Bear On The Loose

Hal Sutton put a death grip on the PGA Championship to stop a classic Jack Nicklaus charge

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In the end, Hal Sutton even stood up to Jack Nicklaus, thus confirming the suspicion in professional golf that what we have here may well be the offense of the '80s. Blond, strong, determined, unafraid: That's Sutton. Now add that he's the 1983 PGA champion in his second year as a pro. And young Hal won the title the way you would want him to win it, by pulling himself together and making pars over the last four holes of the Riviera Country Club in Pacific Palisades, Calif. to beat back both Nicklaus and Jack's reputation, to beat the heat and the killer smog and, finally, to beat the choking dog that was struggling to climb out of him.

For most of Sunday afternoon, in the final round of the year's last major championship, the contest appeared to be between Sutton and the weather. Would he melt away before reaching the huge old Spanish-style stucco clubhouse as the runaway winner over some unheralded challenger like Pat McGowan or John Fought? Sutton had led since his six-under 65 in Thursday's opening round put him one stroke up and into a position he would be called on to defend the rest of the way. He was strong enough to get more distance than most out of the Kikuyu rough, an unusual grass with the texture of dry spaghetti that is the chief characteristic of the Riviera course, and the slower-than-expected bent greens were obviously to his liking. Sutton's 66 on Friday increased his lead to three strokes. Although he slid to a one-over 72 on Saturday, Sutton still went into Sum day with a two-stroke lead on Ben Crenshaw and a six-stroke lead on Nicklaus, with a few unexcitings in between.

At this point, anyone rooting for Crenshaw to break his record of finishing second in six majors without a win was praying more than hoping. Crenshaw had fired rounds of 68, 66 and 71 the first three days, even though he was hitting fairways at the rate of one an hour. Crenshaw looked like the only real threat to Sutton if he could just continue chipping in (as he had at the 14th on Friday and the 18th on Saturday), stay out of Riviera's barrancas, its Kikuyu rough and its eucalyptus trees. But, alas, he couldn't do any of those things and disappeared with a 77, into a tie for ninth place.

When the last round began no one had a right to take Nicklaus seriously—except, that is, for Jack himself, who said he'd need a 65 to have a chance to win. After rounds of 73, 65 and 71, Nicklaus was not only six shots behind Sutton, but also nearly 20 years ahead of him in age. Throughout much of the day, Jack only provided set decoration. Even when he turned the front side in two under, it meant nothing, for Sutton would shortly turn it in three under, leaving them seven shots apart. The fact is, Sutton would have had a huge lead on everyone if it hadn't been for Peter Jacobsen, best known for his imitations of other pros, who was playing four holes ahead of him. Jacobsen was doing something he'd never done before—shooting a final-round 65 in a major. So it was first Jacobsen, then Nicklaus who captured Sutton's attention on the scoreboards.

Jacobsen got home with a total of 276, eight under par, just as Sutton was finishing a string of bogeys at the 12th, 13th and 14th holes. It was also then that everyone realized what a superb round Nicklaus was playing. Always in the fairways, forever around the flagsticks, Jack was putting together a 66 that would get him in with a nine-under 275. On the back side, Nicklaus nailed birdies at the 10th, 14th and 16th holes. But he failed miserably on his third shot to the par-5 17th, a wedge that landed 30 feet short of the pin. Jack thus missed the birdie that would have given him the hoped-for 65 and a share of the lead, which might well have given Sutton a terminal case of the yips.

Earlier in the week, it was pointed out to Nicklaus that if he won the PGA, something he has already done five times, he would replace Tom Watson on the Ryder Cup team, which Jack long ago was selected to captain in this October's matches. "I'd like nothing better," Jack said, smiling.

Well, as it happened, Watson made the Ryder Cup team despite a 48th-place finish because Sutton gathered himself and finished with a par 71 and a total of 274. Sutton isn't eligible for the international matches because he hasn't been a professional long enough to satisfy the various PGA requirements. All he does is set money-earning records and win major championships. Sutton set a rookie record with $237,434 last year and broke the second-year record even before he picked up his PGA winner's check for $100,000, giving him $397,684, tops on the tour by more than $100,000. As for majors, Hal won the U.S. Amateur in 1980 and the Tournament Players Championship last March. If the TPC were considered a major, as it ought to be, then Sutton would have won the first and last majors of the year.

As he stood on the 15th tee Sunday after his three bogeys had cut his lead to one shot, Sutton realized he had become too conservative. His approach shots from the rough at 12 and 13 and his tee shot at the par-3 14th had left him short of those greens, and his chips hadn't nestled any pins. His choke act at the Anheuser-Busch Classic two weeks earlier, when he blew a six-shot final-round lead to Calvin Peete, ran through his mind.

"The crowd was mumbling about Nicklaus, but I didn't need them to tell me that the Bear was coming," Sutton said. "I told my caddie on the 15th, 'I've got to get going again.' I think I did."

Sutton's pars over those last four holes were without thrills, but more important—without panic, although things got hairy on 17. His drive found rough on the right, his second shot rough on the left. But he made a great pitch and an easy two putts. It must have soothed Hal just to have Jack off the golf course.

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